Solar switch paying off for Willera Merinos

Wednesday 4 September, 2019

Karl Hooke with solar panels on his Serpentine farm.

Karl and Will Hooke had long foreseen that a switch to solar power to pump groundwater for their Serpentine sheep operation was inevitable – especially in the lead-up to August last year.

“We had a four-year contract with an electricity company that was coming due last August and we knew the charges were going to go up,” Karl said.

“When they almost tripled – well, we’d been considering solar for several years and we knew this was the time.”

Karl said on-farm energy grants provided through Agriculture Victoria made the decision easy.

“It was a no-brainer really, it effectively made the investment half the price.”

The brothers run Willera Merinos – a 4000ha sheep and cropping farm in Serpentine in north-central Victoria, a further 12,000ha in the Riverina district and a smaller farm near Macarthur, in south-west Victoria.

They are fifth-generation sheep farmers with “home” and most of their farming operations concentrated in Serpentine. There, they operate a couple of high-yielding groundwater bores that allow them to grow feed, finish winter crops and produce fodder – providing important water security, particularly in dry years.

The brothers worked with Goulburn-Murray Water (GMW) to develop the groundwater bores and ensure they did not impact on the environment, then found other farmers willing to sell their entitlement.  Their efforts were recognised when they were named regional winners in the groundwater category of the 2016 Rural Water Awards.

Karl said he was grateful the on-farm energy initiative gave his family an added $50,000 grant incentive to take their innovation a step further by installing a solar panel array to run each of their bores.

Installed only a few months ago, Karl said the move was already paying off and reckons the total investment will pay for itself in about 2 ½ years.

He estimates his best-producing bore, capable of 22 ML of water a day, is now delivering about a third of that volume free of charge. His family’s second bore, at 12 ML, is run entirely by solar during good daylight hours.

As a bonus, any extra electricity is fed back into the grid and earning the business a tidy $9 an hour.

Karl is now looking at solar power for his shed and farm office operations and said his kids are giving him credit for helping the environment – another bonus.

“Everything is getting more expensive so you have to look at new ways of doing things,” Karl said. “And when it comes to water, you can’t waste a drop.”

GMW Customer Service Manager Dale McGraw said the Hooke family’s experience may inspire other diverters to look at alternative power sources to supply their pumping infrastructure.

“Fuel and electricity costs are rising and this funding is a real opportunity our customers might wish to look into.”

Karl said his father, Robert, had instilled the importance of innovation on the family farm.

“Every year, he would look at the profit and loss figures and set a challenge to try and save 10 per cent in the next year,” Karl said.

“We’ve done that with the energy needed to run our bores. Now we’re starting to look at hydrogen fuel to run our farm equipment.”

On-farm energy grants are available to eligible primary producers until March 2020 or until available funding is exhausted. For details and conditions, go the and click on the Agriculture Energy Investment Plan link.