Cheap solar and `water from air’ technology offer new gains for farms

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Innovation advocate, Jon Dee, says rapidly falling solar panel and battery costs offer big energy saving and useage opportunities in regional areas. Drought-proofing big areas of rural Australia sector doesn’t have to involve building huge dams – we could draw water from the atmosphere says technology advocate, Jon Dee.
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The social entrepreneur and small business consultant says the technology to takemoisture from from the air and produce useful amounts of drinking water already exists and is being developed commercially on a small scale.

The challenge was to up-scale that process and identify where the technology could be best located in inland regions to support farm productivity in dry seasons and provide morale-lifting household water supplies.

He said the Israeli military used “water from air” converters in patrol vehicles operating in the desert for lengthy periods away from their re-supply bases.

Mr Dee, the founding force behind environmental charities Planet Ark and Do Something, told last week’s National Farmers Federation Congress farmers could also be making big savings from solar power and energy storage in the near future thanks to plummeting solar panel and battery costs.

Autonomous farm machinery and delivery vehicles were other technology advances now operating overseas and likely to deliver tangible productivity savings to agriculture here, within years.

“Australia’s (recent) chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb says Australia could double our food exports by 2050, but for farmers to achieve that we must deal with the soil and water availability constraints we face,” he said.

“From what I understand there are plenty of areas where adequate atmospheric moisture exists to make water from air, even in dry years.

“I feel there’s a great case in Australia for the government to promote investment and research into scaling up this technology and identifying where it can best be used economically.

“I’m not saying it’s definitely viable – it’s a fairly energy-hungry process at the moment – but it should be looked at.”

Energy efficiency was itself becoming a seriously attractive opportunityfor farmers and agricultural processors.

Solar farms in Spain now produced electricity from fields of photovoltaic panels for about 2.7 cents a kilowatt.

Solar panel costs in Australia had fallen 80 per cent in eight years, offering agriculture “huge opportunities for farmers to take control of their energy expenses with solar installations.”

Interestingly, the most effective solar panels for Australian conditions were even made in Adelaide, at lower production costs than the Chineseachieved.

Farmers installing solar (or more solar panels) and using weather analytical software to anticipate optimum sunlight periods and usage expectationswould likely cut energy bills by up to 70pc.

Port Augusta’s new Sundrop Farms in South Australia heated and cooled its 15,000 tonne a year hydroponic tomato crop’s glasshouse area, and desalinated a million litres of seawater, using 23,000 mirrors reflecting heat at a solar powered generator.

De Bortoli Wines, a big user of hot water in its Griffith (NSW) winery, had cut its water heating costs 90pc by installingmodern solar heating tube panels on itsroof areas.

Swedish furniture giant Ikea had solar panels on 90pc of its stores worldwide and paid no electricity bills in summer.

Ikea now sells its own solar panel range.

“Innovation like thiswill be the key to increasing the efficiency of growing the world’s food to feed apopulation rising byanother 2 billion people in the next 35 years,” Mr Dee said.

Battery technology improvements by Tesla (which also makes solar roof tiles and electriccars), LG and Panasonic, had halved energy storage costs in the past five years and prices continued to drop about 20pc annually.

“I strongly advise you to look at solar battery potential in your business, because if it’s not cost effective now it will be very soon,” said MrDee, who also hosts the Smart Moneyprogram on Sky television.

“Many farmersalready have solar panels on sheds and in their paddocks and they love talking about the savings they’ve made, but there are more money saving solutions emerging.”

His own business used stored power when energy prices were at their peak during the middle of the day.

Meanwhile, farm work was likely to get more efficient thanks tomachinery capable of operating un-manned overnight while the farmer slept.

Case IH’s automated tractor prototype now operating in the US could identifyand avoidtrees and other obstacles or overly-wet soil conditions, while ploughing around the clock.

It alsostopped workif too much rain set in.

“This sort of technology is already here in Australia and the possibilities were far more advanced than most people realise,” Mr Dee said.

“If you can afford to buy it, the Model S Tesla car will drive itself at 110 kilometres an hour on the M4 motorway in Sydney, and safely and smoothly change lanes.

“Tesla says all its new cars will now come with fully self-driving technology.”

Last week, Otto, a US self-driving truck maker, made the world’s first autonomous commercial delivery, driving 200km across Colorado to deliver 2000 cases of Budweiser beer.

Once on the road its driver shifted from the driver’s seat and to the sleeping compartment to prove he was not required – although he sat up, andawake for the trip.

Otto was bought for $US700 million by taxi service Uber early this year.

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