Off-grid living and farming – that’s the sustainability trend of the year. And for good reason! Going off-grid means not using public utilities, especially the supply of electricity. This is a triple win: being more sustainable, paying less for electricity and, in the case of Mzansi’s pesky load shedding schedules, having a more reliable power supply.
“South Africa has been plagued by power supply issues for many years. Mostly because of the significant reliance on Eskom, which is struggling to meet electricity demands,” says John Hudson, National Head of Agriculture at Nedbank.
“Energy efficiency is increasingly becoming a way of life for many people around the world,” he says.
Going totally off-grid: it’s possible!
In Eastern Cape’s Komga region a handful of farmers have become used to farming off the grid and installing integrated power systems. One of them is Dr Les Trollope, a general medical practitioner and cattle farmer, who has been completely off the grid for over a year and a half.
“The reasons for moving off the grid can be personal or business-related, like wanting secure energy and sustainable business growth,” says Trollope.
For him, moving off Eskom’s grid suited his lifestyle and business needs. By installing an integrated off-grid energy system for his home, along with boreholes, irrigation systems, and pumps from the water source, he is totally self-reliant. Solar panels provide energy for the pumps during the day and batteries store power to support the rest of the system in the evening.
“The economic benefits for my business and operations are relieving, as I’m currently saving 30% of what I used to pay for electricity,” Trollope says. “Plus, thanks to the sufficient energy supply, the security system always works, so we always feel safe.”
“I am no longer concerned about unreliable power supply, electricity price hikes and load-shedding. In fact, when there’s load-shedding, I am not aware of it. It is business as usual,” he says.
In the Western Cape there is Fair Cape Dairies, a once small-scale dairy farming operation, that is taking steps towards becoming the leader in sustainable agriculture in South Africa.
“We have long hoped to move our operations off-grid to allow us to produce and process milk in a far more environmentally friendly manner,” says Louis Loubser, Fair Cape Dairies’ chief marketing officer.
“Besides the important contribution to reducing CO2 emissions, the use of renewables can certainly provide a farming operation with increased energy resilience,” says Colin Ohlhoff, the environmental officer at Fair Cape Dairies.
By doing so, the business is less dependent on grid derived electricity, and also mitigates operational risks associated with load shedding.
Now that you can see that sustainable, off-the-grid farming is possible, here are five things to consider for you to take your farm off-grid.
1. First steps
Technically there is a lot to consider around farming off the grid.
“It is not just about generating your own power,” says Trollope. “There are certain steps that you need to take first to ensure that you generate enough power.”
If you are still partially connected to Eskom’s grid then there are certain licensing and registration requirements to think about, he warns. But if you go off the grid completely, then you don’t need Eskom’s permission. You have free will to do what you want when it comes to energy supply.
You will need to do a lot of planning before heading into this venture. Everything you will invest in to go off the grid will rely on the type, size and layout of your farm.
Duncan Abel, Energy Finance Principal at Nedbank Corporate and Investment Banking, also points out that not all agriculture businesses or farmers can afford to go off the grid.
“Installation costs for renewable-energy systems are expensive, although they can become cost effective in the long term,” he says.
Depending on the property size and energy need, going off the grid can cost north of R500 000 for a farm, according to Abel. So, you might have to do some planning and saving before you are able to go off-grid.
2. Managing your energy demand
“Managing the energy demand and being more energy efficient is just as crucial as doing thorough research before installing systems that generate alternative energy,” Abel says. “Ultimately, farming businesses need to manage their electricity demand, be more energy efficient and generate only as much electricity as they can use daily.”
“The idea of relying entirely on natural resources for electricity supply across sectors can have high-cost implications if is not done right,” he warns. “No matter how visionary it may be for farms, businesses and homeowners.”
Fair Cape’s 560-kilowatt off-grid solar power plant allows them to produce milk off grid during daylight hours. This ensures that they have reliable and sustainable energy sources during the day. Not all farms will require such big solar power plants, it all depends on how much energy your farm needs.
3. Solar panels or wind turbines?
According to Trollope, installers can be a valuable source of advice to determine what system to install. The type of farm one is running, as well as its needs are considered before deciding on solar PV panels or wind turbines. So, don’t be scared to ask the experts.
You should, however, be able to figure out which would work best for your farm. Are you in a particularly windy area, or does the wind rarely blow? Do you receive lots of sun or is your farm in a shaded valley? Depending on your particular circumstances, and on expert advice from the installers, you should find out relatively easily which one is the best choice for you.
There is also the question of space: where would you put your solar panels or wind turbines? And, alongside this question, you have to find out exactly what size, and how many, of the turbines or panels you would need to generate the amount of power your farm requires.
4. Storing power
Along with power generation, farmers will also need to install batteries. Without adequate batteries or generators, the power from the solar panels will only be available during the day.
“Solar panels should be supplemented by batteries, which require dedicated solar panels and extra energy to charge them,” says Abel. “You will also need a generator for backup. So, typically batteries double the cost of a system, while the generators that back up the batteries come with fuel costs.”
The journey to going off-grid should be approached in a systematic manner, says Fair Cape’s Ohloff.
“Economy of scale might have an impact on the viability, although every operation is unique and experts would be able to recommend the best solution to meet those specific needs,” he says.
5. Waste management
Off-grid farming isn’t just about going off the grid of electrical supply, it’s also about finding ways to minimise waste. Cutting down on unnecessary waste, or finding ways of reusing waste, goes hand-in-hand with saving on energy expenditure and on costs. Handling and transporting waste costs money and by reusing waste in beneficial ways on your farm you save money.
Fair Cape has developed a waste sorting and handling infrastructure which has resulted in diverting 1.5 million kg of solid waste from landfills in 2020 alone. They also recycle water. By recycling wash water at the milking parlour for non-potable use and irrigation on the farm, they save nine million litres of water per month.
At Fair Cape they also recycle cows’ dung, spraying it back onto their lands as fertiliser. This recovery of “waste” not only reduces greenhouse gas emissions and replenishes the earth with nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and other micro-nutrients, but has also reduced the use of chemical fertilisers by approximately 20%.
The great thing about going off-grid when it comes to waste management, is that it does not have to be expensive. It just takes effort to find out where you can reduce costs and materials, and how you can reuse the waste you produce to actually benefit other parts of your farm.