Dr Karl: Renewables and agriculture can coexist


Dr Karl Kruszelnicki


Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

Dr Karl is a prolific broadcaster, author and Julius Sumner Miller fellow in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney. His latest book, Vital Science is published by Pan MacMillan. Follow him on Twitter at @DoctorKarl
By Dr Karl Kruszelnicki 14 May 2024
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Electricity and agriculture is not an ‘either/or situation’, argues Dr Karl.

Agriculture and energy have been essential to humanity for at least 10,000 years. Recently we’ve begun “farming” them together.

However, the protestors at the “Rally Against Reckless Renewables” (held outside Federal Parliament House in February 2024) claimed that we couldn’t have both renewables and agriculture. They may have based their concerns on a media release from the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) claiming that about one-third of Australia’s “prime agricultural land” would have to be “taken over” to accommodate these renewables.

Actually, the real figure is closer to 0.027 per cent, rather than 33 per cent! That’s the estimate by the Clean Energy Council on the specific assumption of replacing all the coal electricity in Australia with solar farms.

It takes very “creative” assumptions to get such a wild discrepancy, but the IPA obliged. It overestimated the amount of electricity we would need in 2050 by a factor of 30 (according to the Australian Energy Market Operator). Also, it’s long been known that more than half the energy in coal is wasted as heat. So the IPA applied the same weighting factor to the electricity coming out of a renewable source(!). Next, the IPA excluded any rooftop solar electricity (even though it’s the biggest single contributor of renewable energy to the National Energy Market). Other sources of renewables that the IPA ignored were wind and offshore wind. Furthermore, the land under onshore wind turbines is not a barren apocalyptic wasteland – instead, about 97 per cent is either cropped or grazed. This is just part of how you turn 0.027 per cent into 33 per cent.

But with electricity and agriculture it’s not an either/or situation. Depending on the habitat, and what the farmer is growing, the result can be a small improvement, or a small deficit.

Near Wellington, in central western New South Wales, Tony Inder has 1700 merino sheep grazing under hundreds of hectares of solar panels. He has seen improvement in both the quality of the grass, and therefore the wool. 

But if agricultural yield drops, it can usually be compensated for by income from renewables. In NSW and Victoria, farmers get $200,000 per kilometre of transmission line over 10 years. Solar farms can generate $1500 per hectare per year, while wind turbines pay about $40,000 per turbine per year.

This new hybrid agriculture can bring benefits for all – with good national planning and regulation.