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Farmers tapping into power of plants to help fuel renewable future

Rising fuel costs and the growing momentum towards net zero emissions are putting renewable energy sources on the radar for Australia’s diesel-dependant farmers.

Steven Hobbs biofuels

As an industry reliant on diesel-driven power, Australia’s agriculture sector has been caught in a 21st century catch-22.

How do you increase production to meet growing global food demands while cutting emissions to support worldwide reduction targets?

Transitioning to renewable energy sources represents an economy-wide opportunity for change, and a chance to re-think the way agriculture operates.

The current climate

Petroleum diesel accounts for around 84 per cent of the total energy consumption in Australia’s agriculture, forestry and fisheries sector.

In 2018, this saw Australia’s agriculture industry spend around $3.65 billion on diesel, with grain, beef, sheep and cotton farming the biggest consumers of the fuel.

Recent fuel security and price volatility concerns have highlighted the vulnerability of this reliance. Coupled with Australia’s legislated target of net zero emissions by 2050, these issues have primary producers searching for new options.

Food for energy

Fifth-generation Victorian mixed crop farmer Steven Hobbs began his exploration of alternative energy sources over a decade ago, inspired by an old photograph of his grandfather with a loaded wagon and a team of horses.

“The old fellows (on the farm) would say, ‘We used to grow the hay to feed the horses to grow the hay’, and that really struck a chord with me. As farmers, why can’t we start to integrate energy production back into our businesses rather than buying our inputs externally?” he said.

Steven built a small biodiesel plant to begin producing biodiesel from mustard seeds that were already growing on his property.

Biodiesel is a renewable, biodegradable alternative fuel made from a mix of modified vegetable oils and diesel fuel.

Dedicating between four and six per cent of his crop rotation to the practice, Steven was able to produce enough biodiesel to replace all the diesel fuel used on his farm.

While Australia’s current fuel excise laws and regulatory obligations eventually made it uneconomical for Steven to continue, he said the potential was there for farmers to grow their own energy sources.

“I think it’s an exciting time to be in agriculture and we can become a really big part of the solution,” he said.

A roadmap for renewables

Biodiesel is just one of the alternative energy sources highlighted in recent AgriFutures Australia research, which identified key pathways for the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sector to make the transition away from diesel fuel.

AgriFutures Australia Senior Manager, Rural Futures, Jane Knight said the report, The Diesel Transition: Petroleum diesel alternatives for the Australian agriculture, fisheries and forestry sector, recommends the practical steps needed for a sector-scale transition to alternative energies.

Rural industries are under increasing pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and diesel consumption in farm machinery is one area we can confidently transform,” Jane said.

“Finding innovations and new technologies that allow industry to change existing practices will be essential in decarbonising and avoiding future greenhouse gas emissions.”

The research explored three key opportunities for transition – hydrogen, battery electric and bioenergy – and the advances that are being made to meet the high-torque, long-duty-cycle and on-demand applications in agriculture.

RELATED: Eight-part alternative energy series spurring Australian rural industries efforts to switch to renewables

Benefits of biodiesel

Biodiesel falls under the wider banner of bioenergy, which is produced from a renewable organic source of feedstock – or biomass – like plants, animals, and their by-products or residues.

In its various forms (biodiesel, biogas and bioethanol), bioenergy can be used to meet different energy needs for farmers. This can include replacing the fuel used to power engines, vehicles, trucks, and farm machinery, as well as generating the power to replace grid electricity or on-site generation from diesel gensets.

According to the Federal Government’s Bioenergy Roadmap, bioenergy could grow to 20 per cent of Australia’s energy consumption by 2050.

The importance of hydrogen

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in nature and is positioned as an important future fuel around the world given its versatility and ability to be produced without emissions.

It can be stored in solid, liquid or gas forms and has one of the highest energy density values per mass, offering nearly three times the energy of petroleum fuel.

RELATED: Green hydrogen solution for Australian agriculture, ready for investment

Hydrogen can be used as a combustion fuel, chemically converted with oxygen to electricity using a hydrogen fuel cell, or stored with a similar storage profile to liquefied natural gas (LNG). It can be used as transport fuel, or as an industry feedstock, with further research and development focussing on technologies to efficiently produce hydrogen on farm.

Electric options on farm

The potential offered by battery electric solutions is a hot topic across a range of sectors including the heavy freight industry, which is currently the fastest-growing market for electric vehicles.

Advancements in the freight and mining sectors are likely to produce cross benefits for agriculture and forestry machinery, with battery electric technology being praised for its energy efficiency, precision applications and ability to use renewable energy sources.

Investment in battery technology has seen advances in capacity and battery performance, and agricultural machinery manufacturers are working towards the future electrification of their products, with John Deere, Fendt, Farmtrac and Multi Tool Trac already launching full battery electric models.

However, communities and individual farmers wanting to deploy electric machinery will need to evaluate options for installing renewable energy and fast-charging solutions on-site or in shared facilities, with duty-cycle a key challenge for battery power in agricultural machinery.

Jane said there are many opportunities to reduce diesel consumption and a clear business case for rural industries to shift gear.

“This research paves a way for change and there is a huge opportunity for Australia to learn from international best practice in all areas of transition and become a leader in energy innovation,” she said.

Steven Hobbs was part of a panel discussion at evokeAG. 2023 that examined the challenges and opportunities in the production and application of sustainable fuel sources. To learn more about commercialising renewable fuels at a large scale and biofuels at a local level listen to this podcast with Steven Hobbs and Cassian Drew recorded at evokeAG..

Early bird tickets are now on sale for evokeAG 2024 in Perth 20- 21 February 2024, register for event updates and more articles from agrifood innovators, start-ups and global thought-leaders.

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