Solar energy on the farm: the voice of the scientist

Bjorn Sturmberg, solar scientist, offers his thoughts on collaborating with Epicurean Harvest farmers Erika and Hayden, and sculptor Mark Swartz. He gave this spiel via skype to the audience at the Art and Farming Picnic at Bula Mirri Farm on 28 April 2019 (you can read Alex’s blog about that day here).

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Reflecting on the project to date I remember the many times that the conversation has been pulled back to the questions "what is the aim? what is the desired output?" In addressing these questions we each often began from our caricatured camps:

Mark, the artist, was looking for a visually attractive communication of concepts.

Erika and Hayden, the farmers, are concerned with production and their broader whole-of-farm vision (of complementary productivity and health).

And me, as the scientist, kept clutching for practicality and efficiency in design and installation.

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Of course the AFS project is about the collision of these mindsets, and about developing an embodiment that speaks to all the aspects (I'm happy to say that I think we're well on the way to doing this.)

To attempt to answer the fundamental question "what's the point?", I'll venture my current theory. The aim as I see it is to add a layer of solar photovoltaic power generation into an incredibly rich and comprehensive farm land management practice.

It's noteworthy how entirely distinct this is from building a solar farm. In that case the focus is narrowly on efficient panels and optimal orientations. Here our work has to answer to the whole-of-farm vision, producing multiple benefits for the health and productivity of the system. The objective is not efficiency as calculated at a desk but appropriateness of fit into the functioning of all aspects of the farm.

For me, it's been very interesting to have the collaborative process reiterate diverse perspectives on energy and solar that are radically broader than what I typically consider. I am now reminded of the slogan "you can't eat coal and you can't drink gas". We may add to this that you "can't eat solar panels (they're mostly sand), and you can't drink electricity". At the heart of our project we're composing a call to consider the whole system and what we're truly looking to achieve - in this case: delicious fresh vegetables from healthy, resilient land with reduced carbon emissions.

Taking this thinking back to my day job I see a clear transposition into our collective national energy system, where we would do well to keep these thoughts fore and centre as we transition through an unprecedented transformation: how do we most appropriately interweave our available technologies to produce a healthy resilient system that delivers throughout day and night, summer and winter, and increasing volatile extreme weather events? As on the farm and in the AFS collaboration, diversity is sure to be part of the answer.

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