By Kim Honan – ABC News – 31 May 2019

Feature image: The Macadamia Processing Company has installed a 600kW solar electricity system on the roof of its factory at Alphadale.(Supplied: Macadamia Processing Company).

The world’s largest macadamia processor has turned to solar power in a bid to lower energy costs, lift profitability, and reduce its environmental footprint.

The Macadamia Processing Company (MPC) has installed a 600-kilowatt solar electricity system on the roof of its factory at Alphadale, near Lismore in northern New South Wales.

The 100 per cent grower-owned cooperative has invested close to $1 million in the solar system, which has been registered with the Federal Government’s Clean Energy Regulator as a power station.

MPC’s general manager Steven Lee said they expected a full payback for the project in less than three years.

“The equipment’s got an effective operating life in excess of 20 years, so we’re looking forward to making savings for the life of that project and some pretty significant reduction in energy consumption,” he said.

“We’re generating a peak of around 400 to 450 kilowatts, depending on how bright the day is and where the sun is.

“Unfortunately, we can’t get solar energy during the evening — otherwise it would be great.”

Mr Lee said their new solar system generated around 25 per cent of the plant’s total electricity demand.

“It’s pretty close to supplying all of our energy use during the day, so yes if we’ve got a nice bright sunny day then we’re almost operating free of charge — thanks to the sun,” he said.

Processor investigates other renewable energy options

With a busy macadamia harvest underway, and nut coming in from suppliers across the Northern Rivers and southern Queensland, the factory operates 24 hours a day, six days a week.

“Given we’re consuming all the electricity we generate there’s really no incentive to look at battery storage at the moment,” Mr Lee said.

“But if we were able to come up with other ways to generate electricity then storage would certainly be something that would be of interest.”

While MPC may never run its factories on 100 per cent solar energy it was looking at other technologies to lessen its environmental impact and save money.

“There’s potentially microturbine technology, so by burning waste shell we could generate thermal energy that could potentially be converted to electricity by that technology,” Mr Lee said.

“But that’s something that’s just being investigated at the moment.”

These macadamias will be processed in the factory at Alphadale now powered by the sun. (ABC Rural: Kim Honan)

Australian macadamia industry on uneven playing field in global market

Local food processors are feeling the pinch when it comes to rising energy costs, and Mr Lee said switching to solar would help level the playing field with their international competitors.

“We’re operating in an environment where we’re competing with a lot of countries that have lower cost to manufacture their products,” he said.

“We’re looking at every opportunity to reduce our energy input costs, be it gas whereby we introduced a shell-fired boiler to reduce our LPG consumption and also this solar system to reduce our energy consumption.

“We need to make sure that we’re competitive against countries that have lower costs of labour and lower costs of consumption.”

MPC was also considering a solar future for the processing facility it recently acquired in Queensland.

“With us taking 100 per cent ownership of the Pacific Gold Macadamias factory in Bundaberg, one of things we’re investigating up there is the installation of solar to help offset electricity costs of that factory,” Mr Lee said.

“That project’s being assessed at the moment, so if everything stacks up it could be the next six to 12 months.”

MPC’s general manager Steven Lee and production manager Phil Close tasked with flicking the ceremonial switch. (ABC Rural: Kim Honan)

Green savings promise greater returns for growers

The energy savings from MPC installing a solar system will result in a greater return for macadamia farmers in NSW and Queensland supplying nut to MPC.

“The efficiency savings will allow us to pay our growers more for their macadamia crop into the future, so it’s a win for us as a business but also a win for our macadamia suppliers,” Mr Lee said.

Lynwood macadamia grower and MPC director Andrew Leslie was fully supportive of the switch to solar and said it was an “excellent move”.

“It runs nearly 80 per cent of the day shift in the factory, that’s running everything which is a huge impact on the environment and a huge impact financially,” he said.

He said the factory also used 100 per cent of the nut with the kernel sold for consumption and the shell waste turned into electricity.

“We use 20 per cent of the shell at the factory for the boilers to run all the heaters and then we sell the remaining 80 per cent of shell to other industry for their boilers and heating set-ups,” Mr Leslie said.

“We use 100 per cent of the product, so how environmentally sustainable is that?”

The Macadamia Processing Company’s 600kW solar system will generate the majority of power needed to run its factory in northern NSW during the day. (ABC Rural: Kim Honan)

Macadamia farmers also take sustainable path

Mr Leslie said macadamia farming practices have changed dramatically over the past five years.

“What we do now compared to what we did five to 10 years ago … we’re so much greener now, we’re spraying a lot less, we don’t use tractors when it’s wet or after heavy rain to avoid the impact on the soil,” he said.

“After every harvest run we go through and fix up any problems with the finger wheels so that they’re running a lot more efficiently. So instead of doing two runs, we do one pass so that’s a saving on diesel.”

He said farmers also de-husked their macadamia crop on farm with many using solar systems to reduce energy consumption.

The Macadamia Processing Company is the world’s largest macadamia processor. (ABC Rural: Kim Honan)

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