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Advanced Solar, and Independence, at PRI’s Zaytuna Farm

Zaytuna Farm, home of the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, sets up an advanced solar electric system to demonstrate the best example of stand-alone solar electric power we can find.

Here at Zaytuna Farm we have endeavored to demonstrate the efficiency and advantage of a stand alone power system. This is especially relevant now in times when large areas of Australia, and elsewhere, for that matter, have been flooded. Everyone that has solar/electric feedback to the grid still loses their power if the main grid goes down. We provide our own power and we store our own energy, and, although we could, we don’t feed back to the main grid because that just props up an inefficient system that runs on a very large amount of over-supplied fossil fuel power, or some other type of unsustainable energy system.

After much research our system has been upgraded to what is arguably the most advanced-stand alone solar power system available today. This system has new solar panels made from Copper Indium Selenium which have very superior performance because they work on a broader spectrum of light — they are temperature stable and, as such, are less susceptible to temperature change like the old fashioned ones. They are a one-piece integrated circuit system and don’t diminish in performance with partial shade. The output has been tested and found to be extremely powerful.

We initially tested this system in the workshop with just four new CSI solar panels and four batteries and it was immediately obvious that we had a new and superior system because with just those four panels and batteries we were able to use an electric arc welder and a power saw simultaneously. The system easily handled that kind of power usage.

We now have 20 solar panels and 12 batteries running on a 48 volt system. The system is inverted to a 240 volt main electricity current which powers the whole site. The power is transferred through the site via a large copper cable traveling up to 400 meters underground with a power take off wherever we want to fit in a junction box, with minimal voltage drop through the cable. We put the whole system together for AU$33,000, including the underground cable. This means that a small system costing half or less will easily power a small industrial workshop. For those who are itching to get into a more sustainable situation, but can’t afford mains-connected land, this is just one way to reduce initial start-up costs. Permaculture-competent people don’t need highly productive soils — we can make our own — and such a solar system can give us the energy we need to build infrastructure on properties that are thus less expensive to buy.

We have also researched inverters so that we have a 3000 watt stacked system with a second 3000 watt boosting of 6000 watts and we can stack these new inverter systems 3000 watts at a time — up to 15,000 watts. We have the new battery systems using the hybrid nano gel batteries. These need no maintenance and as long as we keep the batteries charged to above 48 volts (preferably at 50 volts), the battery life span is greatly extended and this technology is always improving.

We have developed a grid switching system which allows you to switch the grid on if you need it for access to a larger power load for whatever period and then switch back to stand alone for the majority of the time.

All this technology is available through our research and we make all these facts and figures available to you, our permaculture community. We will continue to develop and keep up to date with this rapidly-changing technology. Most people are not aware of this technology because they are still being encouraged, even subsidised to buy older systems that are at least 30 years out of date.

This is the new future of solar power stand alone systems. It has a very low energy use in relation to life span and an extremely efficient power output. We will continue to report in on the performance of the system. It is our pleasure to introduce this technology to the world, it is time that we all stand alone and take responsibility for our own power on our own properties and stop propping up a system which is obviously failing as a main grid — a main mistake!

Geoff Lawton

Geoff Lawton is a world renowned Permaculture consultant, designer and teacher. He first took his Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) Course in 1983 with Bill Mollison the founder of Permaculture. Geoff has undertaken thousands of jobs teaching, consulting, designing, administering and implementing, in 6 continents and close to 50 countries around the world. Clients have included private individuals, groups, communities, governments, aid organizations, non-government organisations and multinational companies under the not-for-profit organisation. In 1996 Geoff was accredited with the Permaculture Community Services Award by the Permaculture movement for services in Australia and around the world. Geoff's official website is GeoffLawtonOnline.com. Geoff's Facebook profile can be found here.

27 Comments

  1. The one problem I have with CIS/CIGS panels is the Indium, which actually is quite scarce. So, I wonder whether these actually have a long term future.

    Silicon plus low concentration compound parabolic concentrator might hence in the longer run turn out to be a better option, see e.g.:

    https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0038-092X(01)00066-4

    If anyone’s interested in concentrator optics, I’ll write a few lines about that…

  2. I don’t understand why you are not feeding the energy surplus into the system, but letting it go to waste? Even if the system is inefficient, would you rather people got their electricity from your solar panels or from coal, for instance?

    And what about the permaculture principle of sharing the yield, and waste is a resource? Surely any money made could then be used to further people care and care of the planet…

  3. Hi all,

    As to the comment relating to the feeding of surplus electricity back to the grid and the conflict with the permacluture principle of sharing, people in city areas may not be aware of the huge cost of connecting a property up to the electricity grid. In a lot of cases, the cost of connecting up to the grid plus all of the equipment required (AC automatic transfer switch + grid tie inverter) can exceed the total cost of an off grid solar power system. The amount that you get paid for the excess electricity will be an absolute pittance in comparison to this cost. You also cannot supply any excess to the grid if the rest of the grid fails for fear of electricuting linesmen.

    The other thing is, if the off grid solar power system is designed well and used well, there won’t be any surplus electricity. It is better for the environment that the off grid system is well designed so that excess capacity is used on site.

    The electricity grid itself was designed around the principles of a centralised generation and distribution process and does not adapt well to decentralised small scale generation.

    The electricity grid will fail for the simple reason that we as a society are increasing the population, increasing the consumption of electricity and not increasing the generating capacity.

    A grid connected PV system will have little impact to the supply system if people continue to increase the consumption of electricity. I read a statistic the other day stating that 70% of houses in Australia have air conditioners installed. This is unsustainable.

    The final point that people who are connected to the grid might not appreciate is that to live on an off grid solar power system is to have to live within your means. If it has been exceptionally overcast or rainy for days on end, you have to simply reduce your power consumption or risk damaging your batteries which unlike a petrol tank don’t really appreciate being drained to 0% capacity.

    It is not really that much different from gardening and plants in that you work with the available sunlight rather than drawing down on non renewable fossil fuel reserves.

    PS: Don’t believe the lie about photo voltaic panels never producing enough energy to cover the energy used in their manufacture. It is just that, a lie. A PV panel should get about 50 years life expectancy, probably more excluding extreme weather events.

    PV panels are a good use of our resources, although most people would struggle with their limitations.

  4. Isn’t it possible to feed-in to specific energy retailers such as those that only source from renewables? I thought that in certain areas end-users could elect to have their power from these sources?

    I would like to see some small-scale thermal solar installations but unfortunately I don’t think the technology is available yet. I look forward to the day we can efficiently produce and safely store hydrogen using only solar energy and water.

  5. id rather see independently powered sites like zaytuna.
    any ‘selling back’ of surlpus i see as a promotion of the main grid, fossil fuel dependant system. the line must be drawn.

  6. Geoff glad to see you have installed a stand alone system and also installed a system that reflects the energy consumption at Zaytuna Farm. In reply to Robin’s question about not feeding back into the grid and wasting the energy. None of the energy gets wasted as it is stored in the battery array for later use. In South East Queensland and Northern NSW, solar systems only generate on average 4.9 hours per day over the course of a year, so for the other 19.1 hours a day no electricity is generated. So for people with a solar system but no battery storage, on average for 19.1 hours of the day, they are in all likelihood using electricity from carbon intensive power generation. I am aware that energy consumption in domestic situations is variable depending on the time of day, but in Geoff’s situation he can use solar at three o’clcok in the morning or on a very cloudy day.

  7. Thanks so much for this article. I have been searching for something like this for years. Off-grid, independent solar with batteries for storage makes so much more sense. I am surprised that so many seem to think that grid-connected is better, especially when prices are rocketing up which will make any rebate worthless eventually. Off-grid means no more dealing with incompetent and inefficient power companies – a huge bonus – and there is no waste as the system can be tailored according to need. Also, as mentioned, when there’s a blackout, battery users are unaffected. We are currently renovating and I am trying to keep everything electric and not put in gas heating etc so that eventually a good solar system can be put in. Only thing not mentioned was the size of the system in KWh which is how they seem to be measured normally. I understand 4KWh is appropriate for a regular size house so am wondering how this compares to your system?

  8. Hi Geoff, thanks for sharing. Can you provide details on the inverter brand please?

    Robin, did you read the part about the fact that if the grid goes down, PRI would also still lose power? This is required for grid connected systems for safety reasons. (line down, power workers think no power downstream and get electrified or something along those lines..)

    Thomas, would love to learn about concentrator optics – especially if it is appropriate technology…

    Matt

  9. does anyone know if deep cycle batteries can be overhauled when they are exhausted? I am pretty sure we’re talking standard lead acid batteries with very thick lead plates.

    We need to consider the battery life which as far as I know ranges between 10-20 years depending on how well they are looked after and how heavily they are discharged to what levels etc.

    Will these deep cycle solar system batteries be available in 10-20 years?

    Is it correct to state that Solar panels like these or in general are probably not appropriate technology as the availability depends on a long supply chain and high tech fabrication. Another single point of failure is the inverter, a piece of electronics which is unlikely to be serviceable by the owner or at all.

    Also I wonder how the rest of the neighbourhood looks upon the solar powered neighbour when their lights go out.

    It’s a balancing act – go really low tech and be good at it when TSHTF or go high tech with the risks involved (high cost, risk of failures that may not be able to be fixed)

    I guess in the end you can just take a panel off your roof, connect it to a 12v DC motor and power your handy grain mill directly of the panel…

    In general, the main aim should be to reduce the need for energy to a minimum that is acceptable/possible and then see how this need can be serviced. (this is in response to the question on how many KW are needed for a familiy home)

    That is actually a good approach to money as well. Reduce the need to earn as much as possible then look at the most efficient way to service that need for money.

  10. Robin certainly has a point. This movement should not be too exclusive.

    I with agree Chris that it may be too expensive for the remote properties to connect to the main grid. But we shouldn’t risk alienating the majority of the population. There is no simple solution to our energy crisis. However not everyone can pack up shop, move to the country and live in energy bubble. It was a great article on solar power but this statement in reply to Robin strangely irked me:
    ‘The electricity grid will fail for the simple reason that we as a society are increasing the population, increasing the consumption of electricity and not increasing the generating capacity.’

    This comment is rather defeatist. It’s not the attitude Permaculturists take. The food grid is in the same position. Our population is rising along with food consumption, even as we deal with decreasing generating capacity. Does that mean the food grid is doomed to fail? Perhaps it will.

    But this is where Permaculture has taken a stand. We’re fighting to keep the food grid alive by innovation, productivity and education. The only reason why this movement has grown is because the mainstream living in suburbia hasn’t been excluded. It’s embraced and practiced in many city gardens. With the same tenacity we can save the electricity grid.

    We shouldn’t dismiss the sale of surplus power outright. If (for example) the grid is close enough and connections not too expensive why shouldn’t we? The earth is a sinking ship with many holes. We cannot expect it to float by just repairing our side of it.

    We need to address all facets, and to do so we need to lend a helping hand to people in the cities too. They may be wasteful, but we can offset them. We can lead by example, educate, and show financial incentives, not just meaningful ideals. Only then will Permaculture be all inclusive movement and hopefully a mainstream one at that.

  11. Decentralization and relocalization of energy production is key to taking back control of our resources and our lives.

    I’m sorry Adam T, but permaculture has nothing to do with supporting big, centralized, inefficient structures. In fact it is the opposite. I think you are a little confused here fella.

    Why do you need to pack up shop and move to the country to install a solar system? Guess what, you don’t.

    The grid will fail eventually, maybe sooner than later, anyone who can’t see that needs to become better informed. Why would permaculturalists, or anyone for that matter, use their resources to fill that grid a little longer?

    In an era of peak energy, its not just an energy supply to the grid issue here, it’s could we possibly physically maintain this grid over the next decades? So, why would anyone invest their resources in propping up something clearly against our bigger societal goals as permaculturalists?

    “They may be wasteful, but we can offset them” Mate, you really need a wakeup call here. So, you are saying that the only way permaculture can be all-inclusive and mainstream is if it supports the very unsustainable system it is trying to replace? Are you for real?

  12. Not a criticism just curiosity. Have you guys looked into using water/gravity as a battery? Pump water up hill to a dam then when you need electricity let the water flow back down powering a generator?

  13. hello Geoff, great article. Where can we find the facts and figures with regards your system? ie brands and tech specs. Also, how did you install the system? With an electrical contractor? or piecemeal buy yourself?

    thanks john

  14. Geoff + Nadia fantastic that the Institute paves the way with this newer panel.
    Developed in South Africa:
    https://breakfornews.com/my/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=491
    And put into manufacture by :
    https://www.ife-eriksen.de/enterprie.html
    The site page indicates a 16% efficiency which is better than our on farm silicon solar system with average 9% efficiency. This efficiency fluctuates because of temperature.
    More the pity is that many Australian solar scientists and technicians work over seas, in for instance the Germany Solar Plants.
    The resource rich Australia seems hell bent to not support the world re known research done in Australia. The solar thermal specialist Dr. Mills left for California and the test plants still operates in the Hunter Valley next to the coal powered station. Whilst the U.S.A. investor Kosla is setting up grind feed systems with Dr. Mills.
    Interestingly under the Hunter coal powered station is the biggest granite rock with 3000 years (at 2050 consumption) of hot rock energy. According to ANU (Australian National University) it would only cost $200 million to set it up…. But the Howard government was non supportive on both the above.
    We could be using this clean electric energy and not producing CO2 etc with coal… See how powerful lobbyists are.
    Capstan produces a small fridge size electric generator that runs on town supply gas at 98% efficiency!!!! Tested by the CSIRO. But coal lobbyists suppress it.

    We the people must get on and do what needs doing without the need of government subsidies. These subsidies are false economy and lately supported the push to sell the over production of cheap end Si Solar panels knowing that better technology was just about to be released.
    So PRIA is a step ahead. But who is the Australian supplier of their system?

  15. I appreciate that it costs too much in Australia. Here in the UK I suspect it would be different, as we have the national grid here.

    I would say this though: the prevailing story in the media is that renewables cannot ever create enough electricity. But a recent study by MIT researchers found that we can generate ALL our energy needs, even surplanting oil and gas, from renewables within 40 years realistically, but one of the most important factors is that all systems be connected, so one man’s surplus serves the next man’s day of no wind, or sun etc.

    That is the kind of hope we need to communicate if we want to see a sustainable future.

  16. Great artical and it hits the spot in my situation.

    Any chance we can get all of the specifications of this setup?

    (PS, amazing how permies can get so wound up about politics.)

  17. I’m running a small solar power station on my own property and according to my experiments over the last 6 years i should say that the first goal ever to be folowed by anyone looking for some other way of producing there own electricity is to make a good reasoning and some math about the devices which are to be connected to a solar power station, or better said to an island power station.

    Always remember that the cheapest energy is the one not spent.

    First get rid of resistor like devices, i.e. toasters, iron, hair dryer, dryers in general, coffe machines driven on electtricity etc.
    Choose good high end devices, they will prove to be a good choice in the future, for the overall TCO (total cost of ownership)balance.

    Panels money can buy according to efficiency/price/availability should be Monocristaline type with eficiencies up to 18% and perhaps more.
    Though others may be available, those are, for me, the best for the job even though they are prone to suffer from the temperature factor which can be compensated by using a tracker system, one or two axis. Remember all are prone to that factor except for the concentrated photovoltaics, CPV.

    A tracker system should be used to prolong the exposure of the system towards the sun giving a surplus of almost 30 to 40% more yield per day. 1 axis is more than enough. The other (Zenith)or vertical is to be regulated 4 times a year or so. So should be manual driven.

    Battery type should be type AGM (absorbed glass matt)(life expectancy up to 12 to 15 years, depending on maker) type or gel type considering the first as a better option though they are more expensive. Either type can be mounted indoors in non vented places but for precautionary issues it should be done in a proper closet preferably.
    Other VRLA (valve regulated lead acid) should be located in a vented place because of the way gassing can appear when charging (life expectancy up to 10 years depending on maker).
    Lead Acid type batteries (life expectancy up to 20 years)Opzs like SHOULD be always placed outside in a proper closet protected from elements, extreme heat and cool temperatures.Maintenance required every month or so.

    Batteries in general should always be protected from being submited to frost or extrem heat at any cost.

    In any case batteries should never be discharged lower than 80% in which case life expectancy decays very much. so consider, as a rule of thumb never to let your batery to come to voltage levels less than 12,4V (= 80% charge Considering a 12v system) when iddle.

    Solar charge regulator should be PWM (pulse with modulation) , MPPT (maximum power point tracking) because of extra yield provided by the ability to extract, or convert, potential diference into current. Other 30 % to 40 % more yield from the system can this way be expected.

    Inverters should be carefully evaluated. Two types to consider: Cheap ones and Expensive ones.

    Cheap ones are good to drive low end and low tech apparatus like hand power tools vaccum cleaners and lamps, though electrical noise and overall use is acceptable they are very bad.

    Expensive ones are modified sine wave or pure sinewave type and are much better for the job as the quality of the electricity is almost or identical to the grid.
    Consider always this ones in order top protect your investement in the better quality devices you expect to be serviced by your power station. High end and high tech gear should always be driven thru these inverters.

    Consider, the ones that can drive an external generator when required so to have an emergency battery charger for worst case scenario.

    More can be said about these subject, feel free to ask any thing by e-mail to vale.joana at gmail.com

  18. The beauty of the internet will always be the dissemination of information and the ability to express an opinion :)

    Want to point out however that energy and the use of it can be hard to grasp when talking about solar installations. Geoff, you mentioned that you were able to run an arc welder and power saw at the same time due to the new 4 panel/4 battery installation. The solar panels will have been completely irrelevant to this however, even big panels at 100W in full sun will have provided only 400W, maybe almost double this if you have the 180W monsters (you don’t give any clue here). I have two power saws, one is 2400W, the other 1000W. Yes, either would run on a battery powered inverter system such as yours, and yes, either would deplete your batteries faster than your solar system could ever replenish them. Same for the arc welder you speak of, at what power setting? Did you do a few welds or work for hours putting together something? This would kill a small system stone dead due to the energy draw over a day. Deep cycle batteries are a must for a system but even they have limits.

    The power rating and the time you use your machinery would make a huge difference to any system. The temperature of the batteries also needs to be taken care of, do not let them get too cold (12C+) or hot (<25C) as their performance will degrade under both conditions. You can increase the solar panels efficiency by 25-30% if you have an ability to track the sun but the photo indicates the system if fairly static so perhaps you can squeeze out a little more by adjusting the angle they sit at every 2 months to track the seasonal height of the Sun, steeper panels in Winter for the lower sun angle etc.

    I am an electrical engineer so I have to point out a couple of other concerns, the information needs more detail, brand and sizing of panels, cable ratings etc. Running a cable 400m with "minimal voltage drop" would again depend on how much current is being drawn by the load. Chris you made this comment "if the off grid solar power system is designed well and used well, there won’t be any surplus electricity". True, if you can manage to have a load that almost exactly matches your generation year round. Since the seasons alone vary the amount of energy incoming this might be a little hard to manage. When your batteries are full you have to shed the energy coming from the panels, essentially dumping it. You can of course, heat water or pump water for later use in micro-hydro to make use of the energy, effectively storing it in something other than the batteries. Zaytuna has great potential there but Geoff makes no mention of this. The Bullock brothers in Canada do this very well running the DC pumps directly off solar panels, you can't pump large volumes but when the sun shines the water moves.

    Perhaps Zaytuna could diversify their energy supply a great deal more to show what can be done?

  19. Wow I didn’t expect such a response haha.

    One needs to remember that the permaculture movement is growing thanks to permaculturists educating these large urban centres. And that’s what I mean by:

    ‘They may be wasteful, but we can offset them. We can lead by example, educate, and show financial incentives, not just meaningful ideals.’

    We have offset them and reduced their excesses. Many are joining the movement. And it’s because we have set an example, educated, showed financial incentives. Most importantly, city dwellers were ONLY receptive because our message didn’t grossly threaten their way of living.

    I don’t want to be at odds with permaculture, but the grid won’t fail. Greed will drive ingenuity, and force renewable sources onto the market. Too much of the world’s economy relies on the grid and its power, and greed will find a way to preserve this way of life.

    In the meantime, it’s far better for us to reduce the impact of fossil fuels, to contribute energy if it’s a wasted resource, only if it’s cheap for us to do so. I am only keeping an open mind. Many great ideas go to waste, when movements lack compromise, becoming bogged down in rigid idealism and deterring the masses. This is not the case with permaculture, but it could easily become so if there isn’t a concerted effort to work with the existing bulk of society and its infrastructure.

    The movement is still to fragile to start excluding adherents.

  20. Hi guys,

    forgot to mention the specs of my Power Station:
    This is a 12 V system that requires much thicker cables than 24, 48 V or 60V systems. But on the other hand it is very simple to establish by any one wanting to mount it’s own power plant.
    Everything was done by one person only including the base for the tracker and the mount for the tracker itself.

    5 x BP 275 (75 Watt) = 375 Watt/h max.
    1 Tracker Lorentz Etatrack 400 (discontinued)(replaced by 600 model now)
    1 Solar Regulator BlueSky 3024Di (upgradable to Duo Mode)
    14 x Marathon M12V60FT (60 Amps) totalling 840 Amps/h
    1 Inverter pure sine wave Studer SI 1212 with optional “twinpower”
    Upgradable to a three phase power line if necessary in the future by adding another 2 identical modules.

    One external generator for more power when required by the use of heavy machinery like welders or other loads like those.

    Total costs: Street Prices 2009 in euros.

    5 x panels = 1500
    1 x Tracker = 500
    1 x Regulator= 550
    14 x Bateries= 5600
    1 x Inverter = 1300
    Cables/Conduit= 500
    Tracker Base = 300
    Cabin = 200

    Total= 10 450 euros without labor (made it my self)

    Good luck for anybody wanting to do the same.

  21. HI ALL. NOT ALL GRID CONNECTED SOLAR SYSTEMS WILL STOP OPPERATING IF THE GRID GOES DOWN, THERE ARE SEVERAL INVETERS THAT WILL DUAL CHARGE A BATTERY BANK AS WELL AS GRID FEED ONE SUCH UNIT IS MADE BY LATRONICS SUNPOWER WHICH IS A AUSTRALIAN MANUFACTURED UNIT’
    IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN COMPARING THE OUTPUT OF ALL THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF PV MODULES AVAILABLE, GO TO A SITE CALLED ‘DESERT KNOWEDGE’
    THEY HAVE SET UP DIFFERENT SOLAR ARRAYS JUST OUTSIDE OF ALICE SPRINGS IN CENTRAL AUSTRALIA, THERE YOU CAN COMPARE REAL TIME PERFOMANCE GRAPHS FOR MANY DIFFERENT TPES OF SOL;AR PANELL CONSTRUCTION, TO GET ACURATE COMPARISON YOU WILL NEED TO USE THE NORMALLISE BUTTON AS THE ARRAYS ARE OF VARING SIZES
    KIND REGARDS PETER PONY

  22. Wow, as I read this I was thinking to myself “I’ve been researching solar power for several years now, and I haven’t seen PV panels like these yet. Why is that?” And of course you answered my question as to why I haven’t heard of them. So my other question is where can I get the components to put a system like this together myself? Where I live in Western Oregon, USA, land is quite expensive, but in Eastern Oregon, it’s high desert and land is much more affordable. Once you install infrastructure though, and especially if you treat the land with a solid Permaculture plan, it will be MUCH more valuable, so that’s what I’m thinking of doing. Again, where can I get these components? Thanks Geoff, once again you point me in another direction!

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