Running on sunshine

Globally, the solar power industry is on the brink of a massive boom. The costs associated with installing solar systems are dropping, encouraging more people to jump on the making-power-while-the-sun-shines bandwagon (check out the next issue of Idealog for more on this!). Kiwi farmers aren't ones to get left behind when it comes to embracing cost-effective technology, so they're getting in on it too, in the form of solar powered electric fences.

Russell Wilson, Gallagher territory manager for Northland, tells me the idea of powering electric fences using solar panels is pretty simple. "All the solar panel does is charge your battery. Nothing else, that's its purpose in life." The biggest benefit of using solar is that you can locate it anywhere - including those once distant back blocks of farms, far from the reach of mains power. "We've got solar systems in the portable range that work from 1 to 2 hectares, right through to units that will do 300 to 400 hectares type of thing. So it gives them the versatility," Wilson explains.

There are a few things to be taken into consideration when installing solar systems. First of all, there's your power requirement. The larger battery energisers draw more current, so you need more solar panels to charge the battery to actually power the fence. Secondly, location and, consequently, the average number of sunshine hours, play a role in determining how many solar panels you may need. If you're somewhere with a lower number of sunshine hours, you'll need a larger solar panel and battery capacity.

There are two types of batteries that can be used: gel batteries, which are maintenance free, or wet cell batteries, which need to be topped up with water every six months. Wilson assures me your batteries aren't ever going to go flat. "They work absolutely indefinitely, because the sun comes up pretty much every day."

Installing a mains power system is expensive and there are ongoing costs associated with it. Here's where solar systems come into their own; there's just a one-off cost to install it, making it more inexpensive in the long term. Thanks to higher dairy payouts, and increased production for beef farmers, those once inaccessible areas of land are now being farmed. Wilson says a lot of those farmers are choosing to put in solar systems. "I'd approve upwards of three solar installations a week in a permanent situation, and that's in the northern region," he says. "That's because the utilisation of the land is better and the animals are being worked on those areas."