Innovative agriculture technology

Zaida Glibanovic

A MORWELL business, Alternate Energy Innovations (AEI), won the best agricultural energy management project at the 2023 National Energy Efficiency Conference in Sydney.

The Latrobe Valley-based technology company received national recognition for its work on the Wilandra Farms Irrigation project.

Devin Soutar, co-founder of AEI, spoke to the Gippsland Farmer about winning the national award.

“As a start-up company in a regional area, sometimes it can be a bit of a journey to get to some of those early milestones, so it’s always exciting when you get recognised after all your hard work,” he said.

“We’re an energy tech and agrarian tech energy company that is developing behind-the-meter energy solutions for the agriculture sector that integrate irrigation process with energy cost dynamics, and as a result of that, we can achieve irrigation results for farmers in the most cost-effective way automatically,” he said.

The Wilandra Farms project showcased some of AEI’s most innovative ways to use renewable farm energy in irrigation.

Wilandra Farms, located in Clydebank near Sale, milks about 350 cows year round.

In 2019, the farm conducted an energy audit, which found its irrigation and dairy operations were using about 500,000 kilowatt an hour (kWh) of energy a year.

Since then, Wilandra Farms has implemented initiatives to reduce power usage, teaming up with AEI for a significant project in relation to power usage and alternate energy.

“Our technology was installed in that farm along with some renewable sources, so some wind turbines, some solar and a small amount of batteries,” said Mr Soutar.

The Wilandra Farms Irrigation project began in early 2021 after the farm found that irrigation used about 71 per cent of its total energy usage; AEI and Wilandra Farms developed a Renewable Energy Action Plan (REAP).

The REAP involved the installation of 200 kW of solar energy, 56WH of batteries and four 5kW wind turbines.

Most innovatively the REAP involved the installation of AEI’s intelligent ‘AEI SmartBox’ systems, allowing for each irrigation and pumping component to be fully automated, controlled and monitored.

In addition, there was the AEI App, which allowed for Wilandra Farms to monitor and operate farm irrigation systems via smartphones, with the additional ability to schedule each centre pivot irrigator up to three days ahead.

“You might say our technology is renewables with a brain that adds a layer of intelligence to sort of integrate renewables into operations,” Mr Soutar said.

“Typically, people just put renewables in, and they’ll think that will just solve the problem for them, but you have to be able to integrate those renewables with your operations to implement those renewable strategies successfully.

“In scenarios where solar was previously not suitable for agriculture, our technology and its intelligence can change that equation.”

Farmers can use the innovative AEI app as the operational interface, allowing them to set their irrigation requirements from anywhere and anytime.

Then they can rest easy knowing their targets can be met in the most cost-effective way.

During 2022’s irrigation period at Willandra Farms, the AEI system managed the operation of each irrigation and pumping component using renewable energy on an average day by more than 94 per cent, minimising grid usage to below six per cent.

“The savings we’ve achieved are quite significant, so in the Wilandra example, being able to reduce annual irrigation costs from $80,000 to $1000 [per annum], that’s obviously something that, without intelligent technology, you wouldn’t be able to achieve,” Mr Soutar said.

Not only is AEI’s technology reducing farming costs, but it also saves time and the environment.

“Farmers are notoriously busy people, so when they can get a little bit of time back, it’s very valuable, and then the technology being able to reduce the amount of grid energy usage allows the farmer to have a much more carbon emission-friendly operation,” said Mr Soutar.

“Climate change, I think we all know, is sort of a big issue, so for families, our grandkids and children, it’s important that we have sustainable energy and food supply moving forward, so putting our technology in place can impact both of those aspects.”

The Soutars recognised that renewable energy and rural farming have not often gone hand-in-hand.

“Agriculture and renewables have notoriously been a bit of a miss match, and shifting irrigation loads to the middle of the day can actually result in farmers paying more for power as it exposes them to peak energy periods, but our technology allows for that not to happen,” Mr Soutar explained.

AEI was founded in 2018 and is an innovative engineering and energy technology company whose core business is developing and implementing sophisticated energy solutions.

The Soutar family went into the business off the back of the patriarch Stephen Soutar’s innovative ideas.

Stephen Soutar’s innovative technology
Stephen Soutar’s innovative technology won his company the best agricultural energy management project at the National Energy Efficiency Conference. Photo: Contributed

“My father and co-founder Stephen Soutar is a systems and automation engineer who’s worked in the water and wastewater industry for the last 25 years, so he’s just applying that skill set to energy and renewable energy in the agriculture sector…and my brother Joel is also a co-founder as well,” he said.

“Steve has been innovating for a long time, and as his son, I’ve watched him do that, and now being able to support his innovation to reach much higher heights, that’s probably what motivates us the most.”

Some say family and business don’t mix, but the Soutar family always makes it work.

“It’s not always smooth sailing, but some robust discussion can help things progress; it’s fun times and at least you know the people you’re working with and how they tick; sometimes it can be a double-edged sword,” he laughed.

When asked who gets to keep the award plaque, Devin Soutar said, “It’s sitting in Mum and Dad’s house at the moment, so pride and place.”

Though AEI received national recognition for their ground-breaking innovation at Willandra Dairy Farms, the tech company is still striving for bigger and better.

“Our plan is obviously being located in Gippsland is to launch our product over the Gippsland dairy market initially, then afterwards gaining some capital investment, hopefully launch that into other agricultural rich regions across Australia, and I guess if all things go well hopefully launch the product overseas,” Mr Soutar said.

Wilco Droppert and Sandra Jefford, owners of Wilandra Farms, spoke of the positive outcomes of their forward thinking and use of AEI technology.

“It has been a very positive outcome; it’s been that encouraging, and we’re looking at doing more projects,” said Mr Doppert

“We had huge energy bills, particularly for the irrigation side of the business, particularly those very dry years, then we decided we wanted to generate as much energy as possible rather than using grid power,” Ms Jefford added.

“This is the first farm where he had installed this system, so we were really lucky that Wilco had to happen to be talking to someone saying, ‘This is what we want’, and there was a company close by here in Morwell that was ready to have a go at that sort of thing.”

Ms Jefford said one of the things the farm had to do was automate its pumps and pivots so it could get communication with all those components.

“So it’s saving us between maybe 15 to 20 hours a week in the busy irrigation times,” she said.

“It also means we get to sleep better at night because we now do most of the irrigation during the day rather than at night because the old system, if a pivot stopped, the water would keep coming out of the pivot…if a pivot was stopped and we didn’t realise because we’re asleep, the water would just keep making the wet place even wetter.

“We’ve got better water use, we’ve got time savings, and we’ve got reduced emissions because we’re using our own clean power.”

Ms Jefford and Mr Droppert would like to encourage other farms to take on innovative and conservational practices in their operations.

“Even if you don’t believe in climate change, if you can reduce your bills and improve your lifestyle, why wouldn’t you do it?,” Ms Jefford said.

Gippsland Farmer

The Gippsland Farmer is a monthly agricultural newspaper reporting on rural news and distributed FREE and direct to an area covering from Cann River through to South Gippsland. For more than 40 years Gippsland Farmer has reported on a range of issues and industries including dairy, beef, vegetables, sheep, goats, poultry, organic farming, and viticulture.