Australia’s Salty Solar Project; Growing Solar-Powered Tomatoes

Sun and fresh water are a farmer’s best friends. Most farmers choose their land in a spot where both are in ample supply. Not so for solar-powered Sundrop Farms.

They chose a spot near dry Adelaide, Australia, plopped close to the salty ocean, for their solar project. They wanted to raise tomatoes by purifying the ocean’s water with the sun.

Sound far-fetched? Philip Saumweber and Reinier Wolterbeek didn’t think it was. The two leaders of this innovative solar project have strong experience.

Engineer Wolterbeek gained a master’s specifically in water management, and Saumweber knows the ropes in investment banking. Saumweber has even worked distinctly with funding agricultural projects.

With their knowledge and the expertise of many others, Sundrop Farms tested their solar project on a smaller farm before putting the wheels in motion at their enormous facility.

Funding their idea was no small act either. The current 49-acre facility cost $200 million to build, half of which came from KKR, a private equity agency. Sundrop Farms also entered a ten-year agreement with the large supermarket company Coles, a contract that helped them win favor with KKR.

A Salty Solar Project

People believed the company could pull off their vision, and they invested in that belief. The process certainly makes sense. Basically, Sundrop Farms pulls in water from the Spencer Gulf to purify it.

Then, over 23,000 mirrors set up in one of the farms’ fields bounce sunlight toward a 400-foot tower. The energy harnessed from these mirrors provide power for heating and purifying the water, generating up to nearly 40 megawatts of energy.

Adrian Simkins, head grower at Sundrop Farms, loves the resulting purified water. “You’re taking all the salt out of it, there’s no disease aspects, it’s very pure and then we’re able to enhance it with the nutrition that the plants require,” he says. Simkins has grown greenhouse tomatoes for over twenty years in Europe and North America.

While Sundrop Farms is mainly solar-powered, they do rely on the grid somewhat. They store some energy as backup, but such a large facility requires a Plan B. About 10-15% of their energy comes from the power grid, mostly during evenings and in the wintertime.

Challenges and Future Success for Sundrop Farms

Although the company has seen great success, their solar project has not come without its challenges. Saumweber remembers when the roof blew off their greenhouse, and the scorching Australia temperature ruined their entire test crop. He admits that his journey with Sundrop Farms hasn’t been without tears. They simply persevered and are now enjoying the outcome.

The company is expecting their great success to continue. Their Australian farm will grow around 15,000 tons of tomatoes each year, and the company is looking on toward the US and Portugal. They plan to design each of their greenhouses with a slant toward sustainable resources.

 

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