Off the grid with solar for 20 years, and going strong

At a remote NSW farm an ageing but sturdy solar system allows visitors the rare joy of bush living - but also reveals challenges ahead for off-grid migration.

If you really want to understand how solar can change lives, you need to go to a remote area – and Barkala Farm, out past Coonabarabran, is a long way from home.

Going bush is a tradition that we all too often neglect and, thanks to my in-laws, we headed back to Barkala Farm for a second year, not far from where some of our in laws settled several generations ago.

The 9000-acre farm has a long history but for almost 40 years has been owned and developed by a committed and wonderful family who still run it today. Although they run cattle and specialise in horse riding, bushwalks and bird-watching they are also famous for their very substantial pottery-making facility.

And it's all run 100 per cent by solar.

The property has kilns, cool rooms, blacksmiths shop, water pumping systems, dorms, cafe and showroom, as well as an eclectic mix of eight well appointed but rustic cabins. After bouncing down a 10km dirt track from the highway, it’s like arriving at a small village positioned on the edge of a classic outback creek. I’m sure there’s a coolabah tree there somewhere.

With an extended family group of almost 20 people, our mob arrived with a thunderous cavalcade of four- wheel drives, trailers, utes, campervans and whinging kids but quickly settled the oldies and bubs into our favourite strawbale/stone/mud-brick/slab hut. The more adventurous found the flattest spot they could, pitched their tents and the campfire was going within an hour. Tucked away at the end of Eagle Valley, 5km from the main homestead, and surrounded by majestic mountains and gully’s, our only neighbours for the week were cows, wallabies, eagles and ants.

The property is characteristic of the Pilliga Scrub which, at 3000 sq km, is the largest continuous semi-arid woodland in temperate north-central and the biggest untouched remnant in NSW. If you haven’t witnessed the Pilliga Scrub you must see it before CSG development wrecks it.

Our cabin (actually, it's more like a really well appointed three-bedroom house) has all mod cons, of course; right down to the kettle (in case the fire was out), fridge, prodigious LED lighting and gas stove and hot water. All we had to bring was the coffee grinder and a 400L ice box for the beer (it’s pretty dusty out there). The house runs on 240V fed by an old Trace inverter that has been humming along very nicely since it was installed (bush style; on the floor in a dusty old hut) a few years ago. The mud brick powerhouse is a 100m or so from the cabin and has a big set of gel batteries, a menagerie of regulators and cables neatly dangling all over the place. This is 'bushcraft 101' – make it strong, make it repairable, make it simple. No need for glitzy housings or time consuming cable trays here.

Having said this, attention has been paid to some important details; underground cabling is heavily protected in conduit and entry points are above flood level. The powerhouse is lockable to keep out prying kids and cows and the batteries are kept off the cold ground to extend life and performance. This system was installed by immensely practical and informed people.

Although there is newer 1kW fixed system on the roof, my little bit of joy was the 1kW tracking system just outside. Made up of 20-year-old BP 55W panels on a behemoth tracker it’s testament to the fact that well-made solar panels solar can survive the harsh realities of life. Originally, it powered the home and workshop but as demand grew it was recycled to the guesthouse like an old truck that just won’t die. Despite the substantial strength of the tracker the motor that ran it died years ago, so it is typically fixed due north.

Over a campfire and beer, I admitted to the owner's son one night that, being a solar tragic, I couldn’t help myself and had been playing with it. Over a day, I reconfigured the drive chain, removed the old motor drive gears and set up a manual tracking system using 100-year-old fence wire, some pliers and a couple of kids. Three times a day, the kids and I would head over, unhitch the fencewire locks, adjust it and re-wire it. I don’t know if the 20-year-old grease from that chain will ever come out of my hands, but we gleefully watched the amps and volts rise each time we made our adjustments.

Graph for Off the grid with solar for 20 years, and going strong

As is our way, we also had our campervan with us which has its own 150W array and gives us a portable power source for lights around the campfire, music and runs its own fridge. As you can see from the photo gallery, we also had solar-powered lights on our tent and solar-powered torches for the kids. It’s really not that hard to use solar pretty widely.

Back at the main house, I bailed up Johannes who is the 20-something-year-old son of tireless owner Maria. Between them, they manage the entire property, staff, vehicles, cattle, shop, buildings and when Maria has a spare second she’ll whip up a few astounding pots on a wheel, bake you some wood-fired scones or sit with you for a long chat. Their energy and joy is breathtaking. Although he looks like a strapping young German lad, Johannes’ long blonde ponytail and beard give way to a classic bush lingo as soon as his mouth opens. With a classic Australian bush drawl and a 'rollie' hanging from the corner of his mouth, he is a born and bred bush kid grown up.

“Do you look after all the fences alone?” I asked. “Yep”. “How long is your fence line?” I asked. “Aww... spose it’s about 120k’s or so. It’s awright."

I also checked in on the main solar system which was upgraded to 40kW a couple of years ago. Last time I visited, Johannes was still getting the settings tweaked and had some challenges under certain combinations of high loads when the generator took too long to kick in and sync up, causing cycling (on and off and on and off) as the intermittent load came and went and battery voltage rapidly rose and fell. With the sly grin of bushman who had beat the devil, Johannes told me: “I finally got it right after fiddling with the settings over the last year or so, and she purrs like a kitten now.”

This is a classic example of the practical persistence and intuition that is so important in the bush and why few city folks are going to make a successful switch to off-grid living anytime soon. If you know how to fix a flat tire with a tree limb, can pump out a septic without spewing and can weld metal using a car battery, you might have a chance. Otherwise, it's only going to work with a maintenance contract.

Our time at Pilliga this year consisted of laying in hammocks under trees, bushwalking, chopping wood, whittling, cooking, eating, cycling, constantly taking the mickey out of everyone and connecting with our family instead of our iPhones. The best bit for me was heading to the billabong which was allegedly “loaded with Yabbies” while kids investigated the surrounds. Watching finchs catch bugs as the sun set while we sipped ice-cold beer, not needing to speak, and holding on to bits of string with meat tied to the end is about as good as life gets, I reckon. Of course, it would have been better if we had known that yabbies were vegetarians but, hey, Johanne’s polite laughter at our city slicker ignorance and the promise of a catch next year made it all worthwhile.

Nigel Morris is director of Solar Business Services.