Melbourne University partners with hydro-thermal company to reduce energy costs

Professor Guillermo Narsilio, from Melbourne University’s Engineering faculty, has partnered with Brad Donovan’s company, Ground Source Systems, to design and operate a renewable energy solution to reduce the spiraling cost of energy in poultry farming.
Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine resulted in a serious reduction in gas supply, Australia, despite its plentiful reserves of natural gas, has gone from having some of the least
expensive energy on the planet, to having nearly the most expensive.
Because LPG is a globally traded commodity, the overseas based com-panies that control our LPG market, have chosen to sell the stuff to the highest bidder and neither of our major political parties have the will to resolve this situation.
This means that alternatives need to be found for both gas and to a lesser degree, electricity.
The poultry sector, and in particular chicken meat production, is an energy hungry process in both rearing farms and in the production process.
Pressure from ‘big retail’ not only on financial returns, but also environmental issues, as the move to decarbonize our industries gathers pace, further exacerbates the problem of energy cost.
Renewable energy sources like solar panels and now hydrothermal technology offer a real solution.
“A grant of $318,000 from ARENA (Australian Renewable Energy Agency) has meant that the industry has been able to put theories into practice,” Prof Narsilio told Poultry Digest in a recent ZOOM meeting.
“Trials at a commercial broiler shed near Bargo in NSW have demonstrated the viability of combining two forms of renewable energy,” he said.
“A new hybrid geothermal and solar energy system is set to dramatically reduce emissions and energy costs for many Australian poultry farms,” Prof Narsilio stated in a press release
revealing the progress of the project.
“The University of Melbourne has teamed up with geothermal companies Ground Source Systems and Fourth Element Energy, to create a hybrid geothermal and solar heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system specifically for the poultry industry.
“The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) supports the global transition to net zero emissions by accelerating pre-commercial innovation.
“The project will demonstrate how the energy demands of sheds can be coordinated with on-site renewable energy production, showing both economic and environmental benefits to farmers to further support the uptake of the technology across the industry.
“The system includes a ground-source (geothermal) heat pump system and full-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) system with gas back-up, which can supply the HVAC needs of poultry farms.
“The first stage of the project will see a demonstration, full-scale hybrid system installed and optimised for efficiency at the commercial poultry farm Bargo in Yanderra, NSW, this year.”
Professor Narsilio said that “the collaborators have identified 827 poultry farms across Australia that meet the conditions needed to transition to hybrid geothermal and solar energy.
“Australia is in an ideal position to lead the development of this technology and reap the benefits in several intensive farming sectors,” he said.
“We have world-class engineering expertise, ideal solar conditions and the space to install geothermal systems. If we can achieve 15 to 20 percent market uptake in the Australian poultry industry, it would reduce at least one tenth, or 160,000 tonnes of the industry’s greenhouse gas emissions.”
ARENA CEO Darren Miller said the project is expected to provide an important case study to drive uptake across the sector.
“Heat pumps represent a viable alternative to traditional heating systems in helping to reduce emissions from Australia’s meat and poultry industry,” Mr Miller said.
“Ground Source Systems is showing what’s possible with the demonstration scale project and we’re hoping that the valuable knowledge gained will encourage even the larger poultry
companies to jump on board and look to heat pumps as a viable solution to their energy needs and net zero goals.”
Director of Ground Source Systems, Brad Donovan, said the team will produce a public report on how the Yanderra system is operating that sets out a clear cost benefit analysis for poultry farmers.
“We are also exploring ways that farmers can be assisted with the upfront costs of retrofitting hybrid systems,” Mr Donovan said.
The team estimates the new system could reduce the sector’s total greenhouse gas emissions by around one million tonnes (CO2-e) from 1.8 million tonnes to 0.8 million tonnes per annum, with 100 percent uptake.
The hybrid energy costs for farmers would be between 75 and 90 per cent less than existing systems, subject to the farm operation method, with installation costs likely to be fully recovered within three to six years.
Poultry broiler industry sheds require both heating and cooling – traditionally provided by a combination of LPG-powered heaters and evaporative coolers – at a combined annual
energy cost of around $80 to $100 million for chicken farms across Australia.
“We are excited about leading the way with this new technology and potentially expanding its use across more of our sheds,” said Bargo Farm Manager Simon Zerafa.
“Another benefit of the system is that it will reduce chick mortality by removing the humidity associated with gas heating in existing systems,” he added.
On September 11, 2022, Poultry Digest met Brad Donovan from Ground Source Systems and George Zerafa, the owner of the Yanderra farm, where the trial of the renewable geothermal/solar was in progress.
The eight shed farm is a contract broiler chicken grower for Cordina, though for some years it was under contract to Red Lea.
The trial shed houses 40,000 birds and new chicks had been placed just three days before our visit.
The heat pump equipment is housed in a modified shipping container and is connected to coils of piping buried in the ground just outside the shed.
So how does geothermal or simply ‘heat pump’ technology actually work?
“Basically, geothermal heating and cooling involves the use of the constant heat (geothermal energy) that exists approximately 2 to 3m below ground for heating and cooling purposes,” Brad states on his company website.
“The temperature of the soil at approximately 2 to 3m below the surface remains relatively constant at around 12 to 18 degrees C all year round.
“A geothermal heating and cooling system is designed to draw on this heat energy using a system of fluid-filled underground pipes called a ‘loop’.
“The loop absorbs the heat energy in the ground and carries it indoors to a heat pump.
“The heat pump compresses the heat to a higher temperature and distributes it throughout the shed.
“In summer, the system reverses, pulling heat from the shed and depositing it back into the ground via the same loop system.
“The three main components of a geothermal system consist of firstly, the heat and cooling pump (pretty much the same technology as a refrigerator or air conditioning pump).
Secondly, the underground piping system made up of HDPE poly pipe (the loop), and finally the ductwork to distribute the heat,” Brad explained.
Brad’s career has included many years working in the solar industry, mostly with BP Solar, but as he told Poultry Digest, “the solar industry became very competitive with perhaps too many players,” he said.
With an electrical engineering background and a deep belief in the concept of renewable energy, he turned to the idea of hydrothermal energy.
Living for a time in the US, he was surprised that US industries, including the gigantic livestock sectors, had not in general been great adopters of alternative renewable energy sources.
“Maybe the US, like Australia, has plentiful supplies of coal, gas, oil and of course in the US, nuclear energy alternatives,” he said.
Though the technology of geothermal is relatively straightforward, applying it to poultry shed operation has presented Brad with some challenges.
In the shed where the trial is running, the heat pumps raises the water temperature to 50 degrees C and the hot water is then transmitted from a storage tank to heater units located in the shed roof.
“We have experienced some problems with the filtration units in the sheds as the dry skin cells or dander from the birds, can block our original filter design very quickly. We are working on an alternative filter design to rectify this issue,” Brad told Poultry Digest.
The optimum strategy developed by Brad and George and his team, is to use both gas and the hydrothermal plant.
“This means that the shed can be swiftly heated to the required brooding temperature (34 degrees C) saving gas costs and time between batch placement,” Brad said.
So does the combination of hydrothermal and gas heating actually achieve the savings the researchers and growers would like to achieve?
Brad states with confidence that the answer is a firm YES!
The farm has experienced a 72% drop in gas use during both the brooding and grow out phases.
“Actually, it’s higher than that because the shed can be heated for placement far faster using both hydrothermal and gas. I would say that we could be achieving an overall saving of over 85% of gas costs,” Brad said.
“By saving energy costs we could be encouraging growers to always maintain their shed temperatures to optimum levels. Cold birds not only don’t perform well, they also eat more – so there are FCR considerations,” he explained.
“Apart from the cost of using gas there is the drawback of generating excess moisture as you burn LPG, and that can be more damaging to producers than cold birds,” Brad stated.
“Have you considered combing storage batteries to the overall scheme?” Poultry Digest asked.
“No, we want to keep it simple and just develop the two renewable technologies to their best potential,” he replied.
“At this stage we want to make sure the hydrothermal set up is absolutely reliable and easy to operate.
“My engineering background tells that we need to over-design the product by 50% more than basic requirement,” he said.
Apart from savings on energy costs, Brad Donovan believes that his hydrothermal system’s ability in helping to maintain litter quality, is a key benefit for growers and George a farmer with long experience agrees with this view .
“The next phase of the research will be to conduct similar trials in different climatic regions.
“We also want to look at leasing arrangements for producers and in the future how the reduction in GRGs could produce carbon credits,” Brad said.
Poultry Digest has long been fascinated by the whole idea of renewable energy.
Decarbonising our economy is not going to be easy.
Apart from the technological advances that Guillermo and Brad’s work could deliver, thought needs to be given as how to fund the move to sustainable and reliable energy alternatives.
Australia has been good at conceiving advanced and ground-breaking technologies, particularly in our agricultural and livestock industries, but we then fail to fully develop these ideas to commercial production.
The Stump Jump Plough revolutionised grain farm productivity in the 1890s but after its invention in South Australia was quickly developed in North America.
Later, the solar powered electric fence changed livestock management and grazing but was developed by Denmark and New Zealand.
Wi Fi, possibly one of the greatest inventions of the digital age was made workable in the late 1990s through a chip developed by the CSIRO.
Finally, CSIRO funded solar thermal steam production to drive electricity developing turbines, but the development went to Canada.
Poultry meat production is Australia’s main single protein source. In a time when living costs, partly caused by rising energy costs, are rising dramatically, it is in everyone’s interest to keep food costs down.
With a bit of help chicken meat could stay affordable and sustainable.
ARENA should be recognised for helping to fund the proof of concept by combining and developing two proven and existing technologies.
Industry wide implementation will need some creative financial planning by industry, government and the retail sector.
Let’s not let this good work escape like other world beating ideas have in the past.
Poultry Digest would like to thank Guillermo for his time after just returning from a long overseas trip and to Brad from Ground Source Systems.
When Melbourne University released the news of Guillermo’s and Brad’s ARENA funded research, articles in the world’s leading livestock industry publications appeared immediately.
You can bet that private equity hot shots are already doing the numbers around the world’s financial capitals – don’t let this idea escape for lack of funding or support.
However, as always, it’s grower like George and his staff who give their time and efforts in these vital research projects that ultimately benefit their industry and integrator.
George’s farm is ideal for the research into hydrothermal/solar energy viability. The region can serve up a temperature range of 4 to 40 degrees C and a similar variability in humidity levels.
George and his experienced staff (they have run the farm for 20 years) know how to maintain the consistency levels in production that is necessary when trialling new technology.
Nearly two weeks after the new batch of birds was placed in the trial shed at Geogie Zerafa’s farm, Poultry Digest spoke to George about how the batch was going. George stated that he and his integrator, Cordina were pleased with the trial shed environment and litter quality.
Thanks to all for letting Poultry Digest in on the nuts and bolts of a vital research project.