Tesla Batteries Power This 500-Year-Old Cheese Farm in the UK
Robin Betts has put the finishing touches on his latest project: a six-kilowatt wind turbine. And, frankly, it’s a remarkable moment for his dairy farm.
“It’s like a beacon of hope, I suppose,” Betts, 49, tells Inverse. “In terms of a visual, I think it’s just amazing, and we’ve had no end of positive comments about it.”
Betts’ family has been farming in the southeast of England for over 500 years, but the Winterdale Cheese Farm in Kent actually feels like something out of the near-future, akin to the self-reliant house concept Tesla CEO Elon Musk first demonstrated in 2016.
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On this cheese farm, Tesla “Powerwall” batteries store wind energy from that turbine and solar energy from the panels in the cow’s pasture. It all goes toward the production of 2 million liters of milk and 52 tons of cheese. It also charges a Tesla Model X, that’s used to deliver produce to customers.
Betts is part of a growing movement toward sustainable, renewable energy as costs continue to drop. Solar installation prices in the US have declined from $6.65 per watt in 2010 to $2.89 per watt in 2018, while wind energy costs have dropped by $795 per kilowatt in eight years to $1,610 per kilowatt in 2017.
This shift has been seen worldwide, with global renewables capacity jumping 8.3 percent for the past seven years.
Mike O’Boyle, director of electricity policy for the San Francisco-based think tank EnergyInnovation says he doesn’t see this growth as a blip but the start of a widening pattern.
“In the US in particular, but also globally, solar production will continue to increase at a rapid rate growing year-on-year,” O’Boyle tells Inverse.
“Costs will continue to fall. It will be probably the largest addition of capacity to the US grid over the next five to 10 years.”
Kent is known as the “Garden of England,” in part, due to its farmland that produces exceptional food and drink. Betts’ family has been in farming in the area since 1495. His brother owns Church Farm in Offham down the hill, land previously owned by King Harold’s brother, as recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book. Betts’ grandfather started the Winterdale dairy farm shortly after World War II, when the country “desperately needed food.”
It was in 2006 that Betts’ green instincts came into play. He opted to diversify into making cheddar, avoiding the fate of smaller dairy farms that struggled in an increasingly centralized industry.
“I’ve always had a passion about utilizing energy as efficiently as possible,” Betts says.
The problem with cheddar is it needs to mature for between 10 months to a year at 10 to 12 degrees Celsius (50-53 degrees Fahrenheit), which Betts describes as “the real killer in terms of energy.”
“We had this wacky idea, following this traditional principle: We dug out a man-made cave,” Betts says. After they press the cheese for three days, they wrap it in cloth, open the door, and lower it 10 feet to the cave floor. “People may have laughed at the beginning, but now they’re all following! An even bigger cheesemaker, down in the West Country, have done their own cave now.”
Betts has taken this approach to other aspects of operations. The farm takes the ton-and-a-half of morning milk straight from the cow at a body temperature of around 32.5 degrees Celsius (90.5 degrees Fahrenheit). This is a half-degree away from perfect cheesemaking temperatures, cutting a further source of energy.
In 2011, Betts’ installed 10 kilowatts of solar panels and a ground-source heat pump. The pump would provide hot water required for the cheese dairy and offer underfloor heating. The solar panels would power the heat pump and lighting around the farm.
He also converted the building lights into LEDs to save more power. The farm started using electric vehicles in 2013, initially with a Nissan Leaf that “could get around 100 kilos of cheese in the boot” — although its maximum range of 80 miles left a lot to be desired. They then switched to the BMW i3 with a 20 kilowatt-hour battery and range extender before going all-electric by trading in their gas-powered station wagon for a 100 kilowatt-hour Tesla Model X that could handle longer journeys.
In March 2018, Betts installed three Tesla Powerwall systems — large residential-use battery packs — on a three-phase supply, one on each phase.
At the start of this year, Betts put the finishing touches on his master plan: the six-kilowatt wind turbine.
“Now we can run nighttime, daytime, pretty much off-grid,” Betts says. Although the farm sometimes depends on grid power during bad weather days, Betts says that “over the year, we’ll be completely carbon-neutral.”
It was no easy feat getting the turbine installed. It was manufactured in Glasgow, so Betts says he had a “crazy idea” to use his Model X to tow the ton-and-a-half turbine head 450 miles down from Scotland using a twin-axle trailer.
The turbine was installed in February, and Betts is now turning his attention to new projects. He’s looking at the 200 tons of water that falls annually from his roof, considering how to harness the hydro energy before it falls down the valley to the bottom of a lagoon. He also recently completed a trip to Corsica, where he proposed to his wife, traveling nearly 1,000 miles to France’s southernmost city to deliver a lump of cheese, emissions-free. These projects could inspire more people to follow him on his route.
“I think people’s perceptions and mindsets are changing now to turbines, and the fact that we do need to bloody well give ourselves a shake and sort out our energy,” Betts says.
“We can’t carry on the way we are. I think people are coming around.”