Commercial off-grid – coffee and cultivars in the Macedon Ranges

This off-grid property in the stunning Macedon Ranges in Victoria started as a weekend fixer-upper, but eventually became the full-time home and income-source of James Pethybridge and Danny Sullivan. Their nursery and cafe business is off-grid by necessity, but it’s a system designed to power a full commercial kitchen, including the most important appliance – the very best European coffee machine.

The cafe building from the house.  Pic: Emma Sutcliffe
The cafe building from the house. Pic: Emma Sutcliffe

It’s easy to think you’re lost on the aptly named Greenhills Road as you approach the Blackwood Nursery Cafe & Larder. But, as the gum trees thin out you emerge into a clearing surrounded by (surprise, surprise) green hills, the simple beauty of the area, which is known for it’s curious wombats and loud kookaburras, becomes apparent.
It’s fairly dismal weather on the day of our visit and most of the garden beds are empty, waiting for Spring.  The 5 acre property was originally a weekender for Melbournites James and Danny but slowly evolved into their full-time obsession, thanks in part to their enormous collection of over 400 cultivars and species of rhododendrons and azaleas.
“Danny is the horticulturalist and I’m a chef,” explains James as we walk down to the shed that houses their 12kW off-grid system. “We’ve had the property for 17 years, but moved here when we started the nursery business about 3 years ago. The cafe expansion was always planned and we should be ready to open that part of the business this Spring.”
The nursery in Spring: Pic: supplied.
The nursery in Spring: Pic: supplied.

While providing enough energy to the small house was a minor challenge for the tiny off-grid system they originally had, powering the pumps needed to irrigate the on-site greenhouses and nursery proved to be too much for it.
“Before we upgraded the system, we could just power the house but were running the back up generator for up to 6 hours a day during summer, just to get water to the plants. After the upgrade, we’ve saved so much time and money; not having to lug jerry cans to the petrol station for diesel has saved us around $4000 a year and we don’t have fumes spitting out everywhere now.”
But despite the huge upgrade in their generation and storage capabilities, James says the old mind set prevails.
The energy guzzling Fracino coffee machine. Pic: Emma Sutcliffe
The energy guzzling Fracino coffee machine. Pic: Emma Sutcliffe

“You sort of get used to a way of living and our psychology is still in the old scheme of things and it took us a while to get used to running the air conditioner!”
“When we started to plan for the cafe and commercial kitchen our installer recommended a 12kW system and a big battery set up. We try to cycle our battery bank between 80 and 100% state of charge. If they’re on 48 volts for 2 days the back up generator will autostart, and will again if it goes to 46 volts for more than two minutes. So the generator looks after everything. We have 48 solar panels, so even after a run of cloudy days like we’ve recently had, there hasn’t been a shortage of power.”
“We had to look overseas to find the energy efficient appliances that we needed for the commercial kitchen. The Fracino coffee machine is the best we could buy and uses 50 watts of power. All the kitchen appliances are new so they’re all low energy; we found that all the European stuff is really good in terms of energy efficiency. Ovens and cooktops are gas.”
James with the system set up.  Pic: Emma Sutcliffe
James with the system set up. Pic: Emma Sutcliffe

“Higher star-rated appliances were a little more expensive to buy, but not so much that it put us off. For example, the price difference was only a hundred or so dollars between a 400 watt and 1000 watt kitchen blender.”
“Looking back, we couldn’t have chosen a better time to do what we’re doing, because the energy efficiency drive in Europe meant our equipment and refrigeration, are the best they’ve ever been. It’s a global economy and the overseas people are so keen on cutting the use of coal they’re making energy efficiency commonplace now, whereas before it was really hard to find stuff that was energy efficient. There’s a shift that’s taken place.”
“It’s funny the things you think about about when you’re off-grid. For instance, we get very excited about small things like LED lighting! We found that ten LED lights equalled the same amount of power as one of the old bulbs we had.”
House and panels from the cafe.  Pic: Emma Sutcliffe
House and panels from the cafe. Pic: Emma Sutcliffe

The location of the property 2 kilometres from the nearest power pole and main road meant James and Danny had no choice about their energy source. A nearby block of land with magnificent views overlooking the You Yangs National Park that had changed hands several times in past years, was the only indication of how much a grid connection would be.
“The block would get a new owner and they’d write off to enquire about a connection and we’d get a letter saying we’d be able to hook up for twenty thousand, then it was seventy thousand and kept rising, in part due to the Black Saturday recommendations that all power lines ran underground. Whatever the amount, it couldn’t beat the $45,000 we paid for the off-grid system.  And we never really wanted to connect to the grid anyway.”
As a reflection of the customer response to the way they run their home and business, James also sees a shift in people’s perceptions of going off-grid as they understand the cost benefits.
Owners James and Danny.  Pic: Emma Sutcliffe
Owners James and Danny. Pic: Emma Sutcliffe

“It’s got to a point where people are going to use renewables for economic reasons, which has probably been helped by talk about the price of power in the media. Even Danny’s Dad got solar panels and he couldn’t care less about the environment, it’s all about saving money for him!”
It’s a narrative that the pair will use to advantage to promote the new hospitality side of their business, along with cafe manager and marketing manager Nan King.
“I’ve found it’s a great marketing tool to promote the sustainability side of the cafe, the fact that we’re off-grid and growing our own veggies. I think this really promotes a certain lifestyle and hopefully will inspire people to think about their own energy usage,” Nan explained.
Kitchen garden. Pic supplied.
Kitchen garden. Pic supplied.

“The stereotype some people have about living off-grid is being hippies, but this urban design out in the country is pretty normal really. Energy storage has been coming for so long, but the future’s now and we’re living it. It’s no different than if you’re connected to power really, and that’s the game changer.”
You can find the cafe here:

SPECS:  James and Danny’s system consists of 48 x 250watt rene Virtus II solar panels,3 x Outback FlexMax Extreme charge controllers, 24 x 1250 Amp hour Hoppekke batteries and 2 x outback power VFX3048 inverters.  Installer Lachlan Hick from Natimuk Solar said “As this system is required to keep the plants in the nursery alive in summer, each component had to be designed with the utmost reliability. With 15 separate sections to the solar array, 3 independent charge controllers and two independent inverters, this system is built to handle disasters.”

Emma Sutcliffe is a Melbourne-based journalist and climate activist who is the proud owner of an off-grid property in the small town of Little River.  As Contributing Editor to One Step Off The Grid she gets to meet other people who have installed energy storage in their homes and businesses, a task which makes use of her considerable skills for nattering, drinking tea and admiring people’s decor.  We invite you to contact her if you’d like to share your story.

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