When you’re passionate about a subject, it invariably happens that there’s a crossover between your work life and your personal life. That’s certainly true of Energy Action’s solar champion, Damien Ashdown. For, together with his wife, Jess, he’s spent the last six years on a labour of love bringing back to life – renewing, if you will – a lovely old prawn trawler called Brupeg that had sunk to the bottom of the sea.
Damien takes up the story, “When we bought Brupeg, it had been underwater for two months. We bought it as a completely stripped out bare shell, and we’ve been re-building it since into a global expedition and research boat. It’s almost as much work as building a boat from scratch as you have to basically build every system. But we’re almost finished: we’re about three months away from launching.”
Damien certainly loves a challenge. As he says, “I’ve got a real passion for solving challenges and engineering problems. And for me, solar and batteries are things that can solve a lot of problems.” Working for Energy Action certainly throws up many challenges. Having started off as a Business Development Manager six years ago, Damien has moved through different roles with the company, in the process looking after some of the more complex accounts.
“I’ve got a real passion for solving challenges and engineering problems.”
This suits him to a tee. “I guess I got a bit of exposure to weird and wonderful solutions for really big corporates so it was doing all sorts of out-of-the-box thinking, like looking at manufacturing processes and seeing if a company could time shifts to make it more energy-efficient. Things like that.”
More recently, Damien has taken on the role of Energy Action’s solar champion, as part of the larger business aspiration to help customers move towards Net Zero and remove their environmental impact. Damien’s role is to support Energy Action’s clients and service providers to connect to deliver high-quality outcomes from the solar install market. And he is seeing some great success: “We ran our first auction for a behind-the-meter PPA in June, and delivered a 12% reduction from the initial price from the successful supplier to their final price at the conclusion of the auction. There is real depth and variety in this market now, and customers need expertise to navigate it effectively: we saw 47% between the highest initial bid and the final price submitted to auction”.
His client list extends to a diverse range of industries, including manufacturing, mining, healthcare, construction, farming, accommodation and many smaller business.
Brupeg, named after original builders Bruce and Peggy is, based in Burnett Heads, just outside of Bundaberg, Queensland. “I do most of my work remotely,” says Damien. “But where necessary, I’ll go on-site and work out the best solution, or get people on site to do things like electrical surveys or route surveys. I don’t need to fly around the country to do this work so not only does that keep the cost down for the customer but it also means we minimise our carbon footprint.”
Damien has lived on boats for about a decade now so he knows what it’s like to live completely off-grid. “You have absolutely no back-up, you’re 100% self-sufficient with solar and batteries and wind. So for me, what I do at work is an extension of that. I know intimately what it means to have reliability issues if you haven’t got it right.”
Brupeg is 17 metres (57 feet) long and fully loaded weighs about 70 tonnes. So just how did Damien and Jess get their boat to 98% Net Zero? Damien explains: “Because we’ve had to rebuild it fully we got to choose all the systems – we don’t have any legacy systems. In its simplest term – and this applies equally to our customers – we electrify everything. Get rid of things like natural gas and diesel, and make everything we can electric. And that electricity needs to be powered by solar and wind and batteries, just so that you’ve got some backup.”
The main engineering challenge is the diesel engines. Rather than run them on straight diesel Damien says they use waste cooking oil. In fact, all the engines are modified to run on 100% waste vegetable oil. There’s still the issue that the boat has to be started up on diesel before swapping to oil once it gets to operating temperature and back to diesel just before it’s shut down. And that’s where the 98% figure comes from. But Damien says this can still be overcome by substituting bio-diesel or through carbon credits to reach that magic 100% Net Zero.
Brupeg is a community-funded research boat, paid for by donations from around the world. “So”, says Damien, “part of that means finding more efficient ways of spending every dollar. One of the reasons I’m passionate about this is it’s actually cheaper for us to run a carbon neutral boat and be environmentally responsible than it is to fill it up with diesel. Right now, it would cost us about 15% of the price to run off diesel.”
And it’s not just Damien and his crew benefitting either. As he says: “That’s something we see with our customers as well. Customers will often have a target to meet, which might be say 50% renewable energy. Five years ago that would come at a cost, whereas, right now, if somebody said I have a 50% target, I can normally do that with the savings. So it’s actually cheaper to be environmentally responsible now.”
If you’d like to follow Damien and Brugpeg’s story or add your donation to the cause, you’ll find over 200 videos on the boat’s transformation on his YouTube channel.
You can watch how Damien and Jess installed Marine Solar Power by clicking here.
If you'd like more information on getting your business on solar, check out our Solar Auctions by clicking here.