ALTHOUGH ON-FARM energy efficiency has improved in many areas, we’re also using more energy than ever before — larger operations call for more power to run more equipment. And despite farmers continuously implementing energy-efficient technology, electricity rates can increase more rapidly than the comparable savings new technology offers, resulting in ever higher electricity bills.
According to James Dyck, an engineering specialist, crop systems and environment, at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, electricity rates have basically doubled in the last 10 years, and demand charges have risen significantly as well.
“Many farms are much larger than they used to be — where there used to be 10 farms now there is one farm that is 10 times bigger. With that, comes an energy bill that is 10 times the size or more,” says Dyck. “Furthermore, smaller farms (with 200 amps service size or less) do not pay a demand charge, and a large farm with three-phase hydro service certainly has to.”
INVESTING IN EFFICIENT EQUIPMENT
Generally speaking, equipment is more energy efficient — for example, a new motor will be more efficient than a 20-year-old one in most cases. Many operations are now using LED lights instead of incandescent, fluorescent, or sodium lights; new motors and dryers will have a higher efficiency than older models. But, many facilities use older equipment, and will invest in repairs rather than replace them with new, higher-efficiency models.
According to Ron MacDonald, a consulting agricultural engineer with consulting company AMEC-Foster Wheeler, rates have skyrocketed for electrical energy and are forecast to continue to rise (Figure 1). He says natural gas is more stable but will also increase, especially when factoring in carbon taxes, and propane will also rise. Electricity rates have basically doubled in the last 10 years, and demand charges have risen significantly. The result is a balancing act – balancing the cost savings associated with increased efficiency with the additional expenditure from increasing rates.
Rural customers face other challenges too. Availability can pose significant challenges to farmers; Dyck says he has spoken with a number of large grain operations that would like to expand but the cost to bring in additional electricity service is prohibitive.
“Many of these properties are looking at alternatives such as on-site generators due to the high cost of hydro infrastructure. If a farm is located near the end of a distribution line, the cost to expand the operation’s size can be very high.”
MacDonald predicts costs to buy electricity will increase. “A new issue is the cost to increase service capacity is becoming astronomical. One site was faced with a one million dollar expansion and chose an alternative (and still costly to install and maintain) on-farm diesel generator.”
DEMAND AND USE
Dyck says understanding how the demand is charged and how to manage it is not well understood by most consumers. Operators should be aware of the peak time period and try to manage electrical loads around these hours to obtain lower costs.
Demand is different than the energy use (kWh) where costs vary based on the time of day. Demand costs are based on how much power is being used at once. Many loads all running at once will result in higher demand. Customers are billed for their highest demand during the month, even if that peak was for a very short time.
For farmers, energy usage varies depending on season and weather. Wet corn being harvested requires more drying time and a colder fall or winter will require more heat. Dyck says the number of farm elevators has increased, and he suspects some owners and operators may not know how to manage energy consuming equipment such as aeration fans and dryers to minimize consumption. Additionally, usage at different times can result in varied rates, so operators should be aware of the peak hours and try to work around these hours to obtain lower usage rates.
“For a grain elevator, it can be easy to blame the grain dryer for high energy bills, but aeration fans can actually use significantly more electrical energy over the course of a year. It’s really important for farmers to look at both the size of the load (i.e. how many horsepower) and the operating time (when during the day, how long) to figure out where their energy is used,” says Dyck. Growers need to pay attention to large and small loads — even small loads, when added together, can use a great deal of energy.
“Whether a grain farm or a livestock farm, fans often contribute significantly toward energy use,” echoes MacDonald. “On the natural gas or propane side, the grain dryer is going to be a big chunk of that, as well as any heating for barns or buildings.”
DECREASING YOUR BILL
In order to manage and decrease costs, operators need to know what is consuming energy on the farm. This is where an energy auditor can really help out. Every farm is different and it’s impossible to find a one-size-fits-all approach. A competent energy auditor can help make sense of the energy bills growers receive every month. They go through your operation in detail, identifying each of the major energy users and looking at opportunities to reduce that use. Then, they will recommend upgrades or strategies that will reduce your usage and reduce costs.
“Even training staff to properly operate equipment and identify savings opportunities can make a big difference,” says Dyck.
“The bottom line is, if you don’t need something, turn it off. Every watt of power will cost you about $1.60 per year if it runs 24/7 — so a 3,000-watt heater someone forgot to turn off in the summer will cost $4,800 to operate for the year. And don’t turn everything on at once (too much demand). You pay demand based on the highest amount of use during an entire month — even if that peak only lasts for 15 minutes.”
Some of the myths and issues that MacDonald, as an energy auditor, has encountered as he has helped clients reduce their energy footprint include:
• Personnel leaving motors running even though not needed as they think it costs too much to restart them. This is a myth — it’s more efficient to turn them off and restart.
• Personnel leaving motors running thinking there will be a need for it soon; and forget it and leave it running for days in some cases, unneeded.
• Personnel run aeration fans for short times during peak times. One facility saved $8,000/year correcting this.
Simple corrections including turning off unneeded equipment, updating old and inefficient systems, and knowing how to manage demand for electricity and gas can go a long way in making any operation more energy efficient and creating a better bottom line. An energy audit by a qualified energy consultant is a good first step in understanding an operation’s energy costs and how to manage and improve them. Go to saveonenergy.ca or contact your local utility provider for more information on conducting an energy audit.
James Dyck and Ron McDonald presented this information in a session entitled ‘Energy Efficiency on the Farm’ at the 2018 Southwest Agricultural Conference in Ridgetown. •