Start Small, Save Big

Simple changes in energy usage can mean significant savings
By Marcia Passos Duffy

Energy is necessary to run your farm, but unlike other escalating expenses such as feed or fertilizer costs, you can take control of your energy bill by making small changes that can add up to significant savings.

“It’s easier to save energy than produce energy,” says Caragh B. Fitzgerald, extension educator at the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension, who is working with a number of agencies and businesses on a grant-funded project, “Harvesting Clean Energy,” funded by the USDA-Risk Management Agency and led by Maine Rural Partners and the Farm Energy Partners Network. The group has put together a collection of energy efficiency and renewable energy resources for farmers, extension educators and consultants, and is available for free online at www.mainerural.org/energy/fieldguide.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 15 percent of agricultural production costs are energy related. You can expect that statistic to rise as energy prices escalate. The fastest and easiest way to get control of these costs is by cutting nonrenewable energy use and improving energy efficiency.

“Sometimes people are attracted to new technologies for producing energy, but it’s really best for them to start by finding ways to conserve energy,” said Fitzgerald.

Change the incandescent bulbs in your barns, calving sheds and outbuildings to compact florescent lamps.

Get an energy audit

Fitzgerald says the first step is to gather up your energy bills and see how much you are using and spending.

The next step is to get an energy audit. “An energy audit can provide an unbiased evaluation of your farm’s energy use and options for improvement,” said Fitzgerald.

Some utility companies offer these for agriculture customers or can direct you to an organization that does. An energy audit will analyze the equipment on your farm, such as lighting, ventilation, compressors, etc., then make recommendations for saving energy and money.

These changes to your energy use can add up to big savings. According to a new publication by the Sustainable Agriculture research and Education Program (SARE), surveys show that audited farms that follow through on energy improvements had a one to two-year payback. For example, the report showed that an energy audit of 25 poultry farms in Maryland uncovered a potential savings of more than 470,000 kilowatts of electricity and 46,000 gallons of propane, which could save a total of $115,000 a year for the farmers. The audit also recommended other simple energy saving tips, such as insulation to seal air leaks, that could provide another $319,000 worth of savings.

Start with small changes

David Dunn, manager of renewable project development with Central Vermont Public Service (www.cvps.com), the largest electric utility in Vermont, started his career conducting energy audits for dairy farmers in eastern New York state. He said that simple changes do add up to significant savings, and an audit will pinpoint exactly where you can save the most money.

Here are a few simple steps you can take even before your energy audit:

  1. Switch to energy efficient lighting. If you haven’t done so already, change the incandescent bulbs in your barns, calving sheds and outbuildings to compact florescent lamps. Install motion detectors in places where you may forget to turn off lights.
  2. Maintain tractors and other farm equipment on a regular schedule. Making sure tires are properly inflated and engines are tuned may seem simple, but it goes a long way in saving fuel. Make sure you are using the proper oils and seasonal fuels, and avoid idling. Clean or replace air filters, and use the appropriate equipment ballast to keep wheels from slipping and using more fuel.
  3. Change the way you irrigate. according to the national resources conservation service (NRCS), switching from high to low-pressure sprinklers can save a farmer about $55 per acre annually. And, make sure your pumps and motors are working properly: another study found that 25 percent of the energy used in irrigation is wasted due to poor pumps and motor efficiency.
  4. Stop air leaks in farm buildings. These leaks are a major source of heat loss, with the majority occurring through windows, doors and roofs. The older your structure, the more you will save when you caulk and weather-strip. Add insulation (R-19 or 6 inches for walls and floors, R-38 or 12 inches in attics) to farm shops and outbuildings
  5. Recycle the oil you use. Waste engine oil and hydraulic oil can be filtered (5 micron filter or smaller) and burned in a diesel solution in tractors and in other equipment. However, make sure you check with the engine manufacturer before you burn waste oil, particularly if your engine is under warranty.
Switching from high to low-pressure sprinklers can save a farmer about $55 per acre annually.

Make energy efficient investments

When you conduct your energy audit and have pinpointed the most energy-draining areas of your farm, you may decide to invest in new energy efficient technologies that are now available.

For example, Dunn suggests that dairy farmers invest in energy efficient equipment, such as variable speed vacuum pump controls, energy efficient ventilation, plate coolers and efficient refrigeration compressor technology. Look for low-tech, energy saving options to replace energy hogs on your farm, such as installing super-insulated, energy-free water fountains, a proven technology that is economical and reliable for providing water to all types of livestock and requires no supplemental energy.

“When considering the purchase of new [energy efficient] equipment, whether it be a new pump or a solar hot water system, a farmer should consider the payback period,” said Fitzgerald.

A payback period of longer than seven years is typically considered to be a poor financial investment, al-though someone may choose to make the investment for other, nonfinancial (such as environmental) reasons, said Fitzgerald.

Consider making your own energy

While conservation is the first step to saving money, many agree that farmers need to seriously consider on-farm renewable energy as a way to protect themselves from energy price volatility for the long term.

“Solar hot water heaters, pellet stoves and waste oil burners are all established technologies that some farms have installed to reduce their purchased fuel cost,” said Fitzgerald. Some Maine dairy farmers, such as Jeff Bragg of Rainbow Valley Farm in Sidney, Maine, are exploring anaerobic manure digesters for the production of electricity and heat; others, such as Henry Perkins of Bull Ridge Farm in Albion, Maine, are growing and pressing sunflowers and soybeans to burn oil for heat and fuel. Still, other farms are looking into wind turbines for electricity production.

“Any new enterprise should be carefully evaluated for not only initial cost and payback period, but also for maintenance time and technical skill required,” said Fitzgerald.

The move to farm-grown energy may be slow, but Dunn believes it is inevitable. “I think farms will have to move towards more sustainable measures [like digesters, bedding recovery units, bio-fuels, etc.] to stay afloat in the future,” said Dunn.

For more information, download the USDA’s new publication, “Clean Energy Farming: Cutting Costs, Improving Efficiencies, Harnessing Renewables” at www.sare.org/publications/energy/energy.pdf.

The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.

Tools You Can Use

Energy Assessment Tools, USDA, http://energytools.sc.egov.usda.gov

Average Farm Energy Calculator, www.cipco.org/energyFarm.asp

Energy Saving Tools and Ideas, www.wisconsinpublicservice.com/farm/efficiency.aspx