Energy Efficiency is Growing on Farms

July 27, 2016 By Carl Weinschenk

Energy Manage farmImproving the bottom line through better and more efficient use of energy is as important for a farm that grows wheat, corn or tomatoes as it is for a factory that builds cars, refrigerators or ships.

There are huge dissimilarities as well, of course. A farm is not a factory or an office building. Farms, by their very nature, are further away from the hubs of technical activity where innovation tends to take root. And, of course, farming is more of an outside activity than most industries. The killer app, to this point, of the energy efficiency game is the transition of lighting to LEDs. While it clearly has something to offer farmers, it is not as potent a tool.

Energy efficiency is different on the farm, but no less important. The biggest driver of efficiency efforts is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which announces investments in rural and farm initiatives on a regular basis. For instance, last month it and the U.S. Department of the Interior announced $47 million of investments in projects aimed at energy and water efficiency. The departments see water and energy as “intrinsically linked.” The funding includes $15 million from the USDA and $32.6 million from the Bureau of Reclamation. Thirteen western states are targeted.

The USDA also made money available to rural businesses and farms through the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). This month, according to Southwest Farm Press, the program announced 821 projects aimed at improving energy efficiency in rural areas.

That’s the big picture of how funding to make progress is flowing from the government to the organization capable of making progress. That progress happens more quietly.

There are dozens of ways that farms can increase their energy efficiency. Recent examples include use of solar power to warm an egg barn, use of drip irrigation to water crops and deployment of an array of monitors and sensors to grow a better – or, at least, tastier – tomato. Other energy efficiency steps — such as dedicating some acreage to solar panels and wind turbines, use of wind power, gaining efficiencies through expansive use of the Internet of Things — hit the news with some regularity.

In southern Alberta, the Brant Hutterite Colony has built what CBC News says is Canada’s first net zero egg barn. The goal is for the structure to house chickens that produce about 13,000 eggs daily – one from every brown bird in residence. Working with a $250,000 grant from the provincial government, the 105-person colony worked with Egg Farmers of Alberta on the egg barn, which is powered by 100 solar panels.

The relationship between energy and water is nowhere clearer than in drip irrigation. Water is needed, of course, to grow things. And energy is needed to move that water. The Deming (NM) Headlight reports that farmer Kenneth Hays has received a land stewardship award for his approach to water use. One of the tactics he uses is drip irrigation. This process distributes water by dropping it in predetermined patterns near crops. There is less waste of water and energy. The story says that Hays uses about 45 percent less.

Nothing in the energy efficiency sector will not be influenced, sooner or later, by the Internet of Things. In a farming environment, it can be used to sense when irrigation is necessary, the temperature of various coops and other structures and a score of other uses.

And, of course, there are the tomatoes. The MIT Technology Review has a long and interesting story on the use of the IoT to determine why New England tomatoes tend to not taste as good as tomatoes from other areas. The technologies that are being brought to bear can help improve New England tomatoes. But, of course, the implications are far deeper:

In the long term, according to O’Reilly and his project colleagues, ADI’s Internet of Tomatoes project isn’t just about testing tomatoes. Instead, it’s part of a larger Internet of Things (IoT) effort intended to open the door for other optical applications for more crops and even for non-agricultural products.

Aluel Go, the Manager of the Farm Energy Audit Program at Michigan State University, noted key differences between energy efficient in industrial and commercial environments compared to a farm. Farms have numerous regulations (from the EPA, the FDA and others), industry-specific requirements (such as limits on bacterial cell count levels) and local requirements. Oversight is, he wrote in response to emailed questions from Energy Manager Today, “much more than in a commercial/industrial environment.”

Other differences include the more restrictive nature of energy options and possible limitations of conservation measures due to plant or animal well-being. Farmers also know their farms – including the electrical and environmental systems – deeply and are less willing to listen to outsiders. Related to this is the fact that farms tend to be unique and therefore require customized solutions.

Go is an optimistic realist. “[W]e have made significant strides since our program started (Fall 2009), but it is moving slower than what I would like here in Michigan,” he wrote.

The landscape of energy efficiency in farming is far different than in the commercial or industrial sectors. However, farming is less concentrated and more closely tied to water use and management. It seems that progress is being made out on the farm.

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