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Start with easy steps to control electricity costs on farms

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Farmers looking to take control of their energy costs have to start with knowing what electricity or gas they use and where. The answer may surprise them.

Why it matters: Electricity prices in Ontario have risen by about 40 per cent since 2008. That means that electricity is now a significant cost of doing business. Ron MacDonald, an Ontario agriculture energy consultant with Wood PLC, says that businesses used to lump electricity in with water and other utilities when they thought about their costs. It needs separate attention now.

“You wouldn’t drive a truck down the road without basic metering,” said MacDonald. Just as a truck has a speedometer and a gas gauge, high-electricity draws on the farm should also be able to be monitored.

MacDonald, who spoke at the Southwest Agricultural Conference in Ridgetown, said there are three main levels of electricity use changes that can be made on farms, with different levels of cost for each type of change.

  • The first is operational and it comes at virtually no cost. It involves looking at and adjusting controllers for more efficiency and managing staff in a way that makes energy efficiency a priority. Sometimes that’s just point out to staff that running a motor in a certain way is costly.
  • The second is prescriptive – deliberate steps taken to change equipment, usually helped with easy-to-apply-for funding. An example is converting lighting to more energy efficient types.
  • MacDonald calls the most intense search for electrical savings BTU or Joule mining. This level takes more investment and has more risk, but can also result in larger savings. This area usually includes some technical analysis. An auditor will look at something like a grain dryer, evaluate how much power it is currently using, then monitor it for a period of time. This can involve installing monitoring equipment on the farm. Install amp meters on all large loads greater than 25 hp, he suggests. Then the auditor can look at the alternatives. The challenge with something like a grain dryer is that a farmer will often say, “Let’s double the size of the dryer while we’re replacing it,” he said.

Being able to look at trends over a period of years is also valuable, although MacDonald says that farmer electricity records are often spotty.

There are simple ways that farmers can start looking at their energy usage. One of the best is to log onto their Hydro One account online. There, usage graphs for the account are provided over time. This doesn’t identify one or two energy hogs on the farm, but at least will show usage trends.

Examining processes on the farm is another way to find energy savings.

Do the easiest steps first, such as shifting energy users off peak usage, says John Van de Vegte, of OMAFRA at SWAC, before considering more expensive options such as generating your own power on the farm, although that may be an option.

MacDonald used the example of a five-horsepower loading motor for auger that runs 24 hours per day, 240 days per year, which comes out to about $3,500 per year at 10 cents kWh. Could it run 10 per cent fewer hours?

There’s also a 50-horsepower aerator fan motor that run 24 hours per day, but only for 7.5 days per year costing $700 per year at 10 cents per kWh. But because it’s running at peak demand time, it is costing more. Could it be turned off during peak demand and run at lower cost electricity periods?

Benchmark

Benchmark against your own operations and other similar operations, MacDonald said. Do you know your cost per tonne of wheat for electricity? Some farmers do, says MacDonald, but not many.

Other helpful areas to look at include:

  • Deep grain probes will tell you exactly when grain needs to be aerated, versus using a “sniff test”;
  • Programmable Logic Computers or PLCs help manage systems automatically, and can help to reduce electricity usage, but their purchase would be a decision based on more than just energy, as they are an operational management tool.
  • Dust is a hidden sapper of energy.
  • Conduct infrared surveys of electrical systems. Not only can they spot areas where energy isn’t being use efficiently, but they can also help prevent fires.
  • Educate staff. If they don’t know what the costs are to their decisions on electricity use, they won’t be able to manage it.
  • Have a look at the power factor rating on electricity bills. If it is under 90 per cent, then there’s money being lost.
  • Rebuilt motors aren’t as efficient as new ones, so consider the future energy costs before deciding to rebuild a motor instead of buying a new one.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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