Getting a jump on the power grid

Expensive electricity and inflexible utilities mean more farmers are generating their own power on the farm

Grain drying is a necessary and expensive evil for Ontario farmers. It’s so expensive, in fact, that grain producers are increasingly offsetting their electricity expenses with on-farm, off-grid energy production — largely with fossil-fuel driven generators.

Why it matters: High electricity prices, especially prices that fluctuate higher during times of high demand are a challenge for those who at certain times of the year need a lot of power day and night — like grain drying.

Cost and grid capability

Ken and Kyle DeCorte, grain farmers from Seaforth, have been running their grain bin system with three-phase power produced by a 600-volt, natural gas generator (converted from diesel) for six years. The generator was only installed once the family members realized bringing power from the next concession — the line capacity on the road adjacent to their yard being insufficient — was both financially unfeasible and undesirable in the long-term.

It also uncoupled them from relying on Hydro One and its escalating electricity cost for their most expensive energy operation.

On a recent cool late spring day, Ken DeCorte took a break from loading a tractor trailer with corn to explain how his generator works. If they’re running a couple of fans on their five grain bins, they will continue to use single-phase electricity from the grid, but if they’re using more than that, they will switch off completely from the grid and run the generator. They also capture the heat from the generator in a simple system that feeds into the drying fan of a close-by bin.

James Dyck, crop systems and environment engineering specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, says generators are most often used to either offset peak energy costs, or increase how much power is available to the operation when the local grid is only designed to support low-demand lines.

“When going to a higher demand line, sometimes (the producer) has to buy both the electricity as well as new infrastructure to deliver it. This can be very expensive,” says Dyck. “It might also be the case that (the farmer) needs more power than the grid in that area can deliver in the first place.”

When and how often generators are turned on, though, depends on where the farm is, time of day, consistency of service and other variables. All these things, of course, affect one’s return on investment. Dyck says these considerations are particularly important for grain producers who may only use generators for drying during a comparatively small part of the year.

Incorporating such equipment, however, is expensive. Given regional variations in grid capacity, it’s also not a uniform process. Still, it can be a worthwhile investment given the right circumstances. Other farmers are looking to solar or biogas to help manage their electricity costs.

Generator options

Regardless of the circumstances, Dyck says natural gas generators are the most cost-effective based on current fuel pricing. For the sake of comparison, he says, the price of electricity is usually around five to seven times the cost of natural gas, and propane is at least double.

Because prices for petroleum fuels are in constant flux, dual-fuel generators are also an option for those without natural gas access. The ability to use the cheaper of two fuels on a given day can make good business sense, though that versatility means such equipment is usually more expensive.

Equipment cheaper than grid extension

Ken DeCorte installed the generator in one end of a shipping container. The controls and a small office are in the other end. The container, set on concrete posts to keep it dry and away from rodents, is something DeCorte does not recommend for those who dislike “very annoying” physical vibrations when inside.

“We use it about 600 hours a year,” said DeCorte. “We only run the generator when the big stuff is on, when we’re drying. With heat and hydro, to take out 10 points of moisture it’s worked out to about eight to 10 cents a bushel.”

“We also wouldn’t buy (a used generator) again. Had some issues with it, so it will be new next time.”

Cost comparisons and closed-loop systems

Dyck reiterates that determining one’s return on investment is “not as simple as looking at fuel price.” Other factors involve considering installation, maintenance, parts, insurance issues, and every other associated cost in comparison to potential energy savings.

Co-generation — the process of producing and using both the electricity and the heat generated by that electricity production — is another thing to consider. This type of closed-loop system is already part of many on-farm renewable energy technologies (using the methane produced in biodigestors, for example). For grain producers, though, co-generation means capturing and using heat from the engine and exhaust to supplement the drying process.

“You’ve already paid to make that heat, and you have to dump it somewhere. You might as well use it,” says Dyck.

Conservation is cheap

According to Dyck, the take home message for those looking to lower grain-drying costs is, first and foremost, one of energy conservation.

“An energy audit can be very beneficial. We certainly recommend it to all farmers,” he says. “Get a consultant, get an engineer involved. Don’t assume a generator will fix your problem.” There may be quicker and cheaper ways to reduce electricity usage than generating your own.

And despite “limited opportunities in grain systems” — a sentiment expressing, in part, the difficulty of incorporating renewable energy sources into grain drying operations — Dyck encourages farmers in all sectors to look for opportunities to improve efficiency, whether that be updating existing equipment, operating at different times, or any other practical opportunity.

About the author

Contributor

Matt is a freelance writer based between Essex County and Chatham-Kent. He is interested in all things scientific, as well as rock n' roll, hunting and history. He also works with his parents on their sixth-generation family farm.

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