With today’s sky-rocketing energy prices, the agricultural sector must invest in new ways to save energy on the farm. From simple, low-cost near term actions to large investments in the future, the Energy Pyramid is an effective, step-by-step guide that farmers can utilize to improve their bottom-line and conserve our natural resources.
The energy pyramid was designed to help others understand the process of using energy efficiently. Everyone agrees that the United States must curb its dependence on foreign oil, but while the development of renewable energy systems commands the most media attention, there are more basic, immediate, and lower cost actions that farmers can take to cut energy costs and conserve resources.
The first step on the energy pyramid is Energy Analysis. This analysis often takes the form of an energy audit. Energy audits review the current energy consumption on a farm, and recommend ways to save energy through more efficient behaviors and use of equipment. An energy audit is a valuable tool for making decisions about energy, because it determines the best energy choices, their cost, and the return on investment in years.
The second step on the pyramid is Energy Conservation. Simple behavioral changes can make a long lasting and immediate impact on the amount of fuel and electricity a farm uses. Energy savings can be achieved simply by turning off lights and fans when not in use, using the right sized tractor for the job, and reducing tractor idling time.
Energy Efficiency is the third step on the energy pyramid. This step uses equipment to reduce a farm’s energy use, either by upgrading to equipment that is energy efficient (such as fluorescent lights instead of incandescent lights) or installing equipment that makes existing equipment run more efficiently (such as a variable speed drive for a milking vacuum pump). These technologies require an initial investment, but the energy savings pay for the equipment over time, often within a few years.
The fourth step in the pyramid is Time-of-Use Management. Some farms have a demand charge on their electric bill. This means they are charged a higher rate to cover the cost of the utility having enough capacity to meet customer needs when that need is highest. Farms can reduce their energy bill by changing their equipment run time. For example, a dairy farm may be able to permanently move a milking time to off-peak hours, thus avoiding the demand charge. This technique saves the farm money, but also reduces the strain on the electric system by reducing how much generating capacity the electric utility needs to meet demand.
At the top of the energy pyramid is the Renewable Energy. Renewable energy is created from naturally replenishing sources, such as solar and wind power, hydroelectricity, and bio-fuels. Conversion to renewable resources can be a costly investment, but can have significant positive effects on the farm. Not all farms are well-suited for generating renewable energy, so the decision to use on-farm renewable energy should be considered very carefully.
Too often in our policy discussions, a disproportionate amount of attention is focused on renewable energy, rather than following the pyramid illustration and considering renewable energy only after all other parts of the pyramid have been reviewed. The attention is largely due to the inherent “flashiness” of renewable energy. For a photo opportunity or demonstration, a ridgeline of wind turbines or an array of solar panels has a much more immediate appeal than a poultry house with new energy efficient tube heaters. Many of us have heard people remark on the awe-inspiring sight of wind turbines on a ridgeline, but when was the last time you heard someone exclaim “Wow! Look at that high efficiency boiler!”
When our elected officials and policy makers focus on the top of the pyramid without taking steps to exhaust other options in the pyramid, they risk wasting public funds. How so? Renewable energy installations are developed to meet energy needs, and if those needs could be reduced in the first place, farmers would not need to invest as much in a renewable system. For instance, let us assume a farmer decided to proceed with installing solar panels to generate some of the farm’s power. If the farmer followed the pyramid and received an energy audit first, and decided to implement technologies that save energy on the farm, and perhaps took advantage of some time-of-use management options, then he would know that the solar panels were powering a farm that was already as efficient as possible. Without following the pyramid, the farmer could risk spending money on extra panels to power an inefficient process. With many state, federal, and utility incentives for renewable energy, public funds could be used to fund this inefficient process. That is bad public policy.
America’s farmers are in a unique position when it comes to renewable energy. Like other industries, farms can be a consumer of renewable energy. However, they can also be a generator of renewable energy- either for their own use on the farm, for selling electricity back to the electric grid (through a methane digester on a dairy farm), or by selling biofuels (from crops) to biofuel refineries. Wherever renewable energy is considered on the farm, it is essential that farms first look internally in order to make sure they are using energy as wisely as possible.
The United States Department of Agriculture has recognized the importance of the energy pyramid concept through its Rural Energy for America Program, authorized through Section 9007 of the 2008 Farm Bill. This program provides grants and low interest loans for producers who implement energy efficiency or renewable energy on the farm. As a condition of applying, farmers with projects over $50,000 must have an farm energy audit to determine the actual savings from the recommended equipment. Even for smaller projects, an energy audit gives the applicant more points on the grant application. This evaluation process is a step in the right direction, as farms must consider the overall energy efficiency of their operation prior to considering renewable projects. However, there is still work to be done to educate policy makers and program implementers about the energy pyramid and its message. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the
Energy Bill (pending as of this writing), and the overall interest in “green” topics within our popular culture have focused much of the general public’s attention on energy for the first time in decades. Along with this focus comes a great opportunity for farms to receive the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy. This also provides an opportunity for established conservation organizations to review energy concerns in addition to soil and water conservation. As organizations begin to incorporate energy into their overall conservation portfolio, let us remember the energy pyramid and make sure we are using our limited public funds as wisely as possible.