Tackling the energy issue

Energy is a hot topic these days. Although fuel prices dropped late last year, the need for conservation and new energy resources remains an important issue. In some regions, electric grids are stressed on an ongoing basis. Even in areas with less demand, the costs of electricity for lighting, heating, pumps, ventilation and other systems used by growers can be a large budget line item.

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Electricity efficiency methods can reduce growers’ utility expenses.

Future energy generation is likely to look different than the methods used today. As those changes take place, state and federal energy efficiency programs and practical modifications can help growers better manage power needs.

New York tackles energy questions

One organization taking on energy challenges is the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA). This award-winning public benefit corporation was created in 1975 and is funded by surcharges billed to electricity customers. Its work focuses on energy efficiency programs, research and development initiatives, low-income energy programs, and environmental disclosure activities.

NYSERDA provides a range of services to the state’s industries, including agriculture. For New York farms, it offers energy audits and feasibility studies, which help pinpoint ways to lower energy costs and increase productivity, while reducing environmental consequences.

Energy audits can often be performed at no cost to the grower. Project Manager Jessica Zweig says that the fee for the service averages $1,500, which is the maximum the agency can fund. Evaluations of complex systems, such as refrigeration, can be more expensive; fees beyond $1,500 are covered on a 50-50 cost-share basis. An engineering firm takes a look at a farm’s energy use and recommends innovations that may be more efficient and cost-effective. Equipment with high energy requirements, such as lighting and ventilation systems, receives priority attention.

Feasibility studies offer energy analyses on more complex systems, highlighting methods to reduce use and costs and improve efficiency. Peak-demand reduction and renewable power generation systems may be evaluated as potential improvements. NYSERDA also cost-shares these studies and can supply a flex tech engineering firm to do the work; however, the grower is free to select the consultant of his choice.

Incentive programs

Based on the energy efficiency recommendations and a farm’s needs, incentive programs may be available to assist with implementing improvements. Items such as lighting, controls, motors, variable speed drives and demand control ventilation sensors are included. Financial assistance and/or interest rate reduction on loans are offered, and related incentives for installing solar electric and wind generation systems are also available.

More information and application forms are available online at www.nyserda.org/Programs/Agricultural/default.asp.

Enhancing controlled environment agriculture

NYSERDA’s research and development arm investigates energy efficiency innovations, including controlled environment agriculture. Greenhouse systems also are important to states such as New York that are interested in extending the growing season and promoting local foods. Projections indicate that up to 1,500 acres of greenhouses may be added in the next decade.

NYSERDA is focusing on ensuring that those systems are energy and environmentally efficient. It suggests incentives for locating greenhouses on capped brownfield sites to aid in green urban development. The group supports the use of alternative energy sources to reduce stress on the electric grid.

Future systems may resemble Under-wood’s Greenhouse in Shushan. The hydroponic herb operation uses solar pumps, shade cloth, a closed-feed system and computer control of lights and startup. On-peak electric load is reduced, but with off-peak lighting, production is increased by 30 percent. 

Another hydroponic grower, H2Gro, collaborated with NYSERDA and Modern Landfill, Inc. to power its 7-acre facility with landfill gas. The gas combusts in internal combustion engines to produce electricity, and the greenhouses are climate-controlled with water heated by the processed waste gas.

Building integrated agriculture

In places such as New York City, efforts are under way to promote urban farming. NY Sun Works, a nonprofit organization focusing on sustainable engineering, is matching energy-efficient systems to venues in ample supply: buildings.

In addition to bringing food production to highly populated areas, building integrated agriculture relies on alternative or recycled energy, a plus for regions with high electricity rates. A greenhouse functioning atop a city structure can be warmed with heat recaptured from the existing heating-ventilation-air-conditioning system. Additional energy can be supplied with solar panels. Rooftop plantings can put stormwater to use, reducing water management problems; they also moderate building temperatures during warm weather by limiting solar heat gain on the roof.

When schools integrate growing, they gain an inexpensive food source and a bonus science lab. Large industrial buildings with high quantities of waste heat can recycle that excess into food production, a potential new revenue source.

Reducing energy use and costs

Even if you aren’t ready to invest in greenhouses or alternative energy sources, there are steps you can take to drive down energy use.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture suggests increasing fuel efficiency by the following:

  • Keeping fuel systems clean by replacing fuel filters regularly;
  • Servicing air cleaners to enhance airflow for fuel combustion;
  • Cleaning fuel injectors for efficient combustion of fuel;
  • Using correct viscosity of oil for proper lubrication;
  • Operating tractors in higher speed gears, using lower throttle settings to conserve fuel;
  • Using proper ballast or weight to avoid excessive wheel slip and increased fuel use;
  • Checking tire pressures frequently as worn tires increase fuel consumption;
  • Keeping all ground-engaging tools sharp to increase efficiency;
  • Not allowing diesel engines to idle;
  • Considering conservation tillage to avoid excess tractor passes; and
  • Considering using biodiesel fuel to decrease emissions.

The Climate and Energy Project (CEP) suggests reducing lighting costs by installing CFL lightbulbs and putting outdoor lights on motion sensors; some motion sensor lights can be powered with solar panels. The sun can be put to work  powering pumps, as well. Online information about solar panels is available at www.eere.energy.gov/consumer/your_workplace/farms_ranches/index.cfm/mytopic=30006.

CEP says a small wind turbine can reduce electricity costs by 50 to 90 percent. Excess energy can be sold; a single turbine may bring in up to $5,000 annually. Learn more at www.eere.energy.gov/windandhydro/windpoweringamerica/ag_sector.asp.

Locate energy resources, including incentive programs, for your area at www.dsireusa.org. Several energy use calculators are available at http://attra.ncat.org/energy_calculators.html.

 Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years. Visit www.FarmingForumSite.com to discuss this article!