Kill the Kilowatts

October 31, 2012 07:06 AM
Kill the Kilowatts

Energy audits can save thousands

Energy savings are the gift that keeps on giving. Once you make the change to more energy-efficient equipment, the savings keep coming—month after month, year after year.

An energy audit of your dairy is the place to start. "You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know it’s there," says Allen Dusault, director of the Farm Smart and Farm Energy Efficiency projects for the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. "An energy audit pinpoints the exact location and amount of energy [electricity, propane, natural gas and diesel] being used inside the dairy. That’s the first step to savings."

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The audit also assesses where savings are possible and which changes will provide the fastest payback, and thus where to prioritize your efforts.

"Any dairy that plans to be in business over the next five years needs to do an energy audit," says Ryan Anglin of Bentonville, Ark. Anglin, who milks 300 cows with his sons, Cody and Casey, has the first dairy in his state to do an energy audit.

Anglin’s audit, done by EnSave, Inc., identified three areas for improvement:

  • A plate cooler, with a potential three-year payback.
  • New lighting. "Right now, only LED lighting is approved for cost share in Arkansas because they did a lot of poultry barn audits. LEDs are the lighting of choice for poultry barns," Anglin says. "But in 2013, we’ll have a multitude of choices, and high-intensity fluorescent light will work better for us."
  • A scroll compressor to cool milk. These relatively new compressors use a spiral process that discharges fully pressurized refrigerant, and offer savings of 15% to 25% over conventional piston compressors. But they are more expensive, often with a payback of up to nine years.

But that’s the beauty of a professionally done audit, Anglin says. It gives the producer an idea of where to place priorities and where to make investments.

While energy costs typically are just 4% to 5% of a dairy farm’s total operating budget, they still run into thousands of dollars in annual costs.

"Energy efficiency is one operational cost that dairy producers can take steps to control," says Rebecca MacLeod, national energy liaison for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

If you assume an average usage of 500 kwh per cow and an 8¢ per kilowatt hour average cost, the electric bill for a 500-cow dairy can easily reach $20,000 per year. A 3,000-cow dairy might consume $120,000 of energy annually.

On a typical dairy, about a fourth of the energy goes for milk cooling, another fourth for ventilation, 35% for milking and lighting, and the remainder for water pumping and various other needs.

EnSave, a national energy auditing firm that has done thousands of on-farm audits, has found that adoption of energy-conserving technology offers potential savings of 10% to 35%. For the 500-cow dairy, that’s $2,000 to $7,000 annually. For the 3,000-cow dairy, it means savings of $12,000 to $42,000 or more.

Some of the savings can come from simple elbow grease, making sure ventilation fans are cleaned every three to four weeks and belt tensions are properly maintained. Such routine maintenance can increase fan efficiency by 10% or more.

The really good news is that cost-share money to conduct energy audits is readily available. NRCS offers the money through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). In the last fiscal year ending Sept. 30, nearly $1 million was distributed for farm energy audits. "Anyone who signed up for the audit was approved," says NRCS’s MacLeod.

Though money has not yet been allocated to states for the 2013 fiscal year, MacLeod doesn’t anticipate funding will be a problem, although federal budget sequestration could come into play next spring if Congress doesn’t reach a budget agreement.

So it’s imperative producers apply for funds with their local NRCS office soon. "We want to get producers in the door to apply as early as possible this year," MacLeod says.

Funding amounts for the audits—called Agricultural Energy Management Plans—are based on animal units:

  • 70 to 300 animal units—$1,506
  • 301 to 2,500 animal units—$1,865
  • More than 2,500 animal units—$2,402

These amounts will usually cover 75% or more of the audit cost. Once you’ve been approved for funding, you must contract with a technical service provider (TSP) to conduct the audit. The TSP must be certified either Headquarters, for a facilities audit, or Landscape, for an agronomic audit.

Once the audit is complete, you can use it to apply for further funding for energy-saving equipment.

EnSave, based in Richmond, Vt., has been doing energy audits on farms since 1991. A certified TSP, it conducts 10 to 20 dairy audits each month, says Amelia Gulkis, EnSave chief operating officer. It has some 250 data collectors located across the country to assist with audits.

An audit begins with a one-hour phone interview to gather preliminary information such as milking schedules, run times for motors and the type of equipment in place. The dairy must also provide one year’s worth of usage data in the form of electricity and propane bills. That information is used to establish an energy-use baseline.

Data collectors then come to the dairy for an on-site inspection. These typically take two to four hours, depending on the size of the operation. The information is submitted to a team of ag engineers who develop a 10- to 12-page document listing recommendations and priorities. The report takes six to eight weeks to complete. The recommendations include estimated energy savings and payback periods.

"The recommendations are prioritized in a summary table based on payback period," Gulkis says. "But which recommendations are acted on is left up to the farmer."

p8 Kill the Kilowatts 2
A simple switch to low-temperature detergent for
cleaning the milking system is saving Dan Rice nearly $400 per month.

Dan Rice and his three partners had a data collector come to their 1,500-cow dairy in Firth, Neb., in December 2011. Prairieland Dairy was formed in 2000 when three smaller Nebraska dairies partnered with Rice, who is originally from Pennsylvania. The operation now includes the dairy, a commercially licensed composting operation, a fluid milk processing plant that utilizes about half of the dairy’s milk output, and agritourism.

"We got a nice report back that listed the cost of each recommendation and a payback in years," Rice says.

The first recommendation was to switch to low-temperature detergents for cleaning the milking system. Typically, these detergents require a fill temperature of 120°F—or even less. Conventional detergents often require initial fill temps of 160°F.

The lower temp allows Rice to turn off his hot water heater. With a preheater from the heat off of the compressor, he was able to produce water that was hot enough for the low-temp detergent.

Even though the low-temp detergent is more expensive, Rice is able to net out nearly $400 per month in water heating costs. "We got our return on investment back in three months," he says.

The audit report also suggested replacing the diesel-powered irrigation engine that he uses to pump liquid manure with a three-phase electric motor. "That’s a $20,000 conversion, but it has a three-year payback that looks pretty good," Rice says.

The audit showed that Rice was spending about 20% of his electricity budget simply for lighting. "I can drop that down to 10% to 15% by just replacing lights and fixtures," he says.

The dairy is currently using high-pressure sodium lights, but will replace them with high-performance T8 bulbs. Though Rice will have to replace all of the light fixtures as well, it could still mean savings of $6,700 per year.

The audit also recommended more efficient fans for barn ventilation. But the return on investment was estimated to be five years. With that longer payback, Rice is waiting on replacing the fans since his current equipment is still in good operating condition.

Because the dairy audit was so successful, Rice and his partners would like to eventually do an audit of their fluid processing plant. But it’s only three years old, and they believe they are running fairly efficient equipment.

p8 Kill the Kilowatts 3
Willie (left) and Tyler Bokma have replaced their sodium-start lights in their corrals to pulse-start lighting, potentially saving thousands of dollars annually.

Willie Bokma, who milks 800 cows near Twin Falls, Idaho, also had an energy audit a year ago. While he houses cows in open corrals and doesn’t use a lot of energy for ventilation, lighting is still an issue.

"We had sodium starters in the past, and we’ve changed to pulse-start lighting," he says. "That’s a couple of thousands of dollars in savings per year, so it’s worth looking at."

He’s also considering LED lights and motion-detection on/off switches in his milking center. And he’s switched to variable-speed motors on his vacuum pump, plate cooler and wells.

Another recommendation was to change from single-phase to three-phase power. But that’s a fairly large investment. "We’ve been battling with our power com-pany because it wanted $70,000 for a half-mile three-phase line," Bokma says.

He’s since gotten that pared down to $60,000, but says it would still require a grant for him to move forward with the project.

The dairies discussed in this story are among the 310 that had energy audits conducted in 2011. Dusault and his team from the Innovation Center hope 2012 will finish with at least as many.

The results have been impressive. The 2011 audits resulted in electricity savings of an estimated 2 million kilowatt hours, $150,000 in electri-city cost savings and a reduction of 700 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Most of the 2011 audits were done on New York farms, where the state provided additional cost-share funds.

The Innovation Center’s efforts in 2012 have been nationally focused, with regional operations in New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, Colorado and Michigan. Larger farm sizes in these states should mean even greater energy savings and greenhouse gas emission reductions.

By 2020, the goal is to have conducted energy audits on 7,000 U.S. dairy farms and reduce dairy farm greenhouse gas emissions by 25%.

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