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Farm Energy Audits Improve Energy Efficiency, Reduce Costs

When it comes to managing farm sustainability over the long term, scrutinizing energy use can prove to be an important maneuver.

Energy plays a major role in production at Z&J Farms. The family farming operation, owned by father and son Jeff and Zach Reiter, allocates around 25% of its production expenditures to energy costs. 

While the Cascade, Iowa, farmers have taken steps to improve energy efficiency by investing in a high-efficiency furnace for their office, spraying foam insulation, installing radiant tube heaters in one of their shops, and putting in-floor heating in another, they know there are additional opportunities for reducing energy consumption.

“I was concerned with our rising energy bills – specifically electricity and liquid propane – and the demand caused by the aeration fans on our grain-drying system as they start and stop all at once,” says Zach Reiter.

Over a 12-month period, the grain dryer, bin aeration fans, electric motors, and exterior lighting consume 143,280 kWh of electricity and 48,007 gallons of propane. Between the two expenses, the estimated annual cost to harvest approximately 350,000 bushels of grain is nearly $67,000.

“We also needed more volume to go through the dryer faster because there were many days our wet bin was full and our dryer was still drying, which meant we couldn’t harvest any more crop,” Reiter says.

Because they grow specialty corn, the pair was looking to improve grain quality, as well. The specialty corn requires drying at a very low temperature to prevent kernel damage. A high volume of air is needed to maintain that low temperature. However, this wasn’t possible with the Reiters’ GSI 1126 continuous-flow dryer.

While their current system has served them well for seven years, they knew it was time for an upgrade. 

“A mixed-flow dryer does a more even job of drying than the continuous-flow dryer we currently have,” Reiter explains. “Based on calculations and in talking with customers who have the Neco 24330 we were considering, we would see about a 25% savings in liquid propane alone.”

Although upgrading makes sense, a price tag of around $380,000 for the entire project is a hefty one.

To try to offset the cost of the investment, the Reiters wanted to take advantage of funding available through programs like the EQIP National On-Farm Energy Initiative. The first step toward getting assistance meant an Agricultural Energy Management Plan (or AgEMP 128) had to be completed. 

“This on-farm energy audit will establish a baseline and the impact certain improvements will have,” says Paul Goldsmith, Iowa EQIP coordinator. 

According to the NRCS, the average cost for this analysis is $1,600, but it varies based on the operation size and type. “An individual can request financial assistance for the audit,” notes Goldsmith.

While the word audit can elicit concerns in the most well-documented operation, hiring an expert – who not only specializes in performing the on-farm energy audit but also can identify cost-sharing opportunities – is a growing trend that helps alleviate those fears.

“It’s impossible to tackle this by yourself because there are so many parts of the project to put together. Having someone like Chad Kloberdanz involved is paramount,” says Reiter.

“There are several private consultants around Iowa who are helping with this process,” says Goldsmith. “These technical service providers offer a good service to customers by completing the energy audits.”

Since 2009, Kloberdanz, who is based in Iowa, has completed hundreds of energy audits and feasibility studies for farmers and small businesses.

“My experience has given me a broad base of knowledge on ag operations, potential energy improvements, and the funding available,” he says. “Funding programs can be complicated and hard to navigate. My familiarity with them and my contacts in the industry allowed me to make the process an easy one for the Reiters. They told me what they were hoping to do, gave me some insight into their operation, and I took it from there.” 

At first, Reiter thought it was going to be a lot of work. “I did have to get some information from our energy company and our LP provider, but it was nothing like I thought it was going to be,” he says.

report results

After a site visit, which took about two hours and included taking photos and asking myriad questions to better understand the operation, Kloberdanz compiled a report more than 100 pages long. The comprehensive report examined all areas of energy conservation including lighting, motor controllers, and the grain-drying system.

Following are three of his recommendations.

Recommendation #1

Replace the current grain dryer with a higher efficiency mixed-flow grain dryer.

A comparison of their current dryer with the proposed dryer revealed that the Reiters could realize significant benefits and savings if they upgraded to the Neco 24330.

“The current dryer was equipped with older technology,” says Kloberdanz. “It had a throughput of 590 bushels per hour at 10 points moisture removed. The Reiters’ dryer was only removing, on average, 5 points of moisture, and then grain was transferred to a storage/cooling bin where 1% to 2% moisture was removed with dryation.”

The efficiency of their current dryer was estimated at 2,884 Btu per pound of water removed from grain (based on an average cornfield moisture content of 22.5% and a final moisture content of 17%). The proposed dryer’s efficiency was estimated to be around 2,050 Btu per pound. 

“The proposed system would process more bushels per hour with lower heat and substantially greater performance,” says Kloberdanz.

With the ability to heat, dry, and cool the kernel, fan usage would be reduced on all of the storage bins. 

“Overall, the proposed system would dry faster and more efficiently, which would reduce the run time of the entire harvest process,” he adds.

The Neco dryer would use 12,450 gallons less propane. In total, the estimated energy savings (propane and electricity combined) would be just short of $16,000 per year with an ROI (based on about $230,000 for the grain dryer alone) realized in about 14½ years.

Recommendation #2

Install variable frequency drive (VFD) motor controllers. 

By adding VFD motor controllers ($20,500 cost) to existing bin aeration fans, energy consumption would be reduced by 16% with an annual savings of $1,689.

“If operated correctly, they would reduce kWh demand by 14,375,” says Kloberdanz. “VFDs are one of the most successful
energy-management tools ever applied to fan systems.”

Another benefit would be reduced wear and tear on the motors. 

“When an induction motor is started, it draws a much higher current than it does during normal operation,” he explains. “The inrush current can be three to 10 times the full load operating current for the motor, which generates both heat and stress in the motor’s components. When motors are stopping and starting frequently, this contributes to early motor failure.”

In contrast, when a motor connected to a VFD is started, the VFD applies a very low frequency and low voltage to the motor. Both are gradually ramped up at a controlled rate to normal operating conditions, which extends motor life.

“VFDs also provide more precise levels of application control like controlling the static pressure inside the grain bin,” says Kloberdanz. “This is admittedly a benefit to maintaining grain quality while inside the bin.”

Recommendation #3

Upgrade the interior shop, security light fixtures, and exterior yard with LED bulbs. 

Table

“Since lighting is a major part of any business’ energy bill, this would have a significant impact on the bottom line,” say Kloberdanz. “The proposed LED lighting fixtures were 50% more efficient than their current fixtures, and they would last five times longer.”

The cost savings would be around $3,000 per year with a payback on their initial investment of $10,000 in about three years. 

At the end of the report, Kloberdanz provided a list of federal, state, local, and utility funding to help the Reiters offset the cost of implementing the recommendations. 

Even though the investments look daunting, grants can offset a significant portion of the cost, and a return on investment can be realized much sooner.

“When it comes to receiving funding, it’s making the improvements that will yield the best return on investment,” Kloberdanz says.

After submitting the AgEMP to NRCS, the Reiters were approved for a cost share of around 50% for the grain dryer and motors. Lighting improvements were also accepted. The cost will be offset by about 50%, as well.

The grain-drying system was upgraded in time for the 2016 harvest. The Reiters will tackle the lighting this winter.

“The audit allows you to make an informed decision on what to pursue, based on cost-vs.-savings calculations,” says Kloberdanz. “It also opens the door to funding. It really becomes a question of why wouldn’t you consider an energy audit? In many cases, the investment in the audit is paid back tenfold or more.” 

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