PRESSURE on profit margins is mounting as electricity costs continue to rise, creating perverse outcomes in on farm energy use.
Struggling with rising power bills, which for most electricity users have at least doubled in the past seven years, Australian industries have responded with equipment and system upgrades to achieve significant gains.
That is, except for agriculture, which has seen a 21 per cent decline of energy use since 2008 (see graphic below).
Analysis by NSW Farmers, a taskforce member, showed the main factor in productivity decline was rising electricity costs.
Cash-strapped farmers have turned off the electricity switch and gone back to diesel, where possible, to power plant and pumps.
Most diesel in agriculture, around $2.8 billion worth per year, goes to harvesters, tractors and irrigation pumps, according to NSW Farmers general manager of research and innovation David Eyre.
A taskforce of farmer representative bodies recently delivered a joint submission to the federal government’s inquiry into the functioning of the electricity grid, which included several useful case studies for efficient farm energy use.
Farmers fear network that the pool of ratepayers will dwindle as high prices push people off the grid and into alternate energy solutions.
This would exacerbate the challenge of maintaining the grid infrastructure, as fewer and fewer customers are called on to foot the bill.
But adversity is spurring positive action, with a range of new initiatives and farm-focused resources to tackle the power problem.
The taskfoce encouraged government to investigate opportunities to distribute energy generated on-farm, including peer to peer trading.
Gunnedah, NSW farmer Scott Morgan
Seasonal spikes in electricity use are a major challenge for irrigators.
Power-hungry pumps draw in high bursts, but are only required for a few months each year, when plants need to be watered.
That means irrigators can pay above the odds. Electricity network charges are rated by maximum rate of useage, not annual consumption.
Mr Morgan grows cotton and grains on his 730 hectare Liverpool Plains property.
He has installed 160 amorphous silicon solar panels to run his high power bore lift pump.
An electrician by training, Mr Morgan installed a travelling irrigator, fed by a two kilometre pipeline which has eliminated the need for two lift pumps and at the same time installed the solar array to power the remaining lift pump.
His current system has reduced his power by $18,000.
Mr Morgan said the system works well. He would like to go fully solar, but for the cost to be viable he would need to receive income for generation capacity in the off season.
The price of solar panels is falling. A system that used to cost $60,000 is now about $20,000.
Mr Morgan said he is interested in working with the local electricity distributor and other farmers and processors to develop demand management solutions that enable on-farm generation to supplement regional supply in peak periods.
Bargara, Queensland canegrower Kelvin Griffith
Spurred by biting power costs, the Griffith family invested $100,000 in a solar system to power his high-pressure irrigation pumps.
To reduce electricity costs, he had irrigated using the head pressure of bulk water supplier SunWater’s system, combined with sparing use of grid power during off-peak times on weekends and at night.
This had a negative impact on productivity, which fell about 15 per cent on the land which needed high pressure irrigation.
In 2014, the Griffiths invested in solar powered, high pressure irrigation.
The Griffins are confident of significant savings and a boost in production over the system’s 25-year life.
Rising power prices would have resulted in a power bill up to $50,000, but with the new system they aim to increase production by up to 20pc.
NSW Farmers’ Aginnovators website has a range of useful energy resources. Visit www.aginnovators.org.au/project/farm-energy-innovation-program-eeig