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Is it time to join the alternative energy revolution?

Options to empower the small farm

By STEVEN BIGGS

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Attention farmers: you might have an ace up your sleeve when it comes to alternative energy production. And while it may sound obvious, that ace is land—a place to site wind turbines and solar panels and grow biomass crops. “Farmers have lots of it,” says Joe Botscheller, as he talks about land being a crucial component of alternative energy production. Botscheller, a director with the Ontario organization Farmers for Economic Opportunity, thinks farmers are poised to reap the benefits of an increasing demand for renewable energy.

Your motivation for alternative energy on the farm might stem from environmental concerns, a desire for self sufficiency, a long-term hedge against price fluctuations, or economic benefits. It can be all of these. But on an operating farm, where the business is farming—not research and development—the right motivation can still lead to the wrong choice.

Even when land is factored in, alternative energy is not always a bargain. In many cases, it’s more expensive to use alternative energy technologies than to buy electricity from the grid. Luckily, when it comes to innovating, the small farm is the right place, because the person who makes financial decisions is probably the same person who will operate and maintain the system.

Peter Ronald of the BC Sustainable Energy Association explains that in Canada the economic feasibility of alternative energy varies greatly by jurisdiction. Energy is provincially regulated, and British Columbia, Quebec, and Manitoba, he says, have the least expensive electricity in North America. Those low prices have a big influence on the economics of alternative energy. What’s right for your farm might not be right for another. What follows is a snapshot of what’s afoot on the farm energy scene across Canada.

BIOENERGY – BIODIESEL
Call it living off the fat of the land: oil from crops such as soybeans and canola—and even rendered animal fats—can be reacted with alcohol to make biodiesel.

Why biodiesel?
Biodiesel burns cleanly, with lower greenhouse-gas emissions than petro-based diesel. It also biodegrades in about 30 days.

Tanya McDonald, the bioenergy research associate at Olds College School of Innovation in Alberta, thinks biodiesel gives farmers a chance to make use of off-spec seed and marginal farmland. Along with the economic advantage, she says, biodiesel gives farmers self-sufficiency. “Farmers . . . want to be more in control of costs, and have an outlet for their own commodities,” she says.

Besides removing engine deposits left by petro-diesel, McDonald says biodiesel blends have less odour. It also has good lubricity, which can be especially useful when blending with low lubricity ultra-low-sulphur diesel.

Keep in mind
McDonald says the blending ratio of biodiesel to petroleum diesel can be seasonally adjusted. Many users in Alberta have mixes with five per cent biodiesel in winter, and 20 per cent biodiesel from May through to late fall. She notes that some producers use 50 per cent or even straight biodiesel. “It’s up to them to choose what they’re comfortable with,” she adds. Users should check to see what effect biodiesel use has on warranties.

What makes a successful biodiesel production system? “With any of these systems you need to ensure that you know what you’re doing,” says McDonald. That means an accurate recipe and processes that give a high-quality fuel. Dr. Rex Newkirk from the Canadian International Grains Institute says: “It’s not really the equipment that makes the fuel, it’s the person that’s running the equipment.” He also notes that biodiesel can be made in systems sized for small farms.

McDonald points out that biodiesel has a shelf life. Many people produce it on demand, or make enough for one season. But don’t make enough for more than the current season, she advises.

Where we’re at
McDonald says: “The economics are difficult with the commodity prices high, but of course that changes all the time because commodity prices are changing and fuel prices are changing.” She thinks the economics of biodiesel can be further improved with crops that make use of marginal land and require fewer inputs. One such crop, camelina (false flax), is being grown in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The crop has a short growing season and a good profile for biodiesel production.

Bioenergy – biogas
Biogas technology captures methane emissions from decaying biomass such as manure. That methane can be burned instead of natural gas to generate electricity.

Why biogas?
From an environmental perspective, biogas technology captures methane instead of it escaping into the environment. This is significant because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas.

Garry Fortune, an alternative energy consultant in Ontario, also sees biogas technology as a responsible way to deal with nutrient management because the process leaves behind digested manure with fewer pathogens and less odour, making it both safer to use as a fertilizer and less objectionable to neighbours. He notes that biogas is not an intermittent source of electricity like solar and wind technologies, which depend on sunlight and wind.

Keep in mind
Manure quality makes a difference. McDonald says that biogas technology has been slower to catch on in Alberta because much of the livestock manure in the province comes from feedlots, where it mixes with bedding materials that affect digestion.

Don Hilborn, an engineer with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, offers a caution: unlike solar plants, biogas plants require constant monitoring as there are pumps, agitators, generators—lots of equipment that needs maintenance and replacing.

Where we’re at
McDonald says that Olds College is currently looking at smaller-scale digestion systems to handle feedlot manure. There’s no doubt it’s possible, she says, explaining how, in places such as China, biogas technology has been used for hundreds of years. It is a matter of making it economically feasible.

Hilborn says there are currently six on-farm systems in operation in Ontario. He estimates that to be feasible with current energy prices in the province, a biodigester would require manure from a minimum of 50-60 cows—and such an operation would still likely have to bring in off-farm food waste.

Hilborn is upbeat about the technology, saying, “There are lots of positive things happening on this file.” One possible development, he says, could be green natural gas, where the methane is run through a conditioner to remove contaminants, then into a pipeline to be sold off-farm. Fortune is upbeat too, noting that in Germany there are over 4,000 on-farm biogas facilities.

Bioenergy – solid biofuels (biomass)
Solid biofuels such as wood and crop residues or purpose-grown crops can be burned to create heat or generate electricity. For on-farm use, the most likely use is as a fuel source for heating.

Why solid biofuels?
While burning biofuels may seem like a low-tech way to generate heat energy, that’s the advantage. It’s an inexpensive strategy that doesn’t require sophisticated systems.

The use of solid biofuels for generating heat or electricity does release carbon. But the crops used are a renewable resource and remove carbon from the atmosphere, so it is considered greenhouse gas neutral.

Proponents note that, along with energy security and greenhouse gas mitigation, it has the potential to stimulate rural development by creating localized processing and energy generation operations.

Keep in mind
Pelletizing biomass for combustion requires equipment that is not in the price range of most small farms.

Michael Rich, a renewable energy facilitator in Ontario, says that electricity generation for the grid using biomass combustion in not suited to small farms because of the technology involved. Hilborn says the same thing, and doesn’t anticipate facilities for biomass electricity on a farm scale.

Where we’re at
In Manitoba, Roy Arnott, a business development specialist with Manitoba Agri-Food and Rural Initiatives, says there is increased interest in using biomass instead of coal—and that flax straw looks like a promising source. Flax straw is currently burned off or baled, so the concept of using it as a biofuel is very appealing, he says.

In Quebec, Bio-Combustible International inc. is in the process of building a biomass pelletizing plant that will process locally grown switchgrass, then sell the pellets back to farmers. Ingrid Marini, a manager with the company, says area farmers have already started growing switchgrass.

Bioenergy – wood stoves, furnaces, and boilers
While it has heated farms since the land was settled, wood technology is changing. Appliance sizes vary. Generally, wood stoves are smaller units that heat the surrounding area, while furnaces are larger appliances that heat a building using a duct system. Wood boilers are often located outdoors, with heat piped to the building using hot water.
Some systems use cord wood, while others function on wood chips or pellets—and some systems can burn grain too.

Why wood?
Think again if you consider wood old technology. Advances in technology mean that wood can be burned more cleanly and efficiently than in the past. But this doesn’t mean that all wood appliances burn cleanly, so be prepared to do some research.

While burning wood releases carbon into the atmosphere, when harvested sustainably, the carbon released by burning is offset by carbon absorbed by growing trees.

Fuel costs can often be kept low by burning wood or grain harvested on the farm.

Keep in mind
Many wood-burning appliances give off high levels of pollution. Automated pellet-fired appliances in which fuel is fed according to heat requirements can have considerably lower emissions levels.

With boilers, Cedric MacLeod, a farmer and renewable energy consultant in New Brunswick, says it’s very important to select an appropriately-sized unit. There is a tendency, he explains, to opt for a large firebox that requires less frequent refilling. But this means the unit often short-cycles, burning hard for a short while and, just as it achieves an efficient combustion, shutting off. Then it smoulders: an inefficient and dirty combustion.

Steve Clarke, an energy and crops systems engineer with the Ontario Ministry of Food, Agriculture, and Rural Affairs, notes that wood costs have gone up recently. For people without an on-farm supply of wood, he suggests buying un-split wood by the truckload to minimize costs. He also says that he wouldn’t be surprised to see more rules and regulations governing wood-burning appliances because of pollution concerns.

Where we’re at
MacLeod says there is a lot of wood heating used in the Maritimes. He says pellets have received a great deal of interest because the technology can feed fuel at a rate that gives an efficient combustion, and it’s an automatic process.
MacLeod also talks about gasification-type boilers that can be loaded for 3-4 days and still burn efficiently. While they’re expensive, he says they’re miles ahead of older boiler technology. Are they worth the money? He recommends doing a lifecycle cost analysis including fixed and variable cost as well as initial capital cost.

In Saskatchewan, Glen Payne, a crop bioproducts specialist with the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, says there was lots of interest in stoves for pellets and grain a couple years ago, when there was lots of feed grain on farms and fossil fuel prices were higher. He notes that demand for wood pellets has recently increased because of European Union demands—and this affects the economics. “The economics change with the price of your commodities,” he explains, saying it really depends on prices of feed grains and heating oil. Right now, he says, it’s tough to cost-effectively compete with coal.

Geothermal
Geothermal energy is powered by the moderate and constant temperatures found underground. Heat (or coolness) is pulled to the surface from a buried loop.

Why geothermal?
Unlike wind and solar technologies, geothermal is not intermittent.

Darren Winczura of Alf’s Geothermal & Drilling in Alberta installs the technology on farms. He says farms are well suited to geothermal installations because there is ample room to permit horizontal loops (unlike urban areas where space limitations usually require vertical loops). Because of that, it costs roughly half the price.

Keep in mind
Winczura says that “The big thing is the loop.” He explains that if a system has too small a loop—or if the loop is improperly installed and doubled in the trench—the system won’t work properly.

Where we’re at
Winczura says the technology is starting to catch on in Alberta, and is already more established in other provinces. He adds that along with being suitable for heating homes, it works well in farm shops.

Other experts, however, caution that geothermal is an expensive technology with a lot of capital costs. Because the high costs make it a long-term investment, it is appropriate for operations with long-term price stability: likely producers operating in a quota system.

Solar – photovoltaic
With solar photovoltaic technology, light particles hit solar panels and are converted to electricity.

Why photovoltaic solar?
Solar energy does not generate any greenhouse gases.
The technology is well suited to providing electricity in situations where there is no grid connection. For example: small, portable units can be used to power pond pumps or run electric fences. There is not a lot of maintenance required.

Keep in mind
The payback on grid-connected solar applications depends on the jurisdiction. Because of the capital cost required, it is not always economical.

The amount of solar energy at any time depends on the height of the sun in the sky, and on the amount of cloud cover. Here in the northern hemisphere, the ideal placement is a south-facing exposure.

Hilborn recommends having insurance on photovoltaic panels against risks such as hail, lightning, and wind. It’s important to have a roof that can support the weight of the installations—and that the installation is configured to minimize the snow load.

Where we’re at
Hilborn describes developments on the solar front as “exciting” as provincial legislation in Ontario will offer premiums for solar and should drive the installation of roof-mounted solar panels on barns.

Doing some quick math, he explains that a typical household uses 1-2 kWh continuously, so a 250 kW panel (which would likely run a little less than 20 per cent of the time) would power 25-50 homes. When asked how big a roof a 250 kW panel would require, he says: “That takes a pretty big barn.”
MacLeod says photovoltaic grid-connected solar is not currently a cost-competitive technology, but finds that small solar arrays for off-grid applications are effective. “Solar is really a great way to run things that are out in the middle of nowhere,” he says.

Solar – air and water
With solar water technology, water is pumped through pipes located in heat-absorbing panels. The heated water in the pipe is then used as a hot water source. With solar air, perforated siding preheats air for ventilation.

Why solar air & water?
There are no greenhouse gas emissions.

They are relatively simple, low-maintenance systems that are well suited to applications requiring warm air or water. Julie Bailey, of the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture, cites solar air as a good option for poultry barns.

Keep in mind
The Ontario Sustainable Energy Association advises that a home solar water system will likely meet about 50 to 60 per cent of hot water needs, meaning another system is required to heat the rest of the water.

Where we’re at
MacLeod sees solar hot water as a great opportunity for the dairy industry, where hot water is required and where barn roofs provide a large surface area for collectors. In Nova Scotia, Bailey expects to see many farmers installing solar air and water systems as a result of recent funding.

“Solar hot water makes sense now,” says Clarke, who explains that the technology would fulfill a good portion of the summer hot water requirements for something like a dairy operation, although less in the winter. And the technology can be ground-mounted on posts if there are concerns about the strength of the roof.

Wind
Wind passes over turbine blades, causing them to move and generate electric current.

Why wind?
Jane Story, the policy and communications manager at the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association, sees wind power as an opportunity for farmers and points to Denmark where, she says, 88 per cent of windmills are owned by farmers.
Arnott says the economics of a small wind turbine are close to the cost of production in Manitoba, but not quite. He adds that wind economics are easier to calculate than something like biodiesel, where the cost of the crop commodity, petro-diesel, and the Canadian dollar are all changeable.

Keep in mind
Wind farms are controversial because of concerns about their effects on health and wildlife, and because they change the appearance of the landscape. Botscheller feels that widespread community ownership is part of the solution to these concerns because with community projects, rural stakeholders will have more input on design and placement.

Wind type and quality vary by region, so know your wind. There are prevailing winds and also local winds that are influenced by the solar heating of air. Turbine quality varies too. Arnott warns, “You have to be aware that every wind turbine is not created equal.” In some situations, he says, a 3.5 kW turbine might give more power than a 5 kW turbine, so understand specifications such as cut-in wind speed (the speed at which the maximum power is produced) and match those specifications with your wind resources.

“Location, location, location” is a familiar refrain in real estate, and it applies to wind turbines too. Turbines are best mounted away from trees, hills, fences, and buildings that could create turbulence that will affect turbine performance.

Where we’re at
Bailey says that windmills get more media attention than other energy projects, but they are not the best option in Nova Scotia because the payback is not as good as with technology such as solar water.

In Ontario, Botscheller sees a combination of wind and biomass as a promising combination, with biomass crops grown on the land surrounding turbines. In Manitoba, Arnott says many people are considering wind energy, and waiting for the math to make sense.

Conclusion
Michael Rich thinks small farms are well suited to making alternative energy technologies successful because they are very flexible, usually owner operated, and accustomed to doing business case analyses. And for small farms, he says, combining renewable energy technologies can make a lot of sense. “It’s almost like back to the future with modern technology,” says Rich, talking about how farms harvested wind and water power in the past.

MAKING DECISIONS
Where to start
“Energy efficiency is the first step to renewables,” says MacLeod. Bailey uses the same approach and says an efficiency audit might make it possible to install a smaller energy system. She gives the example of a farmer who installed a wind turbine with a 15-year payback. Then he changed all his lighting to compact fluorescent and had a 2-year payback. The lights were the better business decision, she says. Bailey points out that in Nova Scotia, 61 per cent of farms are small, so in many cases the house is where the most energy is used—and is the best place to start looking for opportunities.

Which technology
Bailey starts by looking at whether there is a need for heating, cooling, or electricity, which helps to narrow down the options.
But which type of energy generation is right? The answer might be tainted by how we think about energy. Rich points out the distinction between energy and power: “In Ontario, power has come to mean electricity,” he says—and electricity isn’t the only option. Reg Renner, a renewable-energy leasing specialist with Atticus Financial, points out that, in North America, 40 per cent of energy requirements are for thermal energy—and thermal energy doesn’t have to come from electricity.

Rich says, “I believe in one word, and that’s validation . . . of technology.” His advice is to seek a competent third-party validation of claims being made before buying anything. Fortune adds, “Number one is: where is it in a practical application today? Where is it and how is it being operated?”

Equally importantly when choosing a technology is determining whether is makes good business sense. Fortune says, “There has to be a business case,” and that means determining what is most economical.

Clarke recommends doing an energy assessment, adding up energy loads on a kWh per year basis. With dairy cows, for example, it is then possible to look at efficiency on a per-cow basis. He says to pay especial attention to electricity loads that run continuously, such as barn or yard lights and water trough heaters.

Asked about his favourite energy technology, Clarke says, “Conservation and efficiency. You’re going to save money from day one.”

Which provider
There’s a lot of hype about everything green in the marketplace. MacLeod says, “Green is cool,” which means there are many companies in the marketplace. He advises looking for a service provider with a track record—and asking about service packages.
Crunching numbers

  • Renner shares his approach to crunching numbers during the decision-making process:
  • Start with an audit of yearly energy expenditures (oil, electricity, natural gas, wood, propane);
  • Calculate the cost of each source in GJ (Renner says this step is often an eye opener);
  • Calculate the cost in GJ of the alternative energy being considered;
  • Calculate the yearly savings if the alternative energy was installed;
  • Then determine how long it would take for the savings to pay for the new installation.

Learn more
Jane Story at the Ontario Sustainable Energy Association suggests joining an organization such as hers to meet likeminded people. “Industry has an advantage in the sense that it can hire expertise and accumulate experience,” she says, adding that individuals can get that knowledge through meeting others.

bóng đá trực tuyến www.farm-energy.ca was created by the federal government and is now managed by the Canadian Federation of Agriculture. Along with detailed information on each technology, it offers an at-a-glace page with key details.

bóng đá trực tuyến www.bcsea.org BC Sustainable Energy Association.

www.canwea.ca Canadian Wind Energy Association

www.cansia.ca Canadian Solar Industries Association

www.ontario-sea.org Ontario Sustainable Energy Association