Ryan Oberbroeckling (right) installed solar panels at his Iowa farm after consulting with energy auditor Joe Schultz.

Kayla Koether

Ryan Oberbroeckling (right) installed solar panels at his Iowa farm after consulting with energy auditor Joe Schultz.

Iowa agency nudges farmers toward efficiency and renewables

For a few years Chuck Feldman toyed with the idea of making a hefty investment in a new dryer for his grain operation in northeast Iowa. Grain drying accounts for a huge amount of his farm’s energy use, and Feldman suspected he might be able to shrink that.

An energy auditor sent by the Winneshiek Energy District confirmed Feldman’s intuition: a new grain dryer would substantially reduce his use of electricity and LP gas, and probably would pay for itself in about seven years. The new dryer was installed this fall, and Feldman is waiting for the savings to start rolling in.

Given its energy intensity, American agriculture is a prime candidate for an energy overhaul. With a three-year, $400,000 grant from the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Winneshiek Energy District in January began reaching out to farmers in six northeast Iowa counties to advise them on how to operate more efficiently.

Feldman is one of 18 farmers who so far have utilized the program.

“They did a very thorough audit on our farm, and the biggest savings we could get, and the fastest payback, was our grain dryer – which was what I wanted to do anyhow,” said Feldman, who also installed a 23 kilowatt solar system two years ago. “I just needed something to reassure me.”

The mission of the three-year program, according to its coordinator, Kayla Koether, is “to help producers find ways they can be more efficient or find places where they can use renewables. The goal is to both save them money and help them be less of a source of pollution caused by energy processes.”

Agricultural operations present a wealth of energy-saving possibilities, according to Koether.

“Grain dryers can be a good opportunity … chicken facilities and hog barns have opportunities for lighting and ventilation, and heating systems and motors. Those are all places to look. In dairy, the milk-cooling and pumping equipment all use a lot of electricity. And there are space-heating components.”

The process usually begins with a study of a couple years’ worth of energy bills and an audit of energy use, which entails lots of questions about how frequently each farm machine is used. Seldom-used machines, even if they are energy hogs, generally aren’t worth the cost of replacement, she pointed out.

“A skilled auditor can look at a high level and see what should be dug into,” Koether said. The energy district has hired a Wisconsin energy auditing firm to identify waste and potential savings. The auditors calculate how much energy would be saved by any given improvement, and how many years it would take for the improvement to pay off.

But, unlike many utility-provided audits, this process doesn’t stop there. Developing an effective energy plan from start to finish is complicated, and “People need added support,” Koether said. She has a list of local energy-efficiency and solar contractors that she provides to farmers who use the service. And she is quite willing to make the calls to the contractors herself.

Having done a lot of work in solar development, Koether said she can explain options to her clients, help them to determine the appropriate size for a system, and guide them on how to assess bids.

There are quite a few steps from the beginning to the end of the process and, she said, “I try to make sure I’m helping them to move along.” If improvements seem to make sense financially, she advises her clients about rebates, tax credits and grants available from utilities and from state and local government agencies. She’ll also call them every month or two until the process is completed.

Ryan Oberbroeckling, who raises grain and hogs, said he suspected he could find some energy savings, but wasn’t confident in how to go about it.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” he said. “They helped me through the whole process.”

He ended up deciding to put a 40 kilowatt solar system on top of his hog barn. He’s been told it should provide about 92 percent of the power required there, cutting his average monthly bill from about $700 to less than $100.

In light of the possible termination of federal and state solar tax credits at the end of 2016, Koether said she feels a sense of urgency about the renewable side of farm energy improvements.

With state and federal tax credits amounting to about 50 percent of the cost of solar panels in Iowa, she said, “I definitely advise farmers that this might be their best opportunity. We are feeling a time crunch to educate people as quickly as possible.”

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