The Queensland Farmers' Federation (QFF) has partnered with the Queensland Government and energy company Ergon to conduct audits of electricity usage on farms, through the Energy Savers Plus Program.
"(Electricity bills) have gone up significantly," QFF program co-ordinator Andrew Chamberlin said. "I think it has been 9-10 per cent each year for the past 10 years. The speed of the increase has tapered off over the past year or two, but you are talking about a very quick increase from what was a reasonably small amount of cost, to a fairly big one. It has increased much faster than CPI, and a lot faster than other on-farm inputs (labour, fertilizer, seed etc.), which has meant it has come as a shock to farmers."
Initially the program was limited to irrigation pump audits of 34 properties, using funding from the government, but was soon expanded to a more comprehensive look at all aspects of on-farm processes on a further 100 farms - including processing, cold rooms and refrigeration. While Mr Chamberlain says that the aim of the study was to be fully representative of all 7000 irrigated farms across the state, and while there were some general principles that can be adopted, the best results are when site-specific audits are carried out.
"Fundamentally horticulture is irrigated, and a lot of good case studies coming out of horticulture were irrigation benefits, from fine-tuning pump setup right through to new pumps and new variable speed drives," he said. "Farms may have changed a lot since the irrigation systems were first installed. There was one we looked at where the horticulture farm was using a 42 kilowatt pump, and the auditor recommended they went back to a 18 kilowatt pump, and pump over a slightly longer period - just to get the water up the hill with the least amount of friction. So the farmer was about to go out and buy a bigger pump, but the auditor found the irrigation system was constrained by the main pipe so the bigger pump would mean the overall efficiency would fall considerably."
He also found benefits in looking at farms who process on farm, which uses a lot of motors, heating and cooling elements as well as hot water.
"There were also a lot of savings available in refrigeration," Mr Chamberlin said. "So, the audits tended to have findings where there was an upgrade required, such as replacing old fans and compressors, as well as some easy wins such as closing cold room doors more often, replacing seals, insulation on hot water pipes and lights being left on. They easy wins might just save 5-10 per cent of the sites' consumption but when a site is sending tens of thousands of dollars on energy, it adds up to a lot of money."
Among the top contributors to energy savings, according to the QFF, is doing a review to understand how much and when crops need watering, and often the pump is last part of the design process. Also, the use of valves could be restricting water flow making it more expensive to power these systems, while checking that farms are using the most efficient tariff could also work out to be a major saving.
"I think one of the interesting things we found is the link between energy efficiency and all sorts of other productivity measures," Mr Chamberlin said. "So, we had a nursery that changed the main irrigation pump to a smaller pump and he has found that the evenness of water flow has improved greatly which leads to a more consistent product for him. So, he is saving a fortune in energy; he did a pump, solar hot water system, and some lighting at same time - and got his money back in a year, just in power bill savings, but he is finding other benefits as well. A banana grower in North Queensland, has cut his energy consumption by $40,000 a year, half of that was after the auditor found he was on the wrong tariff, and the other half was energy saving on a new variable speed drive."
Mr Chamberlin adds that farmers have been keen to act on the recommendations - and so far from the 134 audits, there has been around 40 per cent of farms have already acted on the advice, with 18 per cent indicating they will. Another 33 per cent, he says, are still weighing up their options.