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All Things Considered: Sharpen That Pencil

Sharpen that pencil


January 23, 2008
By Jim Knisley


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When it comes to energy, farmers have the future in their hands, says Dr. Vern Osborne of the University of Guelph.  Wander around any farm and you can see his point. There is energy potential everywhere.

When it comes to energy, farmers have the future in their hands, says Dr. Vern Osborne of the University of Guelph.  Wander around any farm and you can see his point. There is energy potential everywhere.

Take a poultry farm. On the surface what you see is some land, some buildings, manure and bedding.  Below the surface you see potential geothermal, potential wind power, potential solar power and potential power from methane by way of a biodigester.

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There may be potential to sell some of this power though Osborne isn’t crazy about that idea because the returns (today) may not be justified by the cost. But there is the real opportunity to become an energy island, independent and self-sustaining.

This may all seem to be a bit of a throwback to the days of horses and wood when farms last were energy independent, but there could be power in having your own power.

The mixture of potential power sources also adds flexibility.

Solar and wind can generate electricity for lights, fans and other equipment in the barn. It can also be stored, though battery technology must evolve if those two sources are to reach their potential.

Geothermal can be used for heat for farm and home. Meanwhile the methane from the biodigester is essentially natural gas and is a storable, flexible fuel that can be used for anything from powering a generator, to providing heat to use as a motor vehicle fuel in vehicles converted to burn natural gas as opposed to gasoline or diesel.

If you wanted you could even set up your own ethanol still. Plans for small scale, farm-based ethanol units are easily found on the Internet as are plans for small-scale farm-based units to produce biodiesel.

The biggest advantage, right now, of these farm-based units is that you get a fuel that is not subject to fuel taxes or distribution costs.

The downside of installing some of these technologies is that they can carry a high capital cost. The cost of wind generators and solar panels is still fairly high and the payback period can be 15 years or more.

A biodigester may or may not pencil out, especially if you intend to run the methane through a generator and sell some of the power onto the grid. A lot of this will depend on the pricing policy of your utility.

Geothermal may be the best bargain out there, but its feasibility will depend on the geology under the farm and your farm’s needs.

Which brings us back to the idea of an energy island. It is likely that many farms, particularly if they install a biodigester, will produce more power than they need. If selling to the grid isn’t attractive maybe another enterprise would be.

Within 30 kilometres of where I live here in outback Ontario there are numerous vehicle repair shops, a couple of small abattoirs with retail outlets, a bakery, a boat repair shop, a couple of small metal fabricators, a woodworking shop, two small sawmills, a couple of greenhouses (one of which has already installed a couple of wind generators) and a few small, specialized retail stores.

All of them need and use power.

No one should expect all of this to happen any time soon, but some of it is happening now. As energy costs rise, more and more farms will add the technologies that make sense to them, their location and their needs.

They and potential partners will also start exploring options that take advantage of the energy the farm can generate. This isn’t going to happen overnight, it will likely be more of an evolution than a revolution proceeding step by step rather than in a giant leap.
But as the cost of bringing energy onto the farm rises, it’s going to make more and more sense to sharpen that pencil and see if being an energy producer as opposed to an energy consumer isn’t an option.

Meanwhile, there was some surprising non-news in the egg industry this fall.

With the rising Canadian dollar, it looked very much that the stage was being set for another storm of U.S. egg imports. But it didn’t happen.

However, U.S. egg exports did rise. But instead of moving north they were moving to Europe.

U.S. commentators attribute the increase to the difficulties facing EU producers who are struggling with new rules and the quality of U.S. eggs. They completely ignored the fact that the U.S. dollar was at record lows to the Euro.

I doubt very much that the quality of U.S. eggs contributed to the increased exports. There is no doubt EU rules and regulations are having an impact on production and costs.

But the decline of the U.S. dollar was probably the biggest factor. When you drop the price of anything by a third (which happened to a host of products priced in U.S. dollars) people are going to start lining up to buy.

It is after all the secret to the success of Wal-Mart, the biggest retailer on the planet.


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