The Good Kind of Audit

With grants and expert help available, energy audits can save big money by helping you be more efficient.

By Chris Hill

Click for a diagram of energy-saving tips.

Click for a diagram of energy-saving tips.

Farmers are no strangers to being frugal—it’s second nature to most—and that certainly includes energy usage. Even so, most producers, whether they run crop or livestock operations, can still benefit from a little self-examination and help from industry experts.

“It all goes back to money—it goes back to cash flow,” says Debbie Whitlock, a poultry grower near Madison, Ga. Whitlock, who currently operates four chicken houses and recently purchased three more, had an energy audit conducted this spring through assistance from engineers at the University of Georgia.

As a result of the audit, Whitlock implemented several changes, including switching from forced-air furnaces to brooders for keeping the birds warm. She’s also done some obvious things, such as increase attic insulation in the houses and change to more efficient lighting. In addition, she’s closing up the curtain-sided houses with insulated walls in order to convert them to tunnel ventilation. This will help keep the birds cool during warm months, without requiring a heavy electrical load.

Whitlock expects to know later this year exactly how much she’s saving, but she’s already seeing some benefit in her electric bill from the changes in lighting. As she notes, big changes aren’t always required. “Some things will definitely pay for themselves,” she says. “If you look at them, they’re really small costs up front, but give big savings over time.”

First Steps

Private companies, such as the Vermont-based EnSave (ensave.com), can help with audits, but producers may find it beneficial to go closer to home. That’s what Whitlock did in contacting engineers in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at Georgia’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences.

Dr. John Worley, an associate professor in the department, has helped perform numerous audits in the state. While other types of agricultural operations can benefit, he says, Worley focuses primarily on poultry farms. “It’s the biggest agricultural industry in the state,” he explains, “and has tremendous potential for improving energy efficiency.”

Worley says the process starts with collecting 12 months of energy bills from the farm, and making a list of changes the farmer plans for the operation. Then, the process shifts to on-site data collection, including what equipment is on the farm, how long the equipment is used on an average day, building size, amount of insulation, etc. This data is then used in a series of calculations to determine energy savings measures.

“We boil it down and say, ‘This will cost you X, and will save you X per year, and it will take X years to recover the cost,’” he says.

Acquiring Grants and Technical Assistance

But the audit doesn’t stop there. The information produced by Worley then becomes part of the farmer’s proposal that is submitted to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to attain further assistance, both financial and technical.

The NRCS, which is operated by the USDA, offers such assistance through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) On-Farm Energy Initiative. Begun in 2009, via the 2008 Farm Bill, the initiative provides assistance in two ways. First, it helps farmers identify energy conservation practices through the audit, also referred to as an Agricultural Energy Management Plan. Second, it provides financial and technical help in implementating the practices recommended through the audit.

In order to qualify for funding through the program, farmers need to work with NRCS-approved technical service providers to actually perform an audit and develop a Conservation Activity Plan. Local NRCS offices, which don’t perform the on-farm energy audits themselves, can help put farmers in touch with these approved organizations.

In Whitlock’s case, she was already aware of the work being done by Georgia’s engineers and contacted them first. She’s still waiting to see if she’ll be issued a grant, but, according to Worley, his group hasn’t had an audit plan turned down.

Amazed at the Response

The On-Farm Energy Initiative has been very popular in the 2012 fiscal year, says Dr. Andrea Clarke, energy and climate change specialist with the NRCS Financial Assistance Programs Division in Washington, D.C. “The program received more applications this year than had been submitted in total since it began [in 2009],” she says. “We’re amazed at the response.”

While $3 million was dedicated in FY2012 for the energy efficiency program and related conservation measures, Clarke says there were $30 million worth of applications from qualified producers.

“We have submitted a request to our chief (NRCS Chief Dave White) to re-direct some additional EQIP funds toward the On-Farm Energy Initiative,” Clarke says. If those funds are approved, it could mean many more farmers can get financial help in implementing their energy conservation plans.