New report examines Oregon Ag energy use

Report evaluates Oregon agriculture and energy
— Farmers doing well in energy efficiency, but can do better
By Oregon Dept. of Agriculture

Some Oregon farms are doing well in becoming energy efficient, others have even started undertaking renewable energy projects. However, most farmers and ranchers across the state can and want to do a lot more in making efficiency improvements in their operation, according to a new report issued this week by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

“The take home message in this report is there are a lot of energy efficiency opportunities still out there for Oregon farms to take advantage of,” says Stephanie Page, ODA’s renewable energy specialist who authored the report. “They want to be energy efficient, but they are just finding it difficult, especially with the up-front costs of some energy improvements.”

Oregon agriculture uses energy in many forms to grow, harvest, and transport crops and to produce and market livestock. Energy inputs cost the average producer less than other expense categories such as labor, but energy is still a significant and often unpredictable cost.

“We’ve seen great volatility in energy inputs such as diesel fuel and fertilizer over the past few years,” says Page. “One of the conclusions in the report is that we need to continue helping farmers and ranchers reduce their risk from fertilizer, diesel, and other energy input price fluctuations.”

The ODA report documents some of the steps many growers have taken to reduce energy use. While the data indicates producers have made some changes, it is clear that there are many more opportunities to save energy and produce renewable energy on Oregon farms.

The report also includes results of a survey given to farmers, ranchers, and other professionals who work with agriculture on energy issues. Page wanted to get a perspective from those involved in energy projects on what is working, and what is not. The report and survey discuss factors that encourage growers to reduce energy use as well as barriers that prevent greater adoption of energy saving and renewable energy production projects.

“Cost savings were a major motivator to those who have completed energy efficiency projects,” says Page. “Growers are also more likely to complete projects that have significant other benefits, such as reduced labor.”

Examples of Oregon agriculture taking positive steps include greenhouse operators making heating efficiency improvements and several producers conducting irrigation efficiency upgrades. Others have actually become net producers of energy by either growing bio-energy crops in the field or taking on renewable energy projects such as dairy farmers installing methane digesters on site.

In most cases, these growers have received support from incentive programs offered by the state, local utility companies, and national energy programs. Agencies, vendors, and other organizations in Oregon have built capacity over the past few years to help growers access these incentive programs. Some agricultural organizations are developing their own capacity to help members with energy issues.

But even with the current levels of assistance available, the survey of producers identified those up-front project costs as a significant barrier to additional projects.

“Some programs are only available after the project is complete,” says Page. “It can be difficult for producers to come up with initial funding for a project and then wait to receive the incentives at a later date.”

While high energy costs might encourage more efficiency in operations, low or uncertain energy prices have discouraged some renewable energy projects.

“Policy tools such as offering higher payment rates for renewable electricity could provide greater certainty to help renewable projects, such as anaerobic digesters, go forward,” says Page. “At the same time, such programs must be structured in ways that don’t harm agriculture by pushing up their energy costs.”

The report and survey responses suggest several strategies to encourage both energy efficiency and renewable energy in agriculture. Continued outreach to growers about energy opportunities and incentives is important. Another strategy is to focus first on reducing energy use.

“If someone is looking at where to start, I would definitely suggest looking at efficiency opportunities first,” says Page. “They tend to be a lower cost to start with and pay back more quickly. If the farm or ranch has reduced energy use as much as possible, it can start to look at renewable energy opportunities.”

The report is expected to be useful for policymakers, agencies, and organizations that work with agriculture on energy issues. The contents of the report spell out what is working and provides some ideas for the future. But most importantly, Page hopes the report can keep moving Oregon forward on the energy front.

“Continued support for industry-led energy initiatives, state and federal incentive programs, and technical assistance resources will help keep projects going forward,” she says. “Energy Trust of Oregon, Oregon State University, and many other organizations and businesses have built a great knowledge base, and have provided momentum on agriculture and energy issues the past few years. It’s important to keep that going.”

With this being somewhat of a report card on energy and agriculture in Oregon, in the comments section alongside the letter grade of perhaps “B+”, it could read “Oregon is doing okay, but can do better. There is a great suite of incentives and assistance available.”

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