Weighing greener energy options on the farm

The trend toward renewable energy is not limited to solar panels on urban rooftops or large-scale wind farms.

More and more, farmers and rural residents are choosing sustainable options for power. They’re looking to avoid the high capital cost of utility installation as well as the carbon tax.

Jason Praski, an engineer who worked for SaskEnergy and now operates his own business, Exa Energy Consulting, said there are environmental and economical reasons to do so.

Currently, solar stands out as the simplest choice because solar panels can easily be tied into existing electrical service.

“Those panels just sit there and do their thing,” he said.

“There are no moving parts.”

He and his family live on an acreage east of Saskatoon and installed solar eight years ago after considering both small wind and ground source heat, which is commonly called geothermal.

There have been reliability issues with small wind installations. Some farmers say they couldn’t get service when they had mechanical problems and others say the system just never worked properly. Some of the companies that promoted on-farm wind power went under, leaving farmers with turbines that don’t work.

“Around the world there’s many of these farm-scale or residential-scale wind turbines, but I think in general they’re just not perfected yet,” Praski said.

“It’s really too bad. If they’re working right they can produce more power than solar.”

Ground-source heat isn’t actually renewable energy, said Angie Bugg, energy conservation co-ordinator at the Saskatchewan Environmental Society. Nor is it geothermal heat, even though that’s what many call it.

Ground-source systems involve putting pipes into the ground about 2.5 metres down where the temperature is constantly 8 to 10 C.

“It’s not hot; it’s just not cold,” Bugg said.

“And then you use a heat pump, which is like a refrigerator, and it just moves heat from here to there. You can actually move heat from the ground at 10 degrees into your house and warm it up.”

This system can also work in reverse to air condition a home in summer.

“The other cool thing is that a heat pump is actually a really efficient way to provide heating because for every unit of energy that you spend, you can move three units of heat,” she said.

It’s just expensive to do so. Praski said the payback time, if finances are the main concern, is probably about 15 years.

Bugg said for new construction it might be a better idea to take that money and put it elsewhere in the building so that overall it is more energy efficient. For example, better windows and insulation could offer “more bang for your buck” than a ground-source heat pump, she said.

Another thing to consider is that if a home or building is already connected to natural gas, the cost is probably lower than using a ground-source heat system. That’s because gas prices are so low right now and ground-source requires electricity to operate.

“With what our electricity prices are, depending on exactly which rate structure you’re on, you pay about six times as much for electricity as you do for gas,” Bugg said.

“So, you’re using a third as much but you pay six times as much for it, so you end up doubling your energy cost.”

The other consideration is that coal-fired electricity is dirtier than other sources, such as hydro.

“In somewhere like Manitoba or British Columbia, where they have much greener, cleaner electricity on their grid, something like ground-source heating is a much better idea than it is in Saskatchewan,” she said.

Still, farmers who don’t have access to natural gas may want to consider this option, especially if they are using electric heat.

“It’s a big capital input, but you get a big savings from it,” Bugg said.

As well, a farm that has solar panels could connect a ground-source heat pump to that system and reduce its dependence on coal-fired power.

Praski said ground-source heat is more economical than gas if a gas line has to be installed for more than about a kilometre.

He said solar becomes the most obvious choice for people who have the land available for a ground-mount system, where the bank of panels sits on the ground and can be angled to best advantage.

The power produced is fed into the grid, which acts as a backup on wintery days when the panels generate less power.

“You can brush the snow off in the winter to gain six percent more production, but you can leave it and let it do its thing,” Praski said.

When his family decided to install solar, a key consideration was saving pollution no matter how long it took for the system to break even.

“I know people aren’t conditioned to think that way, but to me that’s a huge bonus that, if it hasn’t cost you anything more in the end, look what you’ve saved emission-wise,” he said.

Generally, Praski said farms use enough electricity that they don’t produce what they consume. Large-scale operations, such as a poultry barn, for example, would already have a back-up generator, and that is still key if the operator were to go solar.

Even farms established off the grid would have a battery or generator backup.

“What most people do is they’ve got something like solar or wind and batteries, but when it’s minus 40 for a week, typically they also have a generator, so natural gas or diesel or propane,” he said.

“There’s lots of those around; we just don’t really hear about them.”

Praski does see the irony of requiring fossil fuel in these situations.

“As much as some of us want to, and really need to, go greener in Saskatchewan, we still have enough cold and remoteness that it’s still nice to have the fossil fuel backup,” he said.

“Sustainable doesn’t need to mean cold turkey. It just means using it when we need it.”

The economics of installing solar systems have been improving, and many farmers have experience with solar-powered water systems so feel more comfortable with the idea, he said.

Both levels of government have programs available to help people make the switch to more sustainable energy sources.

Praski said he expects to see more farmers doing just that.

“If you pair ground source heat with solar, basically all of your heating and electricity is green,” Praski said.

“Nowadays you’d say it’s so you don’t have to pay carbon tax on either of it. It’s the right thing to do environmentally.”

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