Agricultural farming is an energy-intensive industry that uses 2% of all energy produced in South Africa alone! All over the world, farming energy needs are growing. How is the industry keeping up? Read on to find out how farms are fuelled…
Prior to the agricultural revolution, human and animal power did most of the heavy lifting. While this is still the case in many areas of the world – including many parts of Africa – commercial farming has substantially advanced. Machinery and equipment used for agricultural purposes is often complex and has significantly increased the productivity of farming. Technological farming methods continue to develop and change as the population grows, increasing the need for a great amount of power for the industry.
Before a farm can feed the masses, however, the power it needs goes into maintaining the land, buildings, animals and even people. Every single day, incredible amounts of energy in all forms are used to maintain the level of productivity a farm needs to be able to supply society with meat, vegetables, fruits and more. This isn’t simply electricity: farms need a range of fuels to operate as well – as much as 66% of energy used on a commercial farm in South Africa comprises petroleum products. Some examples of the facilities that need power or fuel include:
Farm production never stops. Every month, the agricultural cycle changes, from ploughing to planting, harvesting to selling – even livestock numbers dwindle and grow as time passes. Thus, consistent energy is a must – what are a farm’s options?
With electricity costs rising, many commercial farms around the world are turning to solar power in an effort to reduce operating costs. In South Africa and many other African countries, unreliable or limited grid supply is an added push factor. Many amenities can operate off solar power, like heating for homes and animal housing, pumps, and electric fencing. As one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases, particularly in the Western Hemisphere, the agriculture industry is also implementing solar power as a way to decrease CO₂ emissions. Environmental sustainability aside, a major drawback is that installing solar panels and power systems is often very costly, with capex costs only being recuperated years after installation, and because of the large amount of power farms require, this power option is more suitable to subsidise primary energy sources.
Another option for farms looking to subsidise power supply and to decrease their harmful emissions is wind turbines. Essentially modern, high-tech versions of the windmills of old, these enormous, bladed machines use the wind and convert it to electricity, which can then provide power to much of a farm’s utilities, like lighting, heating and cooling, and more. Unlike solar panels, wind turbines can run for 24 hours a day, providing consistent power to a farm. This option also has its setbacks, however – apart from being exceptionally costly, wind turbines only work in areas known for their wind. If a farm is located in an area with relatively low wind cycles throughout the year, this power option is not an option at all!
South Africa is one African country included in the United Nations Development Program, which funds the implementation of renewable energy sources like wind turbines to provide African countries with additional power. In other countries, farmers who generate power via renewable energy sources, like wind or solar, can sell their excess power to the national grid – while Southern Africa lags behind in this regard, initiatives like South Africa’s Independent Power Providers programme may change this.
Some farms make use of hybrid systems – the combination of renewable energy sources and grid or generator power. South Africa has implemented the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) which aims to divide energy generation and distribution between Eskom (70%) and the IPPs (30%), and since its implementation, it has attracted over R200 billion in investments. Wind and solar energy is ideal for farming land as farms are often in remote locations where obtaining power from the grid may be difficult or impossible. Where possible, farms using this power option may divide their amenities up and run them off separate power sources. For example, using solar or wind power to operate lighting, water heating, and electric fencing, while using the grid or generators to power everything else. This option depends largely on the location of the farm, and the renewable sources available to it.
This power option is primarily used as a backup during periods when main sources of power are not operational, as is the case during grid power blackouts, natural disasters which may knock out pylons, and other worst-case scenarios. In the case of agricultural farming, power interruptions are disruptive and costly and affect every instance of farm production. Farms which trade in livestock are often the most at risk, as animals which are exposed to fluctuating conditions (loss of lighting, heating, ventilation, electric motors which operate feed lines, etc.) can become stressed, sickly and may even die. In South Africa where load shedding is a real and detrimental reality, this is especially worrisome. Therefore, farms often have backup generators which they use to keep the fundamental amenities powered during downtimes. These generators often run on diesel, due to its cost-effective nature and the fact that diesel engines are reliable and offer low maintenance benefits.
Although great strides are being made by the agricultural industry to reduce its reliance on traditional energy sources like a national grid, this energy option remains the primary power source. Some African countries, like Kenya, are continually working on and developing their energy grid. In 2017, it opened its fifth geothermal power plant, built by national electricity generator KenGen, allowing more of its citizens to draw power directly from the grid. In other African countries, like South Africa, energy available from the grid comes at growing costs – 2019 will see electricity increases of over 15%, the highest increase to ever be introduced in the country. For the already costly agricultural industry, these price increases are unsustainable, forcing more and more farmers to source their energy elsewhere.
In addition to powering the production process on a farm, many other power sources are used, often in the form of fuel. Diesel, gasoline, propane and even nitrogen are all common substances found on agricultural farms, to power machinery and equipment, help in caring for crops and livestock, and even protect the soil from harmful pests.
Traditional hydrocarbon fuels like diesel are still being used on farms around the world, powering tractors, cultivators, ploughs and more. While renewable energy progresses, these fuels form the essential source of power used in generators and in power stations which provide energy to the farming world. Uninterrupted power is crucial, so don’t do the down time – get in touch with us to keep your farm fuelled!