Energy audit shows surprising scope for savings

How do you trim those electricity bills? Peter Hill reports on a new energy assessment service designed to answer that thorny question

We all know that switching off lights and heaters when they are not needed, replacing conventional bulbs and fluorescent tubes with low-energy versions, and even investing in more efficient equipment can contribute to savings in electricity consumption and cost.

But it’s so much better when the potential savings are quantified, and set against the cost of achieving.

The EASY farm energy audit aims to do just that. It involves a survey of tariffs, equipment and working practices designed to show where savings could be made and what corrective measures would – and would not – be cost-effective.

Introduced for the dairy sector initially by SAI Global, the business assessment specialist that runs the Farm Assured British Beef & Lamb (FABBL) standards scheme, an EASY survey typically costing about £300 sets out to identify in detail where electricity is being consumed and whether that consumption can be reduced.

“We aim to provide a complete on-the-spot picture that shows where the electricity is going and how any savings can be made,” says Robin Levin, agriculture operations manager. “What’s particularly useful is that when we identify measures that require capital investment, we cost it out to show whether it’s actually worth doing.”

The EASY programme was developed in partnership with FEC Services, the consultancy based at the Farm Energy Centre, Stoneleigh. Assessment services are available through the LEAF provides an online self-assessment of energy tariffs but SAI Global claims to provide the most comprehensive service.

“What’s more, the assessment can be carried out at the time of a farm assurance visit, which is obviously beneficial in terms of the time and cost involved,” adds Mr Levin. “Our assessors are all FEC-trained to conduct the audit and use our unique computer software package to give immediate, practical guidance.”

Mr Levin warns that a survey may not reveal any major savings potential – it depends on current management practices, the age and type of equipment used and the cost of installing more efficient equipment.

But FEC project development manager Jim Allen says trial assessments performed on a number of farms to fine-tune the procedure do point to its potential value.

“Across 19 of the farms, we recorded an average saving of £2035 annually simply by changing tariffs, making optimum use of night-rate electricity and managing systems and equipment to minimise electricity usage,” he reports. “A further £2241 would be saved annually from capital investments of just under £10,000 – with up to 50% of that potentially eligible for grant aid in these particular cases.”

Regional bodies in England such as Yorkshire Forward and the North West Development Agency periodically have funds available for such grants. They can be used to offset some of the purchase and installation costs of such items as heat recovery systems, ice builders, gel coolers and similar energy-saving equipment, including bulk milk tank upgrades that significantly improve resource efficiency.

Case study: Andrew Blenkiron, Wimborne, Dorset

Andrew Blenkiron, one of the guinea pig farmers who had an assessment carried out as part of SAI’s pre-launch preparations, reckons it’s a worthwhile exercise.

“Some of the recommendations, such as checking timer settings, are pretty obvious but you often need someone to take you round and highlight things that aren’t right to focus your attention,” he says. “We’ve taken a number of measures to improve our energy efficiency following the assessment.”

Mr Blenkiron of White Farm at Wimborne, Dorset, runs a 190-cow organic dairy unit that last year clocked up an electricity bill totalling just over £16,000.

“One of my priorities on moving here a year ago was to get costs down,” says Mr Blenkiron. “I was conscious that energy could be one area for making savings.”

FWEE_00003903The assessment began with a scan of electricity bills, which immediately highlighted a need to shop around for a better deal when the supply contract expired, and to investigate adding a night-rate supply.

All told, there were £1200-worth of annual savings to be had from these measures alone.

An inspection of indoor and outdoor lighting revealed that replacing old-technology bulbs and tubes with more energy-efficient designs would bring a welcome saving of £400 annually in return for only a little time and effort and at a cost that would be recouped in barely six months.

A similar amount would be saved by correcting timers that had slipped out of synch during a power cut and adjusting timers for hot water boilers to eliminate unnecessary running time.

“We use an enormous quantity of hot water, so fine-tuning boilers to make sure they are switched on no longer than they need to be makes a useful saving over a year – and at no cost,” Mr Blenkiron points out.

In the dairy, the assessment showed that further savings would come from replacing the two fixed speed electric motors used to operate the main and reserve vacuum systems with a single variable speed motor. But also that it would take 20 years to recoup the initial cost.

It also confirmed that Mr Blenkiron’s decision to install a heat exchange boiler a few months earlier had been a good one.

“The room housing the two main compressors that run the ice bank cooler and bulk tanks was always incredibly hot so it was obvious that a lot of energy was being wasted,” explains Mr Blenkiron. “The new boiler makes use of that energy to heat wash-down water to 55-60deg and reduce the amount of time the heating element needs to be on.”

It was reassuring, he adds, that the assessment calculations confirmed the manufacturer’s claims for the system’s cost-saving potential.

“With the £3000 capital cost being paid back in less than 12 months, we’re now looking at annual savings of around that figure,” says Mr Blenkiron.

Having run through the assessment and seen the potential savings, is the report now gathering dust in the farm office? Not a bit of it.

The low-energy bulbs and strip lights recommended were easily tracked down at the local electrical wholesaler and installed. Timers have been adjusted to optimum settings to minimise the length of time water heaters are switched on. A new electricity supply contract has been signed and a night-rate supply is being discussed.

“And I’ve put a timer on the 2kW wall heater in the staff room,” adds Mr Blenkiron. “It used to get left on all night and it’s frightening how much a little thing like that costs.”

Having acted upon the EASY recommendations there is surely little point repeating the exercise – but Mr Blenkiron does not agree.

“I think it would be worth having it done every year because technology moves on and it’s helpful to get an expert view on the way complex electricity tariffs are predicted to go in future,” he says. “Besides, knowing someone’s about to come knocking on the door to give you an energy check up focuses the mind on what is a very significant cost.”

Andrew Blenkiron: “Knowing someone’s about to come knocking on the door to give you an energy check-up focuses the mind on what is a very significant cost.”