Editor's note: Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert, a weekly newspaper created by the California Farm Bureau Federation.
With some assistance from high school students, agricultural customers of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. can learn how to save money and increase energy efficiency in a program developed through a partnership between the utility and Future Farmers of America. Students are trained in conducting energy assessments via the online "My Energy" tool on the PG&E website.
"We have students who are comfortable using the technology and are able to show producers how to access the program, how to plug the variables in and create an energy plan they can use to decide whether or not to implement parts of it or all of it," said Jim Aschwanden, executive director of the California Agricultural Teachers' Association. "It's a neat program because it will actually tell you about the rebates that are available."
Since June, for example, agricultural students at Woodland High School have been trained to use the PG&E energy tool. If farmers haven't done so already, FFA students can help them register for a "My Energy" login on the PG&E website by entering their agricultural account number, name and address. This allows farmers and students to look at account information in real time, and continue with the energy assessment.
Nancy Martinez of Woodland High School FFA recently completed her first on-farm energy audit outside of the classroom during a visit to Blake Harlan's nearby farm.
"The basis of this program is to help growers save money by conserving energy," Martinez said. "Basically, FFA students go out to local farmers and show what kinds of different changes they can make to their facilities to conserve energy. We are able to see energy conservation in action, a valuable real-world experience. It may sound like a long and difficult process, but it is actually very simple and straightforward."
Harlan, a diversified grower who produces crops such as alfalfa, processing tomatoes and sunflowers, said he appreciates the opportunity to view details about the farm's energy usage, and to work with Martinez on the energy assessment.
"The important part of this program is that it stimulates the exercise of reviewing your accounts," Harlan said. "It's a simple format, and having a fleet of students that are at least trained to go through the exercise helps you to get through it."
He added that most farmers "are excited to help the FFA kids when we have the chance, so to have a bunch of kids that you can work with and promote their training and skills in a way that can help benefit you as well is worthwhile."
During the online audits, the farmer and student select "agriculture" as the industry, to ensure that they are looking at the farm's agricultural account, not a residential account. Dean Kunesh of PG&E said an "Energy Checkup" feature on the website is intended to help farmers create an energy plan to reduce energy costs.
"(The students) sit down at the computer with the farmer and the farmer will input their account number, and then they go through the steps that we've got outlined in the lesson plan," Kunesh said.
A grower may be able to pre-answer a few questions, Harlan said, but he or she will need to be on-site to answer questions regarding facilities on the farm such as buildings and irrigation pumps.
Patrick Mullen, PG&E regional director for agriculture and customer service, said the audit may offer ways to improve energy efficiency on the farm, such as energy-efficient lighting in barns or other areas, improved heating, cooling and ventilation systems, and improvements in irrigation pumps, variable-speed motors and pump tests.
"The savings can be significant," Mullen said. "The programs change, so that is why it is helpful periodically to go in and do an assessment."
Aschwanden said an energy audit of a dairy, for instance, could help determine the potential benefits of switching from one type of flourescent light to a more energy-efficient type.
"This program will allow you to enter the number of lights that you are going to convert and it will tell you what the energy savings would be," he said. "It tells you what the new lights will cost and how many weeks or months it would take to recover that in terms of energy savings."
PG&E provided examples from farmers who made pump improvements, irrigation system pressure reductions and improvements to lighting and refrigeration. The savings varied from almost $1,000 to $17,000 per year, the utility said, and in some cases PG&E issued rebates of between $8,000 and $12,500.
PG&E and FFA have set a goal of completing 5,000 on-farm energy assessments by the end of the school year.
"Completing these assessments is a win-win situation: The growers are able to save money, FFA members are able to build new relationships and gain experience that will help us now as well as in the future, and PG&E is able to help us conserve energy," Martinez said. "I have definitely enjoyed this experience and can't wait to be able to show others how easy it is to save both money and energy."
Farmers can learn more by reaching out to their local FFA chapters or by visiting www.pge.com and logging into the "My Energy" portal.