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Energy Auditor Training primes Minnesota farms for energy efficiency

May 02, 2012


For Immediate Release

ST. PAUL, MN – As Minnesota works to grow its rural economies and move toward a more energy efficient future, a key partnership between the Minnesota Department of Commerce, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), and the Minnesota Project has significantly increased the number of fully trained, qualified energy auditors serving farms and rural businesses statewide.

The Farm Energy Auditor Training Program, which was funded by a grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), provided robust training opportunities for 13 farm energy auditors between November 2011 and March 2012. The grant was administered by the Commerce Department, with training coordinated by the Minnesota Project, a nonprofit dedicated to improving sustainability across Minnesota.

Prior to the implementation of the program, there were only four registered Minnesota-based energy auditors qualified to perform this work on farms statewide. Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said that we need more energy auditors statewide to meet the need for reducing energy consumption on nearly 28 million acres of Minnesota farmland.

“If we want to grow Minnesota’s rural economies, significantly reduce energy consumption in our state, and help farmers save money, we need to put qualified experts in the field to help move that work forward,” said Commissioner Rothman. “Minnesota farms use large amounts of energy. But in order to reduce that consumption, we need to assess current energy use on farms with accurate, professional energy audits that both gauge energy performance and help guide farmers to a more affordable, sustainable future.”

According to the Commerce Department, with 81,000 farms in Minnesota, the potential is great for farmers to save money and reduce energy consumption.

Different farms use different types and amounts of energy. Minnesota dairies for instance have substantial electric energy costs, mostly related to milk harvesting and cooling. While typical grain production operations have relatively lower electricity costs, they utilize significantly higher amounts of diesel fuel that costs farmers a significant amount of money. In fact, Minnesota Agricultural Statistics estimated that in 2009 alone, farms in Minnesota spent over $700 million on transportation fuel and an additional $160 million on electricity expenses. Commissioner Rothman says reducing those costs needs to be a high priority.

“We all recognize the need to reduce energy consumption; and farming families recognize the financial benefit of making cost-effective energy changes on their farms,” said Rothman. “Ensuring access to qualified farm energy auditors is crucial to that cause. That is why this project was so important.”

The Minnesota Project website at www.mnproject.org offers a number of resources to help farmers save energy and save money, including several case studies of energy-saving efforts by Minnesota farmers. This short video also provides a demonstration of how energy auditors inspect farms and help farmers to identify money-saving energy efficiency improvements.

The 13 trainees who completed farm auditor classroom training and required final audit project this year are now qualified to perform energy audits to the standard required by federal rural energy efficiency programs such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) and USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

“In order to qualify for REAP and EQIP (cost-shared) funding for energy-saving projects, farmers need an energy audit by a certified energy auditor,” said Jake Fischer, Clean Energy Program manager for The Minnesota Project. “In addition to these federal programs, we hope these auditors might provide a resource for local utility efficiency programming as well. The training program will improve access to energy auditors and is another step in our campaign to educate farmers about the potential for energy efficiency in their operations. Moving forward, we hope to continue training farm energy auditors as well as work with agricultural stakeholders in providing resources to offer low-cost audits to Minnesota farmers.”

The improved access to energy audits should ease the path to funding opportunities for Minnesota farmers. For instance, REAP provides grants and loan guarantees up to $500,000 on qualifying energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, for which agricultural producers and rural small businesses are eligible. A good energy audit is essential to securing REAP funding and other financial assistance for energy improvement projects. The same energy audit might be used on a local level to work with the farmer’s local utility in identifying improvements that the utility might be able to help fund.

“The auditor training should enhance the climate for rural energy-saving initiatives,” said Ron Omann, energy coordinator for Minnesota REAP. “We have had a lot of success funding grain-drying projects in the state—in recent years, 9 out of 10 of our projects have been for grain dryers. However, there are a wide range of energy-saving opportunities that can take place on the farm. We’d like to see more diversity in the projects we support, such as animal housing efficiencies and improving greenhouse operations and irrigation efficiency projects.”

Fischer said educating farmers and rural business people about energy efficiency opportunities is an ongoing goal, and more qualified energy auditors certainly lends to that objective. The key to achieving cost-effective energy-saving improvements is working closely with Minnesota utilities, which are required to spend 1.5 percent of their gross operating revenues on energy efficiency programming. Electric utilities often have the closest relationships with farmers and are experienced at designing incentives that work for the business and the utility. These programs, combined with federal REAP and EQIP programs, can make energy efficiency improvements quite appealing to farmers, he adds.

A list of farm energy auditors is available through the REAP offices by contacting Ron Omann at (651) 602-7796 or ron.omann@mn.usda.gov or through The Minnesota Project by reaching Jake Fischer at (651) 789-3330 or jfischer@mnproject.org. Local utilities can also refer farmers to energy auditors.

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Farm Energy Auditor Training Program Overview

The Farm Energy Auditor Training provided a combination of online classroom sessions and experiential learning. The Minnesota Project partnered with GDS Associates of Madison, Wis., which has conducted hundreds of farm energy audits for Wisconsin farmers, to deliver the training. The training touched on all types of farm operations, with some content aimed at other types of rural small businesses.

The curriculum provided eight 2-hour online training sessions, three site visits, and one final auditing project for each trainee. The curriculum included:

Online Trainings

  • Dairy operations
  • Beef operations
  • Swine operations
  • Poultry operations
  • Grain-drying operations
  • Greenhouse operations
  • Convenience/grocery stores
  • Grant writing/federal program applications

Site Visits

  • Dairy site visit
  • Greenhouse site visit
  • Grain-drying site visit

Final Project

  • Individual energy audit

In addition, the training included instruction on another EQIP cost-share initiative linked to saving energy (primarily diesel fuel and artificial fertilizers) “in the field.” The in-field or “landscape” audits determine energy use and efficiency opportunities for typical field operations such as tilling, planting, field maintenance, and harvesting. Content on renewable energy options was also part of the training.

A number of resources supported the trainees throughout the 4-month training period, including a trainees-only web page, online discussion group, downloadable data collection sheets, sample audits, and PowerPoint presentations.

The three site visits allowed trainees to put their classroom knowledge to work in a real world environment, as well as provide them practice at gathering information and making basic energy audit calculations under the tutelage of energy auditor trainers.

In order to fully complete the auditor training course, each trainee was tasked with completing a final draft of an energy audit on their own, which would be subsequently reviewed for compliance with ASABE Standard 612 for On-Farm energy Audits by the project team.

The trainees represented a wide range of industry including state and federal government, electric utilities, and private business.