NECC1501: Sustainable Farm Energy Production and Use

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

NECC1501: Sustainable Farm Energy Production and Use

Duration: 04/01/2015 to 09/30/2020

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Statement of Issues and Justification

Farm energy production and use is a key component of the region’s sustainable agricultural future. While the advent of cheap fossil fuel in the 20th century undergirded phenomenal growth in agricultural productivity and labor efficiency, the new millennium has featured twin drivers of rising and highly variable cost of energy coupled with increased demand for sustainable and local resources. The agricultural community faces increased risk and decreasing profits from the first factor, and faces a potential new market opportunity from the second. These issues can be addressed by means of improving the sustainable production and use of energy on the farm.

Sustainable energy production on the farm includes bio based energy sources such as biodiesel, biomass fuel crops, and waste biodigesters. Sustainable energy use entails the adoption of advanced energy management strategies to reduce energy waste and improve effectiveness of use. This includes taking advantage of new market opportunities in the semi-deregulated energy markets of the region. Not all strategies are effective in all settings, as climate, productivity, use patterns, regulatory constraints and available resources all vary from farm to farm.

Farm-based energy production and use is a subject of research, extension, and educational need in the Northeast Region and throughout the nation. On the production side, limited adoption of solar, wind, biogas, and biomass energy has indicated that potential exists to improve the energy productivity of farms, but the lack of continued growth, due to knowledge gaps in the science and engineering of energy production, combined with limited understanding in the farm community, are roadblocks that must be surmounted.

Energy use is a significant knowledge gap area in the agricultural sector. While some limited research has been conducted in the past on energy use patterns, very little is really understood about farm energy use patterns, or the factors that influence those patterns. The recent and ongoing development of the energy marketplace, including deployment of smart grid technologies, deregulated energy markets, an emphasis on distributed generation, and the growth of the renewable energy credit marketplace have contributed to a changing context for energy production and use. How these changes are affecting the farming community is still not apparent.

The Farm Energy Multistate Coordinating Committee will work together to address critical issues and opportunities related to the production and use of energy on the farm. These issues include:

- lack of understanding of current farm energy use patterns

- the need to evaluate the impacts and opportunities for farms arising from the changing energy production sector

- the need for improved technologies, systems, and approaches for optimizing energy use on the farm

- the need to enable the expansion of on-farm production of renewable and sustainable energy

- the need for farmers and farm professionals who are well educated and capable of understanding and improving farm energy performance

The coordinating committee will work collaboratively to carry out research, extension, and education in this important area. More specifically, the project will include:

Research: Investigation into farm energy utilization benchmarks, renewable energy system performance, renewable energy economics, and new opportunities for effective utilization and production of energy in the agricultural sector. Surprisingly, farm energy use benchmarks are not well established for the major farm types. Key research questions to be addressed include

  • How does energy use vary across the major farm sectors in the region?
  • What factors influence the intensity of farm energy use?
  • What new technologies can be developed to produce energy on the farm?
  • What new technologies can be developed to dramatically reduce energy use on the farm?
  • How does the performance of renewable energy systems vary seasonally and annually when operated in an agricultural environment?
  • What systems and approaches for energy production are readily scalable to farm production?
  • What are the impacts of farm-based energy production and use on the stability and reliability of the regional energy distribution network?

Extension: Extension efforts are needed, in the form of state and regional programs and sharing of extension resources across states. This will lead to stronger, better resourced programs and a better educated, more capable farm community. Extension efforts that are needed in this area include:

  • Written, Online, or Video outreach materials – made widely available and shared among educators
  • Joint Extension Activities – leveraging regional skills and experience for greater overall impact
  • Demonstrations Projects – showcasing innovative early adopters of sustainable energy systems and approaches
  • Case Studies – demonstrating the feasibility and key challenges facing sustainable energy on the farm
  • Assessment Tools – making it easier for farmers to self-assess and educators to provide guidance to the process of identifying energy opportunities

Education: Educational needs in this area will be addressed through sharing and joint development of educational content for primary, secondary, and tertiary audiences. The foci of the education efforts will be on enhancing the capabilities of ag professionals, growing the energy savvy of ag producers, and demonstration of energy strategies at the farm scale. Education efforts in this area are to include:

  • Creation and sharing of educational materials for lectures and student discussion
  • Creation and sharing of educational materials for labs and practical training
  • Creation and sharing of assessment materials and approaches
  • Needs assessment for education in this topic area

The breadth and depth of these efforts will be dependent in large part on the degree of project funding generated by the group (proposal preparation will be a priority).

The need, as indicated by stakeholders:

Stakeholder need in this area is significant. For example, in a 2012 Penn State Extension survey of 174 self-identified farmers, 89% indicated that they did not know enough about farm energy efficiency. There is a similar lack of knowledge and desire to learn among agricultural educators and service providers (ASPs). Of 153 Northeast ASPs polled in October 2012, 93% reported that their clients are “somewhat” or “very” interested in farm energy issues, but less than 15% reported being “very well prepared” to help clients make informed energy use decisions.

In addition, many of the data used for farm energy outreach are old and outdated. For example, extension materials currently under development in the area of field crop equipment are relying on data collected 30 years ago. Developments in field operations technology since that time, such as CVT, common rail ignition, and precision ag optimization of field operations, make it worthwhile to consider updating the information used for energy management and system optimization.

Sustainable energy production has likewise seen dramatic recent developments in available technology, including:

  • widespread production of low cost solar PV, including “islandizing” capabilities in inverters,
  • development of high yielding energy crops suitable for use on marginal land
  • improvements to anaerobic digester technology,
  • proliferation of small scale biodiesel production units,
  • availability of low cost variable frequency drives, electronically commutated motors, and other energy saving devices, and
  • eventual deployment of smart grid and distributed generation technology to rural areas.

Furthermore, deregulation of energy markets and innovative new financial models for energy production and sale have sparked renewed business interest. All of these developments represent opportunities for the agricultural community if their impact is understood and properly managed.

Farmers have historically been extremely innovative and cost effective in all aspects of their operation, including energy. Some local innovators and early adopters have developed sustainable energy approaches on their farms. Some of these efforts have been successful, and some have not.

The importance of the work, and what the consequences are if it is not done:

Work in this area is important for the future of farms in America. Energy conservation is a key need that contributes to improved profitability, reduced risk, and improved ecological attributes of farms. The changing landscape of energy markets, including deregulation, development of smart grid technologies, growing concerns about energy sustainability, emissions, and sustainability, and the recent growth of unconventional energy production, has shifted the energy landscape considerably and created new constraints and opportunities that need to be understood and addressed. Energy production is a significant opportunity within this context, providing sustainable energy inputs to farming operations and the communities in which they are located. Research work in this topic area will inform extension and education efforts, education work in this area will prepare the next generation of ag professionals and practitioners, and extension work will empower the ag community to make wise and fully informed choices with respect to energy production and use on the farm.

Failure to develop effective research, extension, and education programs on this topic will reduce the agricultural sector’s robustness and resilience, and as a result of higher energy expenditures, reduced farm sustainability, and lost economic opportunities.

The technical feasibility of the research:

The feasibility of the research portion of this committee’s work varies from highly feasible to highly risky. For example, energy use benchmarking is very feasible, constrained only by willingness of farmers to participate, and resources to carry out the study. At the other end of the spectrum, energy production research is much more speculative from a practical usability point of view, especially in the case of biomass-to-biofuels research, as efforts to date have struggled to “close the gap” between the feedstock price that farmers require and the price that biorefineries are willing to pay. This, combined with the volatile regulatory climate, makes biofuels a challenging but not impossible proposition that needs significant technological improvement before it can become widely viable. However, the societal needs and agricultural opportunities for renewable biofuels makes this topic both relevant and compelling.

While creation of educational material and programs is not a high risk enterprise, successful implementation of the education portion of the committee’s work is risky, in that new educational materials are not always welcomed with open arms by educators who are already overwhelmed and under-resourced. However, general interest in energy issues both by educators and by students makes this project’s efforts more likely to be utilized.

The extension portion of the committee’s work is probably the most challenging, in that extension resources are extremely limited, new approaches are (justifiably) treated with skepticism by the farming community, and immediate farm survival is often of greater import than long term sustainability. However, examples of early adopters and demonstrated economic benefits can be used to help overcome these challenges.

The advantages for doing this work as a multi-state effort:

Individuals across the country have recognized and are working to help address this need, but the efforts tend to be piecemeal and sporadic. The E3A program in the rocky mountain states and the Farm Energy IQ program in the Northeast (both supported by USDA-SARE) are notable examples of regional efforts, but most work remains at an individual or statewide level. Improved coordination of work in this area, through the establishment of a multistate project, will allow for synergistically increased understanding of farm energy issues and improved education and outreach in these areas, working towards an "energy smart' agricultural community that is able to produce and utilize energy to best advantage.

Energy use and production, as well as farming operations are regionally unique, and while each state has its unique agricultural features, there is generally sufficient commonality within a region to allow for shared efforts and resources in addressing the opportunities and needs of the agricultural sector. In the Northeast US, for example, farms are generally characterized as smaller operations with diverse products including dairy, beef, poultry, greenhouse, fruit, and some field crops. There is also a significant amount of marginal or abandoned land in the region – over 2.4 million hectares by some estimates – that is not suitable for food or feed crops but has the potential to be used successfully for biomass production.

Colleagues at Rutgers University and the University of Vermont have indicated their willingness to participate in this committee, and we anticipate that many other institutions will take part as well.

What the likely impacts will be from successfully completing the work:

Successful completion of this work will provide 1) understanding of energy use patterns and energy production and use opportunities for farms, 2) educational tools and materials available for use, and 3) outreach programming that enhances the knowledge base of farmers and farm professionals, and catalyzes positive changes in the region. At a more practical “nuts and bolts” level, we anticipate, at a minimum, generating published research on farm energy use characterization and benchmarking, educational tools for farm energy, and outreach programming targeted on farms and to farm professionals. A successful committee will obtain extramural funding for carrying out multi-institutional research, extension, and education in the area of farm energy, resulting in new energy opportunities for farmers both in the area of production and conservation.


  1. Prepare a survey report on the "regional farm energy status and outlook"
  2. Identify research, education, and extension opportunities and needs for the topic of farm energy
  3. Prepare joint proposals for funded projects in farm energy research, education, and extension

Procedures and Activities

The regional coordinating committee in Sustainable Farm Energy and Use will meet in person on an annual basis, and meet telephonically at other times throughout the year. The group will establish tasks for achieving its stated objectives, and work together to accomplish those objectives. Key milestones will include 1)preparation of the draft "regional farm energy outlook" report, 2)preparation of the final copy of the "regional farm energy outlook" report, 3)preparation and submission of grant proposals for farm energy projects, and 4)carrying out those projects that are funded.

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • Exchange of ideas and information related to farm energy
  • Publication of a regional farm energy report
  • Identification and pursuit of key research, education, and extension issues
  • Coordination of research and extension programs in farm energy

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan

Ease of Access to Services/Information:

Services and information for the general public will primarily be delivered through the Cooperative Extension services of the participating universities. These organizations are committed to equal access and availability of services and information, thus assuring full access of project outputs. Research outputs will be made available through research reports, papers, and presentations. Project outputs and resources will, as much as is possible, be posted online in an appropriate format that is accessible and usable.

Focus on Under-Served Communities/Consumers:

This project is focused on the agricultural sector, and by that very nature is relevant to and valuable for rural communities in the region that typically are economically disadvantaged and lag the urban areas in economic opportunities and income.

Plans for disseminating information:

Information will be disseminated via workshops, presentations, research papers, and online and print material generated by the members of the regional team.

Opportunities to interact with and/or deliver value to peer groups, stakeholders, clientele, other regional activities:

Whenever possible, meetings and workshops will be held in conjunction with other events held in the region, thus maximizing the opportunity for interacting with and adding value to peer groups, stakeholders, and clientele. Private consultants, practitioners and industry personnel will be welcomed to take part in the regional project group as non-voting “associates”.


The group will be led by a chair and vice-chair, selected by vote of those present at the annual meeting. The term of office is two years. The responsibilities of the officers will be as follows:

Committee Chair: Schedule and convene group meetings, establish agenda, and facilitate the distribution of tasks related to the group's research, education, and extension objectives. Prepare group progress reports as required.

Committee Vice Chair: Assist the committee chair with his/her tasks, record and distribute minutes of the annual meetings. Activities of the group will be carried out on a collaborative, consensus-driven basis as much as possible, with votes of members (one vote per land grant institution) used on any matters where consensus has not been reached. Meetings will be conducted using procedures adapted from “Roberts’ Rules of Order”.

Literature Cited

Brown, E., and R. N. Elliott. 2005a. On-Farm Energy Use Characterizations. American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Report #IE052.

Brown, E., and R.N. Elliott. 2005b. Potential Energy Efficiency Savings in the Agriculture Sector. American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. Report #IE052.

Carroll, E., M. Brown, F. Xavier, and C. Kumar. 2010. Small and Medium Sized Business Customers: Proactive Services to Increase the Installation Rate of Efficiency Upgrades,” in Proceedings, 2010 ACEEE Summer Study on Energy Efficiency in Buildings, 15-20 August 2010, Pacific Grove, CA, pp. 4-19–4-31.

Craumer, P.R., 1979. Farm Productivity and Energy Efficiency in Amish and Modern Dairying. Agriculture and Environment, 4(1978-79)281-299.

Ludington, D., and E. Johnson. 2003. Dairy Farm Energy Audit Summary. NYSERDA Project Report. New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Albany, NY.

Morris, M, Dana, R., Hill, H., and A. Kurki. 1999. Farm Energy Audits: Availability, Usefulness, and Cost. USDA Risk Management Agency Report #06IE08310060-P.

Perlack, R.D., and Stokes, B.J. (leads). 2011. U.S. Billion-Ton Update: Biomass Supply for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry. ORNL/TM-2011/224. Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN. 227p.

Pimentel, D., Berardi, G., and S. Fast. 1983. Energy Efficiency of Farming Systems: Organic and Conventional Agriculture. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 9(1983)359-372.

Shaw, S. 2008. Progress Report on Small Wind Energy Development Projects Receiving Funds from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC). Cadmus Group Inc.

Slocombe, J.W., Feyerherm, A.M., and L.E. Stetson. 1992. Electrical Energy Usage on Kansas Grain Farms. Transactions of the ASABE. 8(2):263-266.

USDA, 2007, USDA Census of Agriculture.

USDA, 2009. On-Farm Renewable Energy Production Survey: Farms Reporting Photovoltaic (PV) and Thermal Solar Panels by Type, Capacity, Installation. USDA Census of Agriculture.


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

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