Over the past weeks, radio and tv have been all the buzz with the record high costs of gasoline and diesel fuel as well as the high cost of food in the United States and worldwide. A few reporters have continued the story to discuss the impact of these high prices on other commodities such as fertilizer and crop protection chemicals. In Louisiana, these high costs also have increased the cost of irrigating crops.
“The simple fact is that it takes energy to pump and move water,” says Ron Sheffield a water resources engineer with the LSU AgCenter. “Be it from a 200-foot-deep well or from the bayou next to a rice field, it takes energy to move that water where we want it.” More than 90 percent of farms in Louisiana irrigate with diesel-powered pumps. As the cost of diesel reaches record highs, so does the cost of irrigation. This is compounded by the inherent inefficiency of diesel engines in converting the energy in the fuel to pumping power. Diesel engines are only 25-37% efficient, compared to the 85-92% efficiency of electric motors. “This inefficiency is wasted energy and wasted money” says Sheffield. “The cost of diesel today is around $3.75 a gallon. The equivalent cost of electricity is 26.5 cents per kilowatt hour to pump the same amount water. Anyone in the country can buy electricity cheaper than that.”
Unfortunately, this is the simple side of the equation. Switching from diesel to electric pumps in not an easy decision. It depends on the availability of 3-phase electrical power in an area and the demand and contract charges your local utility may require. The cost of bringing power from the side of a road to where a pump or well is located can cost anywhere from $7 to $10 per foot. Luckily, several utilities have developed plans to allow irrigators to pay off the installation over a 5-year period. The cost of electrical equipment is also a consideration. A 100-hp electric motor and a basic control panel will cost approximately $6,500.
The switch from diesel to electric pumping needs to be a well-thought-out business decision. Irrigation companies, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the LSU AgCenter can assist producers in collecting the necessary information. Producers also need to talk with their electrical utility to see what options are available. But the ultimate decision, if this is a profitable decision, lies with the farmer and his or her financial advisers. However, with the cost of crude oil going up again today, more and more irrigators are seeing that going electric will help them deal with today’s high cost of production.