Unreliable electricity supply a burden on farmers

NSW Farmers says a new study, Report On Electricity Supply Issues For Farmers, has revealed the hidden costs of unreliable electricity supply for the agricultural industry.

The study, by Meta Economics and funded by the Consumer Advocacy Panel, involved analysis of available electricity industry data and surveys of farmers across NSW.

It found the majority of regional and remote farm businesses are subject to a suite of power supply problems including momentary very short outages, voltage surges and brownouts. Some farmers surveyed reported suffering in the order of 100+ outages per year – including momentary outages. In order to manage this unreliability farmers are forced to install expensive backup diesel generators and also to change work practices to avoid times of day when reliability is low.

NSW Farmers General Manager Research and Development, David Eyre, said the study confirms a problem well known to the sector and provides a level of detail that was not previously available.

He said the root cause of unreliability is the technical inefficiency of the ends to the electricity network which are difficult to supply at times of peak load.

“Right now, this is a lose lose situation for all parties. Farmers have to invest in backup supply or risk catastrophic losses and the network companies have to support infrastructure that is unprofitable and a constant source of complaints,” he said.

Mr Eyre said NSW Farmers is looking for opportunities to work with networks, retailers and the State Government to analyse the demand and supply problems and find the most economically and environmentally efficient way to meet energy needs in regional and remote locations.  

“Some of the private and public capital involved could potentially be reallocated to longer term solutions including renewable energy, demand management and energy efficiency,” he said. 

The Meta Economics study found the impact of electricity reliability problems varies widely across agricultural sectors and can depend on temporal factors.

Horticulturalists are highly vulnerable at harvest times and loss of power to cool rooms can be catastrophic. For example a flower grower reported a single power outage resulting in the loss of $50,000 of product.

Other sectors such as dairy and poultry require constant reliability. In the absence of current expensive backup systems, average potential losses in the poultry industry were estimated at $180,000 per serious outage. In the dairy industry, an extended power outage without backup would cost an average farm more than $13,000 per incident.

Poor power quality also causes significant costs across all farming sectors. Damage to equipment from farmers impacted by poor power quality was estimated at an average $3000 per year. In many cases fluctuations in power quality had a cumulative impact on electrical equipment and could not be attributed to any single incident.

Mr Eyre said the study found farmers have adapted to the situation in many ways. For example, through installing self priming pumps and voltage relays which minimise damage to equipment from brownouts.

Another adaptation was to use power intensive equipment such as welders and large pumps at times of day when outages are less likely. Nearly all farmers surveyed had installed backup to some degree. These can range from small generators of 1 kVA to single generators of 750 kVA capacity or multiples of capacity such as having 3100 kVA generators.

He said he believed the future of regional energy supply needs to involve a combination of renewal energy generation coupled with strategic management of demand for grid supplied electricity at the ends of networks.

“There is no single magic bullet. It is about thinking through the suite of solutions that will work best for the particular farm business and community at any given point in the network,” Mr Eyre said.

The Report on Electricity Supply Issues for Farmers is available here.

Contact: Veneta Chapple

Phone: 0429 990 218

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