Should farmers go electric to irrigate?

LOUISIANA - As prices for gasoline and diesel fuel have climbed to record levels, Louisiana farmers have had to face the increased cost of irrigating their crops.

“The simple fact is that it takes energy to pump and move water,” said 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 Louisiana farms 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 to 37 percent efficient, compared to the 85 to 92 percent efficiency of electric motors.

“This inefficiency is wasted energy and wasted money,” the water resources engineer said. “The cost of diesel today is around $3.75 a gallon, and 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, Sheffield said. Switching from diesel to electric pumps is not an easy decision. It depends on the availability of 3-phase electrical power in an area as well as consideration of the charges that a local utility may require.

Sheffield said the cost of bringing power from the side of a road to a pump or well 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 five-year period.”

The cost of electrical equipment is also a consideration. A 100-horsepower electric motor and a basic control panel would cost approximately $6,500.

“The switch from diesel to electric pumping needs to be a well-thought-out business decision.”

Sheffield said irrigation equipment companies, the U.S. Department of AgricultureÂ’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the LSU AgCenter can assist producers in collecting the necessary information.

“Producers need to also 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.”


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