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FARM & RANCH: Is Energy Glass Half Empty or Half Full

Farmers and ranchers are bracing themselves for a round of steep increases in power rates. If they’re not, they should be, because they’re going to be paying more in the near future for just about everything that involves energy.

That’s the bad news.

But it’s also the good news, according to David Sjoding, associate director of Washington State University’s energy program.

You know the old saw about the glass. Is it half empty, or half full?

Let’s first examine the energy outlook from a half empty perspective.

Producers need to plan now for increased costs across the board on energy. Prices for petroleum products will rise in the coming year. Natural gas will cost sharply more, likely bumping up fertilizer prices. Electricity, too. Sjoding says the Northwest has gone from exporting electricity to importing it, and Californians still have their eyes on “cheap” Northwest hydroelectric power.

To whatever extent California may succeed in tapping a larger percentage of Bonneville Power Administration’s power, Northwest farmers and ranchers will have to pay more for their electricity — along with everyone else.

While not yet grounds for alarm, the Northwest power supply definitely is concerning. Risk of a power deficit already is above the Northwest Power Planning Council’s assessment of what’s acceptable.

The power industry generally considers a 5-percent probability of a deficit as acceptable, but the risk for a deficit this winter is pegged at 6-10 percent. By the winter of 2003-2004, the northwest has a 24-percent chance of experiencing a shortage.

Shortages not only result in brownouts or blackouts, they translate into higher electricity prices for consumers. Farmers who pump water from the Columbia or Snake rivers, or from deep wells, could be hit hard.

All types of farmers and ranchers would do well to devote some of their winter office hours to figuring out how to reduce energy consumption.

One of the things they might do is use a little electricity cruising the World Wide Web for information on how to conserve. I guess that’s a little like the old saying, “It takes money to make money.”

WSU’s energy program Web site would be a good place to start. Put in your browser and you’ll be on the EnergyIdeas page, cosponsored by WSU Cooperative Extension and the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Click on “Energy Solutions,” one of seven tabs across the top of the page. That will take you to a search engine to help you look for information that may help you. Or, you can scroll down to “Search By Topics” and click on “Agriculture.”

Here, for example, you can find information from Washington, Oregon and Idaho scientists on the Scientific Irrigation Scheduling project.

Search by keyword or by topic for information on a broad variety of energy related topics.

Not connected to the Internet, or find it too cumbersome or mystifying? Call 1-800-872-3568 and the phone will be answered by a real live person who will be happy to help you find answers to energy questions. You can even access engineers who can discuss analysis or design of systems or have the library conduct a very detailed, customized literature search for you. For free.

You also can sign up for an e-mail news notification service that will alert you to publication of new information on energy conservation.

And now for the glass half full approach to the energy situation.

Sjoding says rising energy prices are an opportunity for farmers and ranchers to become producers of renewable energy.

For instance, he says, they can lease land in a favorable wind stream for construction of windmills. He estimates they can earn $2,000 a year per wind turbine. “Wind is now cost effective,” Sjoding says.

The ethanol market also may become attractive for Northwest farmers. In October, Gov. Gary Locke brought Washington into the Governors’ Ethanol Coalition, now 24-states strong. This strengthens the opportunities for Washington farmers and ranchers to find markets for plant waste, including wheat straw, corn, barley and wood debris.

As gasoline prices rise, the market for ethanol will increase for use as a blend in gasoline.

Want to get in on the harvest of clean energy?

The WSU Cooperative Extension Energy Office and 13 other Northwest organizations are sponsoring a conference, Harvesting Clean Energy for Rural Development, in Spokane, Jan. 29-30.

More information on the conference is available by calling Rhys Roth at 360-352-1763, or sending an e-mail to

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