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Ag community cashes in on energy program

Saving power, resources and money goal of BPA effort


For the Capital Press

Big Bertha's reputation is well established in Central Oregon. When she's turned on, the irrigation pumping system can bring more than 350 horsepower on line to help irrigate two farms near Terrebonne.

For years, though, Big Bertha had to run full out or not at all.

Several weeks ago, the pump's life changed. Installation of a variable-speed drive made it possible for the former naval boat motor to slow down and for farmers to be more selective in how much and where to use the water.

The conversion was made possible by a Bonneville Power Administration pilot program intended to conserve energy and to cut costs for farmers and small agricultural businesses in the Pacific Northwest.

"I think the program is awesome," said Cindy Grossman, a rancher who helped initiate the Big Bertha upgrade. "Boy, do we see a difference, and the savings in power and water are going to be amazing."

The BPA chose resource conservation and development councils to direct its Agricultural Energy Efficiency Pilot program, which already has drawn applications from a variety of farm operations, including dairies and wineries.

"Our comprehensive energy program can help create substantial energy and cost savings, gain a competitive edge and take advantage of grants and incentives that can pay up to 70 percent of project costs," said Terry Johnson, energy manager of the Cascade Pacific Resource Conservation and Development Council.

Cascade will handle western Oregon and the Wy'East RC&D will manage the pilot program in north-central Oregon under the direction of Merlin Berg.

"Our goal is to create a program that can be used by other RC&Ds in the broader BPA service area that includes Washington and Idaho," Johnson said.

Upgrading irrigation systems ranks high on the project list, he said in describing a $100,000 project in which a Willamette Valley grass seed grower is replacing a big-gun traveling irrigation system with a pivot system.

Johnson said about half of the water evaporates as it is pumped into the air using the big gun system. The pivot system will be 40 to 50 percent more efficient, conserving water and reducing the amount of electricity used. In addition, diesel fuel and labor costs will drop. As much as 75 percent of the cost for this project may be recouped through grants, incentives and tax credits, Johnson said.

Irrigation pumping systems also are primary sources for energy upgrades east of the Cascade Mountains, said Berg, who is a USDA employee and coordinates the Wy'East program.

He cited an example of what the council refers to as the "Save Water Save Energy" program at the Big Bertha site in Terrebonne.

The 350-horsepower motor, called "Big Bertha," ran at one speed while pumping water to irrigate a variety of crops on two farms. Extra sprinklers were used to relieve water pressure when only a small area needed to be irrigated.

With the help of the Wy'East Council in partnership with the Central Electric Cooperative, a variable frequency drive was installed.

"Boy, do we see a difference already," said Grossman, who with her husband, Roger, are co-owners of Big Bertha, which was installed in the mid-1960s at the 220-foot-deep well. "We were wasting power and water because Big Bertha is so powerful."

The $43,000 investment is expected to be recouped in slightly more than a year through rebates and energy savings.

Grossman said she has wished for such a program during the 10 years she and her husband have operated their ranch. "The application was only two pages," she said.

Rebates also are available on small-ticket energy-saving items. These include pumps, new and rebuilt impact sprinklers, gaskets, pivot upgrades and hubs for wheel lines.

"Time is an issue and the reason that many ag operations haven't participated in these programs," Johnson said.

Under the program, council personnel work with growers, vendors and utilities in evaluating and developing projects, reviewing bids, developing a budget and packaging proposals for grants and services. The Cascade council charges a fee for USDA grant packaging; Wy'East does not.

The initial financing, which is the farmer's responsibility, can be a road block, which has led to consideration a no-cost or low-cost loan program in western Oregon.

Council personnel work with a number of sources, primarily utilities, many of which are starting to participate in agricultural energy programs. Johnson said the new program would be promoted through agricultural trade shows, grower meetings and direct mailings.

The two Oregon RC&D councils are establishing a website and are developing marketing and other plans that will be helpful to four RC&D districts in Washington and two in Idaho when they begin participating in the fall.

"We're in this for the long haul," Johnson said.


Western Oregon: Terry Johnson, terry@casco.net

North-central Oregon: Merlin Berg, merlin.berg@or.usda.gov


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