With the world population expected to double by the year 2050, feeding the world through limited resources is an ever-increasing challenge. Commercial poultry production is one of the most cost-efficient ways to provide quality animal protein to a growing population.
Despite its high efficiency, commercial poultry has costs, and those costs are high for the average contract poultry farmer (grower). Modern contract poultry growers are unique operators in the agricultural world. They typically do not own the birds they are raising, nor do they supply the feed. Contract poultry growers supply the housing facilities and the management. The birds and the feed are supplied by a parent company (integrator) – think Tyson Foods or Pilgrim’s, for example. These integrated companies take on the capital-intense risks of hatcheries, feed mills, trucking, processing plants, marketing and all the many other capital costs of worldwide poultry trade, and in turn pay growers a contract payment for the use of their land, housing and the management effort to grow the birds. The growers are responsible for the physical living environment of the birds, as well as providing access to feed and water. This means growers are also responsible for the utility supply and costs for the farm. Growers cover these costs from their contract payments. Therefore, anything growers can do to decrease their costs that does not negatively affect the birds is money in their pocket. Electricity cost is one of the primary expenses a grower incurs.
Currently an average poultry farm will use approximately 1.5 kilowatt-hours per square foot of growing space, or spend approximately $0.16-0.22/SF annually. The annual total varies with region and climate, but a typical four-house poultry farm can easily spend over $20,000 per year on electricity alone. Increasing heat removal requirements of the birds and increasing electricity charges guarantee this figure is only going to go up, making electricity cost a growing concern in the poultry industry.
Renewable energy is a hot conversation topic and the use of solar panels to supplement poultry production is nothing new. In fact, many poultry farms across the state and the nation have solar panels either mounted on their roof or mounted on the ground nearby. However, these systems are typically involved in some manner of “net-metering,” or selling the solar-produced electricity back to the utility company for a contracted fee. These contracts typically have electrical production limits, regional availability and pay for only a fraction of the power purchased. Not all utility companies choose to participate and contracts vary greatly for those that do. Because of this, solar energy opportunities have been limited for poultry growers in Alabama. Efforts are now underway to address those limitations.
The National Poultry Technology Center and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station at Auburn University along with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, have partnered with Tyson Foods and Southern Solar Systems, Atlantic Power Solutions and Rotem/Diversified, for a pilot project in Cullman: Stand-Alone-Solar power for poultry. SAS is a poultry-specific solar microgrid system, designed by Southern Solar Systems with input from the NPTC. It is currently online growing birds. The SAS system collects, stores and uses solar energy to directly power a modern 54-by-500 broiler house. All power used is to be generated by the system and none of the power produced is put back into the utility grid. Photovoltaic solar panels supply DC power to a battery storage bank. Inverters, along with supporting control systems, then supply stable AC power to the house. A diesel generator, capable of both charging the batteries and running the house as a backup, is part of the SAS system. The SAS system currently supplies 100 percent of the electrical power needed to run the fans, lights, pumps, etc. In addition, the unique attributes of the SAS system hold great potential for bird environment improvements related to ventilation and house conditions. The system must work in the hottest of summers and the coldest of winters; therefore, we will be exploring all of these potential benefits, as well as any potential downsides, over the next 12 months of the SAS trial. The ultimate goal is to optimize and design a system a poultry grower can install on a farm and feel secure in its ability to handle all of his power needs.
All the components of the SAS system come with extended warranties. For example, the solar panels have a 25-year warranty, and inverters and accompanying controls have 10-year warranties. We estimate that currently available batteries would last well over 15 years. Further optimization efforts will be ongoing through the trial period, as well as integration of the poultry house control system with SAS control system.
The final economics of the SAS system are yet to be determined. Further decreases in component cost and the benefit of economies of scale should lower the price of a future SAS system. A primary goal of the trial is to further develop and optimize the system to be cash-flow-positive on Day One, essentially paying for itself from the beginning by replacing the variable cost of the power bill with a fixed cost, amortized over a long term – 15 years typically. This way a grower effectively “locks in” his electricity cost for the life of the system. Once a grower pays off the note for the system, his electricity costs would be further reduced to the insurance and minimal SAS system maintenance costs. Information gained during the next 12 months of the trial period will guide optimization efforts.