South Africa’s agriculture sector, which creates around 874 000 jobs and is a vital contributor to the economy, spends approximately R137 billion on electricity to produce about 80% of the nation’s food, according to figures released by AgriSA.

But insufficient and unreliable power supply, as well as increasingly dilapidated grid infrastructure plagued by cable theft, lack of maintenance, and delays in the approval of on-site generation installations, are crippling the industry, resulting in the sector losing more than R23 billion between January and September 2022 alone.

“Where farmers suffer, the nation suffers,” says Roger Hislop, Energy Management Systems executive at CBI: energy. “Reliable electricity is the bedrock of modern farming – pumping water, processing crops, heating, and cooling.

“A long power outage can mean harvests are ruined, and the death of livestock. Energy security is critical. At the same time, spiralling costs on already thin margins are posing an existential threat to the sector.

“Energy security is an existential crisis for the sector in the long term, and rising energy costs are a hammer blow to farm viability in the short term. There has to be a new way of looking at energy – it can no longer be ‘vasbyt en hoes elke maand’ (hang on and cough up every month).”

How tech can reduce energy spend

Hislop says as electricity demand in the sector is expected to double by 2030, it is essential for those in the agriculture industry to have oversight of how electricity is consumed, and get it under control.

“If you are not able to see what is being consumed when, how and by whom, it means there is no way you can reduce energy usage and costs.”

Large agri-businesses are concerned and starting to investigate Demand Side (Energy) Management (DSM).

“Simple energy cost savings are the priority, but improved automation is a side benefit,” he adds.

“The automation of loads eliminates the need for employees to travel to far-flung points around the farm to manually switch motors or pumps on and off. They can be much more efficient in how they allocate their resources and reduce time wastage.”

Roger Hislop, Energy Management Systems executive at CBI.

Sweating the solar

As electricity prices soar and load shedding continues, farm managers are employing alternative energy supplies such as backup generators to reduce disruption; and as costs and payback improve, installing solar generation and batteries.

“Many have elected to power their farms using solar PV and are looking at ‘green energy’ procurement from the utility solar operators (PPAs) slowly coming into play. Reportedly, 10% of all renewable energy installations are in the agriculture sector, and this is predicted to grow at 10% annually, but again, loads must be managed as these systems only have so much capacity,” Hislop points out.

Automated intelligent load control assists during load shedding by turning off non-essential loads.

“This makes sure that energy from battery storage is managed correctly, and the strain of peak loads on inverters and backup diesel generators is reduced.”

He says planning around renewables required good, granular data, amounting to a valuable spinoff benefit of managed metering systems and automated load control systems as all the data is collected, analysed and presented back to help farm operators make good business decisions.

Mike Barker, energy engineer at EnergyFlexibility, says the days of Eskom producing vast amounts of low-cost energy were over for good.

“Granular consumption and generation data is exactly what it’s all about now. Electricity is very expensive, so farmers need to monitor its use at many points in their business, and in real time – at least hourly, preferably per minute to allow ‘real life’ events to be correlated with consumption information.”

Barker believes farmers must tackle excess use and possible waste on a day-to-day, even on an hour-to-hour basis, not at month-end when the Eskom bill arrives. “Modern energy management systems allow farmers to define sets of rules that automatically manage their electrical usage in real time, and flag exceptions as they occur.”

Hislop said the time was now for farmers to invest in technology to continue growing this crucial sector, “to continue growing their operations, growing jobs and growing food for the country”.