Solar power to save dairy farms from rising energy cost - experts

A solar powered system installed by technicians at a dairy farm in Gomba. In order to manage the high fuel prices, dairy farmers can opt for solar systems. Courtesy | Photo/All in Trade

What you need to know:

  • Dairy farming is rewarding, but very hard work. Attending to the seasonal needs of the livestock, managing equipment, and running the shades all take a lot of time and energy. Keeping utility costs down calls for the adoption of solar power.

With the rising cost of electricity and a growing need to reduce their carbon footprint, farmers have been advised to look to solar options. Although the intake still remains low, some farmers have taken a plunge.

During a business forum organised by Heifer International at Fairway Hotel in Kampala, it was stressed that solar solutions are the way to go.

Wilbert Tugume, the general manager, Kiboga Livestock Farmers’ Cooperative Society, told the meeting that the cost of power takes up to 60 per cent of the operational costs.

“We need 35 litres of diesel per day to run the generator for chilling the milk. At Shs6,000 per litre, that amounts to Shs210,000 every day. On top of the fuel, there is routine maintenance as well as noise and air pollution. We are in urgent need of convenient ways to minimise the risks because when farmers deliver their milk all they need at the end of the day is their money,” Baguma said.

The solution

Heifer International, which has been working with Ugandan farmers since 1982, aims at reaching 400,000 families on their agenda of attaining sustainable living income.

John Ssenyonga, the director of programmes at Heifer International said that in order to comercialise agriculture, they need to factor in challenges posed by climate change, quality and affordable inputs, equipment, appropriate financing and reliable markets with technology as the key enabler.

“Considering the dairy sector, one of the key drivers of sustainability is the cost and availability of reliable energy for milk chilling. With the electrification rate at just 58.2 per cent in Central Uganda, we need to move quickly to find renewable enrgy solutions,” Ssenyonga said.

Heifer International is connecting solar technology companies, market-based financing and off-grid milk chilling and bulking centres and processors together to improve operating margins.

According to John Tumuhimbise, the assistant commissioner renewable energy in the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, energy is an important aspect in the dairy sector throughout the production chain.

“Government is promoting universal access to energy. We stand at about 58 per cent of the population that is connected but solar energy has already surpassed expectations contributing 38 per cent,” Tumuhimbise said.

Cost-effective solution

Despite the challenges, some dairy farmers have already taken the plunge. Muhammed Lubowa, managing director of All in Trade, a renewable energy service provider, said power bills have increasingly risen.

He said they have options to help bring energy costs down and solar has emerged as the most cost-effective solution.

The company has already established solar plants at Buyanja Dairy found in Maddu, Gomba District where they installed a 20kw single phase battery based solar plant. Another 24kw three-phase system has been established at Kyerusebuka Dairy in Ngoma in Nakaseke District.

“We want to give farmers confidence. There is a guarantee of generating power from an independent source,” Lubowa says.

All in Trade sources inputs, installs and offers follow-up support.

With the addition of a solar power system in the dairy sector, Lubowa says farmers can reduce energy costs. Lubowa says that installation of the solar panels has resulted in a 12-15 per cent saving on utility costs.

“From our field visits, our clients have had electricity cost drop to as low as 40 per cent. The savings we are seeing are a big help,” he said.

Jibril Omar, the chief executive Ofgen, an energy company that offers smart energy solutions said building off grid systems is the most affordable option. He said the system can store enough energy from one day to the next with minimal generator use. A back-up diesel generator is capable of recharging the batteries while, at the same time, taking over the supply of power to the dairy.  Omar added that although installing the solar system comes with an additional cost compared to installing mains electricity, the system should pay for itself in four years.

“An advantage of the solar system is consistency in power. Using solar is responsible climate action. It is wise to be part of the global action for a cleaner, safer environment,” Omar said.

Challenges

Solar energy uptake in Uganda has been restricted by barriers some of which stem from perceptions.

According to Asiimwe, most farmers, who have experienced failures of the systems in the past just don’t want to use solars anymore.

Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg. The initial capital cost required for installation is very high relative to other energy sources. According to Lubowa, a 64kv system can cost about $60,000. “This eliminates many low-income households who form the biggest percentage of farmers,” he said.

Financing remains a key barrier as the two leading agri-business focused banks; Stanbic and Centenary, do not have tailored products for large solar projects.

Heifer International however offers impact investment funds which can be repaid through the solar service providers by cooperatives.

Another factor that reduces the competitiveness of solar energy is that the systems requires professional tools to measure accurate power consumption to aid system design. If a manufacturer has designed a cooler for three phase, it may not work on one phase.

But farmers have complained about the lack of after-sales service. Tugume explained that there are fears over limited access to quality spare parts. Inefficient parts lead to high power consumption.


opportunity

The energy crisis is a wake-up call for the need to reduce dependency on fossil fuels and accelerate the clean energy transition.

Lubowa says that solar power is very effective yet it has added advantage.

He says it can be utilised at the farm to pump water, light the milk shades, promote mechanised milking systems and so much more.

Edna Nyamwaka, the Project Manager Solar for Sustainable Income in Dairy at Heifer International says solar energy is the next big thing for dairy farmers because it lowers production and future-proofs the business.

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