While farmers are familiar with the inter-connection between energy, water and food production, policy and regulatory developments continue to treat these as distinctly separate areas. Current government policy does not provide essential and enabling services such as electricity and water at a 'fair cost' for agriculture. This, unfortunately, was further confirmed with the recent release of the Queensland Competition Authority's Rural Irrigation Price Investigation 2020-24 report, which I wrote about last week.
Where energy is concerned, over the past 10 years the price of electricity has increased at about 10 times the rate of inflation. A critical input for intensifying agriculture, electricity has now become a major, and in some cases an unsustainable, cost for farm businesses. The Queensland Farmers' Federation is working to resolve the high electricity expense issue by delivering the Energy Savers Plus Program Extension (ESPPE) with support and funding from the Queensland government. The project has reached a major milestone with half of the 200 farm energy audits now complete. The audits provide options for farmers to reduce their energy consumption and carbon emissions as well as make important bottom-line savings and productivity gains.
For example, a Stanthorpe horticulture farm and ESPPE participant typically produces 1000 tonnes of tomatoes and 240t of capsicums at a benchmark of 18.69 kWh/t. The farm already uses soil moisture probes to monitor and control water pumps to provide the exact amounts of water required. Further reductions in energy use could be achieved by installing variable speed drive technology to the existing pumps and replacing the main connection pipe to their dam. A total saving of 10,107kWh at a cost of $58,400 would be realised from implementing all the audit recommendations and a new 13.07 kWh/t benchmark could be achieved, as well as a carbon saving of 9.29co2-e.
Australia has gone from having a competitive advantage in energy costs to being one of the most expensive countries in the world, resulting in many irrigated and intensified farm businesses losing their ability to compete globally, risking significant job losses and lower levels of production. Without more deliberate action to resolve water and energy issues imposed by current policy approaches, the likelihood of perverse and wasteful outcomes will increase.