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Just got back yesterday from a class retreat to a nearby village that runs on 50% green energy. The Masters course I am in deals with management of resources and environment and allows students to incorporate sustainability concepts into their chosen field of specialization. The trip comes at the beginning of the winter semester to allow the new students to get a feel for what exactly the course deals with and not forgetting the all important bonding between class mates 🙂

When the farm manager started speaking most of us were exhausted from the hike the previous day plus staying up late playing group games but slowly but surely he got our attention.  The various forms of energy the farm produces stays completely within the farm with the only thing that leaves being the milk, meat, rapeseed oil and excess electricity that they sell.  He started by giving figures on just how much their production is. They have 2,200 cows, of these 450 are for breeding calves. To feed these cows they have huge acres of land (pardon me if I don’t give the figures, my morning coffee hadn’t taken effect yet).

Then he got to the good stuff-how through a very efficient energy cycle they are able to utilize all the by products of farming.  A brief description of what sustainable farming -it is method of agriculture that attempts to ensure the profitability of farms while preserving the environment. Farms spend a large percentage of their operating costs on fuel for their machines. The farm carries out a number of projects aimed at reducing their carbon footprint as well as reducing their overall costs and hence increasing their profitability. Wastes from the farm include the cow dung from the cows, the left over kernel after rape seed oil is pressed out. The products from the farm are milk, meat, plant oil and renewable electricity.

The energy cycle goes through the following stages:

1. The cows feed of the feed crops grown on the large farm, these crops have converted the carbon in the soil into useful carbon that the cows ingest.

2. The cows then produce milk and meat and convert this carbon into products edible to man

3. The cows’ produce cow dung which is collected in an anaerobic digestor where it is heated to generate biogas. The gas is then collected and used for heating purposes or to generate electricity. The matter left over after Biogas production is returned back to the soil as manure.

4. Apart from growing feed crop for the cows they also plants for oil (rapeseed). On pressing the oil out the pulp left is also fed to the cows (organic bred beef is fed on a number of plants such as oats, soybeans, sunflower seeds and rapeseed cakes). Some of the oil is sold with the rest being used as bio-diesel in their fleet of farm vehicles

5. They have over 11,000 sq.m of solar panels installed on their barns and buildings. These generate 1.2 MW of power. The panels are not all theirs, some are owned by investors. They also have wind turbines which generate approximately 0.46 MW of power. 7 million kWh of electricity is generated annually with 4.3 million kWh of this generated from biogas. They only consume about 14% of this electricity allowing the rest to be sold to the grid through trading managers who act as middle men.  He stated that due to their generation the small town runs on 50% green energy. With such a successful investment the possibility of the German government switching to 100% renewable energy by the year 2050 does not seem like a pipe dream anymore. To quicker facilitate the switch over the next step lies in changing user energy consumption patterns. For example, with regards to power generation from a combination of solar and wind, more power is generated during the day than at night. Thus one’s washing machine would be better switched on at midday when the grid has more power available rather than at the end of a work day.

All these investments definitely cost money. The farm is run as a cooperative with farmers and business investors owning shares. The realization of the total investment was achieved not through government subsidies but through cost benefit analyses. He is of the idea that the argument for government subsidies to encourage change over is misplaced as with the subsidies the long term financial plans will be made based on the subsidized costs. But subsidies are not sustainable as what happens when the government runs out of money? Investment in change over stops. Thus, he explained how for assured investments the need is for prudent financial planning from the onset based on the realistic costs. They begun their project in the mid 90s getting their first wind turbine installed. 20 years later the investment is slowly paying back and they continue to invest knowing that the full gains shall be reaped by the coming generation.

For more information on the farm check out their website here (in german but thank God for Chrome’s translate plug in :D) and for more practical applications of sustainability in farming check out Discovery’s  10 sustainable practices in agriculture. Sustainability is not just some big corporate task, it also begins with me and you.

Spread the word, let’s educate the world.