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March 23, 2017

AG TECHNOLOGY: Firm Turns Energy Efficiency into Cost Savings

When Chris Terrell, a strategic energy manager, walked through farm fields and processing plants six years ago, he started to notice a trend: farmers were spending an exorbitant amount of money on electricity consumption.

At the time, he worked for EnerNOC, Inc., a global cleantech company in partnership with Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), and noticed there were few, if any, technologies available to help agriculturalists curtail energy usage, cut costs and save time on labor. He wanted to change that.

Terrell, along with co-founder Chris Vines (a mechanical engineer), had an idea that has revolutionized the way farmers manage energy use. They launched Wexus Technologies, Inc.—a start-up company, headquartered in San Francisco, that has developed a cloud-based, energy and water management software system for agriculture.

“Our company grew out of necessity,” said Terrell, who is the company’s chief executive officer. “With the rise of mobile devices and connected sensors, growers wanted information in real time on their phone, with specific recommendations on how to make operations more efficient. A lot of companies were providing this type of technology in commercial and industrial buildings but not in ag.”

Wexus specializes in providing these types of recommendations, especially those targeting energy and water costs due to irrigation.

Approximately 20 percent of California’s energy usage goes to moving water. This includes energy to collect, move and treat water; dispose of wastewater; and power the large pumps that move water throughout the state. Without electricity to pump surface water from irrigation channels, reservoirs or direct groundwater to farms, growers would not be able to irrigate their crops. Furthermore, under “time of use” rates, farmers can be charged up to five times as much to use this energy if they are irrigating in the afternoons versus mornings or evenings. Additionally, utility energy rates in California have increased on average 15 percent every year for the last several years and are continuing to rise.

The Wexus team has built the world’s first “early warning system” for the ag industry that alerts growers in real time to actual costs and potential equipment problems of their irrigation systems. Wexus helps farmers optimize crop production and irrigation by closely tracking how much energy and water their irrigation pumps are using, when they are using it and how much it is actually costing them. Tapping into their extensive experience with smart metering, energy markets and developing cloud-based software, Terrell and Vines created a software platform that calculates weather patterns, tracks water usage and aggregates data about energy usage across the entire farm through a network of existing utility meters. This data informs farmers exactly how much it costs to irrigate at certain points in the day. Farmers can use this information to plan irrigation schedules and start making decisions based on actual costs instead of having to guess, and then being hit with large utility bills later.

“If you’re a grower spending up to $100,000 a month in electricity bills, energy is typically seen as a sunk cost,” said Terrell. “We’re helping growers get a handle on the energy and water they could be saving, known to us as the ‘Water-Energy Nexus,’ and save them thousands of dollars each year that are literally flying out of their pockets.”

Terrell and his team sees energy savings as a competitive advantage and a multiplier: it is much easier to drive higher net operating income and higher farm asset value by focusing on efficiency gains versus trying to acquire more land to grow more crops, or even installing more solar panels.

With Wexus, growers have better tools and actionable insights to optimize and manage their current and historical utility bills, energy costs, peak usage and surcharges, overall energy usage and utility rates. The Wexus team leverages existing utility smart meters to access data on behalf of customers. They also work with customers to install additional hardware at the pump to track energy and water usage in near-real time with text alerts and email reports on their phone. This allows growers to track which pumps are on or off (when maybe they shouldn’t be) and remotely manage those irrigation pumps to avoid costly peak usage surcharges. It even allows farmers to remotely track the efficiency of a pump and calculate energy and dollar savings or identify potential maintenance or aquifer issues. Wexus also tracks renewable energy production through solar PV systems by closely tracking net metering and bills, which is a growing challenge in the industry as more growers have “gone solar.”

“Many companies in the agtech space are focused on irrigation management through automation and remote control via hardware and sensors in the field. That technology is great, but a key problem still remains: no one can really tell you the costs associated with irrigation and what your real return on investment will be after you implement the technology. But we can,” said Terrell.

And it is only going to get better from here. Since their initial funding from a competitive grant award through the California Energy Commission, Wexus also recently received a Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGICT) scholarship, awarded by the Western Growers Foundation through a Wells Fargo grant. The scholarship will offset the costs of being a resident in the Center and help the company further strengthen relationships with the Center sponsors, residents and WG members.

Currently, Wexus is piloting a new program with PG&E (also a WGCIT sponsor) that is slated to roll out in early March. PG&E’s initiative will focus on driving energy savings and provide a high-level of service to ag customers. PG&E has tapped Wexus to pioneer the program with the energy giant. Together, they plan to integrate new energy-saving technology into the ag space and provide turnkey services to growers. The program will offer growers better tools and technologies to manage irrigation and food processing energy usage, provide trainings and workshops on ways to drive energy savings, make rebates easily available and more.

Wexus also plans to use the scholarship as an opportunity to collaborate with other start-up companies working out of the WGCIT to develop fully integrated software platforms that give growers a “one-stop shop” for monitoring and managing their operations.

“Our customers are our number one priority. If we’re able to work with fellow residents in the Center to develop integrated technologies where customers can cut costs, increase efficiencies and minimize losses, it would bring ag and agtech to the next level,” said Terrell. Technologies could include an all-in-one application or system where growers can manage everything from their energy and water usage to closely tracking employee labor and cost accounting or meeting food safety requirements.

As a member of the WGCIT since July 2016, Wexus has leveraged the resources offered by the Center to not only advance agtech development, but to focus on strengthening the ag workforce. Terrell, a U.S. Army veteran, is currently working with Dennis Donohue, lead of the WGCIT, to develop an outreach program to veterans and current military members, encouraging them the pursue a career in ag and agtech.

“I’ve made the transition from active duty to civilian life, and I know how extremely difficult it can be,” said Terrell. “By recruiting some of our nation’s best and brightest to work with leading tech experts, we can leverage the expertise of veterans to enhance tech and farming. If you really want to support the troops, then hire them.”