Lei Gommers, Global Business Development Manager, Agriculture, ABB Drives explores the pivotal role that variable speed drives (VSDs) working with electric motors can play in addressing the agricultural sector’s toughest challenges.

The Problem-Solving Powers of Variable Speed Drives
The Problem-Solving Powers of Variable Speed Drives

Lei Gommers, Global Business Development Manager, Agriculture | ABB Drives

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projects that agricultural production worldwide needs to increase by 70 percent by 2050 to feed a growing global population. This alone is a significant challenge – but farmers must also do their part to meet ambitious sustainability targets.

Fortunately, technologies like variable speed drives (VSDs) enable farms to work more effectively and more energy efficiently. Further, drives also enable greater precision and digital connectivity, improving consistency and reducing waste, and help to lower maintenance costs and ambient noise, among several other benefits.

Here’s what agriculture leaders need to know.


Understanding VSDs

VSDs sit between the electrical supply and an electric motor. They control the flow of power, enabling precise adjustment of the motor’s speed and torque. Drives can adjust a motor’s speed based on a range of parameters, ensuring that it only ever runs at the speed required by the task.

Without a drive, a motor runs continuously at full speed and its output is controlled by mechanical methods such as throttling. This wastes power. A VSD, in comparison, saves electricity in any application where the motor does not need to be running at full speed. Even minor adjustments to the speed can result in significant savings – for example, using a drive to slow a fan or pump by just 20 percent cuts its energy use by half.

VSDs already feature in a wide range of industries, such as food and beverage, providing benefits including energy efficiency and process control. Fortunately, the agricultural sector is rapidly catching up in adopting VSD technology.

Driven by the need for precision agriculture, process automation and data-driven decision-making, VSDs are becoming ever more present inside a multitude of agricultural applications, where they have emerged as powerful solutions, enabling precise control and energy optimization in critical processes.


Smarter irrigation and water distribution

VSDs increase control over processes, enable automation, and deliver data-based productivity insights that help identify potential improvements.

For example, crop irrigation pumps are essential but require a significant amount of electricity to function. Rather than using throttle valves to control the pumps, wasting electricity, VSDs can control the flow. Solar drives such as the ABB ACQ80 can even take care of irrigation with photovoltaic (PV) panels without any grid connection.

The intelligent features built into the drive highlight opportunities to save electricity, and more data can be gathered with additional sensors. This enables the VSD to continually adjust the pump motor’s speed to maintain consistent pressure, minimizing stress on the system. If a pipe does burst, these same sensors enable the pump to detect and rapidly shut down, saving water.

Similarly, a farm may aim to balance water provided to crops with rainfall and weather conditions. VSDs enable variable speed pumping to ensure that plants receive exactly the right amount of water throughout growth season, maximizing productivity and minimizing waste.


Saving power, saving money

Cost efficiency is as critical in farming as any industry, and arguably harder to achieve, not least with the industry’s reliance on an unpredictable climate. But while they can’t solve a problem like the weather, VSDs can help reduce operating costs.

By precisely controlling motor speeds in farming applications, energy consumption can be optimized. Since energy is typically one of the most significant operating expenditures (OpEx) for a farm, even small improvements in energy efficiency can produce meaningful cost savings. Controlling energy consumption is also a great way to help farmers meet their sustainability targets.

VSDs also enable savings in terms of maintenance, as they include features designed to minimize stress and maximize the useful life of machinery. They enable soft starting and stopping, for example, which are especially useful for high-inertia applications like grain augers and feed mixers. This function works by slowly increasing or decreasing the speed of a motor rather than going from a full stop to full speed. This reduces wear and tear and often means that the machinery requires less frequent maintenance.


Ensuring animal welfare

Animal welfare has never been higher on the agricultural agenda. VSDs play a critical role here, too, such as in ventilation systems, ensuring that animals remain at a safe temperature and providing a continuous supply of fresh air.

An insufficiently ventilated space may cause the buildup of harmful gases like ammonia and CO 2 , which can cause respiratory issues in livestock. Systems with imprecise control also make it difficult to maintain a consistent temperature, causing thermal stress.

Since a VSD enables precise control over the fan motors, the ventilation system can be adjusted to ensure adequate ventilation in all conditions and across every stage of the animals’ growth. This means that the animals receive the ventilation and temperature they need while minimizing electricity wastage. When animals are provided with the right temperature and clean air to breathe, they have a higher quality of life and have the best chance of optimal growth. Solar drives also find application in shadow sheds with PV panels driving cooling fans to prevent heat stress for animals in dairy farms.


Choosing a VSD

Agriculture presents many highly demanding environmental conditions. A VSD for agricultural applications, therefore, must be able to withstand dust, moist, washdown cleaning, and more. For example, ABB’s general purpose drive ACS580 has features such as PCB coatings, ammonia resistance, and robust IP66 enclosures provide resistance to these conditions, increasing the drive’s reliability, minimizing downtime, and extending its lifespan.

Crucially, in cases where the electrical supply might be unstable due to factors such as power fluctuations or imbalances in the main power source, VSDs possess the functionality to keep fans running and therefore ensure a constant and secure airflow for livestock.

Farmers should also consider a drive’s digital features. Drives are available with built-in sensors and loggers that can collect and transmit data, enabling data-led decision making. These drives also provide data in real time, ensuring that operators have full oversight over their facility. Data can also be shared with experts to identify opportunities to reduce waste, ensure consistency and improve energy efficiency.


Driving better agriculture

VSDs are essential to the success of modern agriculture. They enable farmers to overcome today’s challenges – like high energy costs and the urgent need to reduce emissions – and scale up production to meet growing demand.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AgriTechTomorrow

Comments (1)

As the article mentions, VSDs are great for automating the agriculture industry. But VSDs can introduce stray voltage and harmonics to farms. Stray voltage and harmonics can affect cows and significantly reduce milk production as well as interfere with RFID readers and cause motors used in well pumps, milking vacuum pumps, cooling fans, herd gates, etc. to prematurely fail. See how MTE helps saves cows and eliminate downtime on farms: https://mtecorp.com/wp-content/uploads/IND-DFO-E-0922_Web.pdf

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