The water-energy-food nexus presents a unique opportunity for the agriculture industry. An EU-funded consortium of research teams saw this opportunity and introduced a new approach to matching water demand with available energy offer to save water without affecting crop production so that the competitiveness of irrigated agriculture is improved.
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Agriculture has been very successful in capturing a major share of the worlds water resources around 30 % across the EU, and up to 70 % in southern Europe. The socio-economic rationale for these figures is however now being put into question.
During recent decades, significant water savings have been achieved without considering energy aspects, resulting in some cases in a significant increase in energy use, that combined with increasing energy prices is putting the sustainability of the irrigated agriculture at risk, notes Sergio de Campos, technical coordinator of the EU-funded WEAM4i project from Adasa in Spain. Thus, the challenge for the irrigation sector is to minimise the energy costs.
In the past, the connection between water and energy used to irrigate crops was largely ignored. Irrigation systems were designed and constructed with the assumption that energy would be abundant and cheap. Rising energy costs are now forcing us to seek ways to increase the energy efficiency and to reduce financial costs, while producing more crop per drop, he adds.
Flexible smart irrigation
WEAM4i could be a sign of things to come in smart irrigation. The project team combined different technologies in an innovative cloud-based ICT platform, where local data from field sensors and remote sensing are gathered, together with weather forecasts and energy market prices. This heterogeneous data collection is analysed by advanced algorithms to provide added-value irrigation information and advisory services.
According to De Campos, the WEAM4i intelligent irrigation scheduling system goes well beyond the state-of-art with its unique HydrOptim© decision support system for optimal water use, continuously self-adapting to water demand forecasts for the coming five days as well as hourly energy prices from the energy market.
Its web-enabled architecture also facilitates integration with environmental data streams. In this way, the WEAM4i system can provide weather forecasts and remote sensing information as a service to farmers. The outputs and irrigation recommendations are presented to users via a web browser and a smartphone application.
Our future plans include the development of an applications farm to host services targeting primarily small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and agronomic advisors that are interested in deploying their own applications on the platform, adds De Campos.
The new ICT platform has already been deployed as operational prototype in fields across Europe, covering a wide range of crops and energy markets and delivering between 10 % to 25 % improvement in irrigation energy efficiency. By matching water demand to available energy offer, cost savings could reach 20 %.
At the same time, WEAM4i is enhancing the productivity of each farm by offering up to 8 % potential water savings without decreasing the crop yield. Precision irrigation is critical for ensuring optimum fertiliser application, good crop quality and sustained high yields.