Increasing numbers of farmers are considering renewable energy as a viable diversification – but how do you choose which technology is right for you?
Deciding to diversify: discover the technology that’s right for your farm
Farm diversification used to involve converting the outbuildings into a café or running a B&B on site – not anymore. Rural tourism remains a favourite for farmers looking at additional revenue streams, but renewable energy could soon overtake it.
At the last count, in 2013, more than a third of farmers had invested in renewable energy – solar, wind, biomass or energy from waste. In 2010, it was just 5%.
That year was a tipping point for anaerobic digestion (AD) thanks to a single line in the coalition government’s manifesto: “We will introduce measures to promote a huge increase in energy from waste through anaerobic digestion.”
Biogas market buoyant
The “greenest government ever” it might not have been, but the coalition helped to kickstart AD. Farmers have led the surge: on-farm systems using a combination of slurry/farm waste and energy crops to create biogas are now up and running on 147 UK farms.
Indeed, whereas solar and wind have long been the most popular technologies, creating biogas through the anaerobic digestion of on-farm waste is now coming to the fore – the NFU wants to see 1,000 on-farm plants by 2020.
There is good reason to look at AD because farmers are benefitting from reduced energy costs, additional revenue streams through government incentives for renewable energy production, lower fertiliser bills and improved waste management.
However, it’s not a straightforward decision – especially given the larger up-front costs of biogas.
When you start looking into renewable energy options it’s easy to get sucked in, lose control, and end up going round in circles. You’re not alone.
There are plenty of surveys showing how farmers are keen to invest in renewables. Many recognise the benefits for their businesses and the UK, but just as many highlight the concerns that are preventing them doing so.
Asked what the biggest barriers to investing in renewable energy are, 84% of farmers say high investment costs; half can’t face the red tape (53%) or the planning (52%), and 45% are unsure about what the local community will say.
The big questions are often:
- What technology is best and does it work?
- How much will it cost?
- What resources will I need?
- Is grid connection straightforward?
- Are there grants or subsidies available?
Up in the air
The launch of the government review into some of the financial incentives available for renewable energy production has thrown a potential spanner in the works. There have been suggestions that projects may be rushed through before the tariffs change – especially for wind and solar, which could be hardest hit.
You can’t rush a multi-thousand pound investment that is designed to provide energy security and additional benefits for your farm over the next 20 years or more.
Take your time
Each form of renewable energy comes with its own challenges and benefits – but you need to consider them all because every farm is so different. For those with large south-facing roofs, solar panels might be the best bet, while biogas could add up for dairy farms with plenty of slurry to manage.
As the statistics above suggest, creating biogas through anaerobic digestion is becoming increasingly popular. It’s still a fair way behind wind, but the technology is now proven and there is currently the added benefit of double-subsidies if the system captures both heat and electricity (Combined Heat & Power, CHP).
There are challenges of course. “As with any new technology there is also a steep learning curve and it has taken us about two years to learn how to manage the plant and run it efficiently,” says David Ball, who invested £1M in a 300kW plant at 750-head dairy farm in Gloucestershire.
Weighing up the options
Given the ongoing crisis surrounding milk, coupled with the costs of slurry management, dairy farmers could well be looking at biogas as a viable renewable energy option. Others, like David Ball, have already chosen to go down this route rather than expand their herds.
There are plenty of case studies available, but don’t forget that with almost 150 anaerobic digestion plants on UK farms, it’s a fair bet there will be one near you.
A visit will provide an idea of the space required, not only for the plant but for growing some energy crops to feed in alongside the slurry/manure. You’ll also be able to get an idea of how the system fits in with the day-to-day running of a farm.
Stephen Temple, the British Dairy Farmers Energy Efficiency Award winner (2009) and Farmers Weekly Green Energy Farmer of the Year (2010), has this advice for those considering anaerobic digestion:
“Spend a good amount of time looking at as many different systems as possible to see which will benefit you the most. Try and use a technology provider with plenty of experience in British conditions.”
Investing in farm renewable energy is increasingly popular given that it can buffer farmers from the twin threats of the energy market and farmgate price fluctuations.
There are more technologies out there than you might think. Choosing which is best suited to your farm isn’t easy, but our free Farmer’s Guide to Renewable Energy eGuide could help.
- Rural tourism remains a favourite for farmers looking at additional revenue streams, but renewable energy is set to soon overtake this.
- Creating biogas through the anaerobic digestion of on-farm waste is increasingly popular – the NFU wants to see 1,000 on-farm plants by 2020.
- Farmers need to consider all the renewable energy options available as well as the environmental, financial and social implications.
- There are more technologies out there than you may think and choosing which one is right for you isn’t easy – especially given the upfront costs of biogas facilities.
- With almost 150 anaerobic digestion plants on UK farms, it’s a fair bet there will be one near you – visit one to get an idea of how the system fits in with the day-to-day running of a farm.
Learn more about the technologies available – and whether or not they’re right for you farm.