Sheep and solar panels © REX/Global Warming Images

The opportunity and benefits of farm-based renewable energy generation are championed in a new project called Farm Power. Suzie Horne finds what it’s all about.

What if every farm in the UK were generating renewable energy?

The potential is huge and the benefits are multiple – apart from producing cleaner, greener energy, food production costs could be cut, farm business risk reduced and biodiversity benefits enhanced.

There is also scope for improved water and land management alongside rural economic development.

See also: Report highlights rapid growth of UK AD sector

The vision of UK farms and rural communities making a significant contribution to a resilient, low-carbon energy system comes from a coalition of organisations which wants to build the impetus for that to become a reality through the Farm Power initiative.

Today (21 November) the coalition launches a report, Farm Power – exploring the size of the prize, showing that there is between 10GW and 20GW of unfulfilled renewable energy generation potential on UK farms.

To put that in context, UK renewable electricity generation capacity was 19.7GW in 2013, of a total capacity of 94.1GW.

This project is about much more than costs and returns, it is about resilience and about farms playing a much more prominent role in the national energy mix.

Farm Power has gathered – and continues to gather – evidence and build momentum to lobby policymakers in the interest of independent rural power generation.

Tell us your experiences

Have you adopted renewable energy on your farm or estate? We need to hear your stories, good and bad, so that they can help others decide which renewable route to take and how to approach it.

Send your stories, tips and advice to fwbusiness@rbi.co.uk, or write to Farm Power, Farmers Weekly, Quadrant House, The Quadrant, Sutton, Surrey SM2 5AS.

“It’s quite possible to design energy systems that complement and support food production,” says Ian Watt, principal sustainability adviser at non-profit sustainability charity Forum for the Future.

The ability to combine sheep, poultry or other food production with energy production is another benefit, alongside the opportunity projects would provide to offer space for pollinators and other biodiversity benefits, he argues.

“It’s a localised issue – we need the right technology at the right scale and we need to move away from polarised debates,” he says.

“The ‘food versus energy, biodiversity or anything else’ debate reduces complex land choices to a massively simplified binary trade-off.

“If we want to turn the ‘Big 6’ generators into the ‘Big 60,000’, which the government says it wants, where better to start than farms?”

The project began in 2013 with a survey of farmers by Farmers Weekly in association with Forum for the Future and Nottingham Trent University. Of the 700 farms that responded, 38% had already invested in renewable energy generation.

Bar chart showing capacity of installed technology

Farms can make a bigger contribution

“Despite the pioneering efforts of some, the considerable potential of farms and rural communities to contribute to the energy system remains largely untapped.

“We’ve therefore been exploring what that potential might be – in order to illustrate that it could become a ‘chunk, not a sliver’ if government and society really got behind it,” says Mr Watt.

“There are different ways to estimate the potential of farm-based power in the UK. We have extrapolated the results from our June 2013 survey in Farmers Weekly, built simple scenarios on the basis of reasonable assumptions of how much kit farms in the UK could host and considered projections for renewables capacity in the UK and the potential for farms to contribute to these. We have also estimated the amount of land that could reasonably be used for energy.”

Farm-based renewable energy potential

Extrapolated from the original Farmers Weekly survey

Assuming 115,000 farms (those > 20ha)

If 15% of total UK farms (17,250) installed 4kW, capacity would be 0.07GW

If 17% of total UK farms (19,550) installed 10kW, capacity = 0.2GW

If 25% of total UK farms (28,750) installed 50kW, capacity = 1.44GW

If 15% of total UK farms (17,250) installed 150kW, capacity = 2.59GW

If 10% of total UK farms (11,500) installed 500kW, capacity = 5.75GW

If 10% of total UK farms (11,500) installed 1MW, capacity = 11.5GW

Total capacity potential – 21.55GW

The scenarios are ambitious, says Mr Watt, but have been sense-checked by talking to farmers who have invested in renewable energy.

“Regardless of which approach is used, it’s quite easy to find at least 10GW of unmet potential across British farms and it’s pretty easy to get up to 20GW too – especially if we embrace ground-based solar.”

The report sees the potential for wind to provide 3.5GW of capacity assuming that 15% of farms are able to install wind, with the size of the turbines scaling up according to the size of the farm.

The solar potential assumes that all farms could dedicate 0.5% of their land area to solar to give a  total of 13.8GW.

Farm Power – the size of the prize

Estimates of potential for UK farms to host renewable energy generation

Technology

Capacity

Generation

Carbon savings

Solar (ground)

14GW

10,500GWh/year

4,000,000t CO2/year

Solar (rooftop)

1.5GW

1,000GWh/year

500,000t CO2/year

Farm-scale wind

3.5GW

8,000GWh/year

3,500,000t CO2/year

AD

1GW

4,500GWh/year

3,500,000t CO2/year

Total

20GW

24,000GWh/year

11,500,000t CO2/year

UK Total (2013)

94.1GW

351,800GWh  

 

Potential Farm

Power contribution

21%

6.8%    

 

In compiling the report, several farm businesses of very different types were examined where renewable energy contributed between 19% and 50% of farm income.

Several of these had a mix of technology types not only offering access to cheaper power but other benefits too. For example, an AD unit on a dairy farm can help with slurry management and reduce pollution risks while biomass boilers can transform poultry litter into renewable heat and fertiliser.

The growth of renewable energy on farms means that income from this relatively new enterprise already matches or exceeds that from rural tourism.

For some farmers, it could become as significant as the support paid under the Single Payment Scheme, says Jonathan Scurlock, chief adviser on renewable energy and climate change to the NFU.

Solar is the most achievable technology for most, especially at the 50 to 100kW level, he says.

“Solar offers a solid 10-15% return, small wind power in the past was 15-20% but it is now lower.” Solar panel costs have dropped significantly and although turbine costs have reduced slightly too, the balance of plant costs associated with installing them have risen while support has fallen and so have overall returns.

The business opportunities of farm-based renewable energy are many and varied, points out Mark Newton, head of the renewables sector at Fisher German.

“We import a very high percentage of our cut flowers but now a UK business is proposing solar power to heat glasshouses for growing cut flowers.

“This is a good business model which should work.”

Grid access must be fair and affordable

It seems that farmers are finding ways to invest in renewables despite the system, rather than because of it, says Mr Watt.

Investment is desperately needed in the grid by its nine regional district network operators (DNOs) to make access fair and affordable, says the Farm Power coalition

“The UK government has embraced 20GW as its solar target partly because the National Grid suggested that 22GW would place unacceptable stress on the current system,” he says.

“The grid must change if the government’s long-term low-carbon ambitions are to be met. This will, however, require investment and potentially impact negatively on the only factor that seems to matter – the end cost to consumers.”

Challenges

Grid access is a huge challenge across all technologies and planning is now the most difficult aspect of wind developments. Government policy has been inconsistent, making investment more risky.

In the case of turbines, there are 10 main constraints which can rule out development even before grid connection is broached, says Mr Newton. These include aviation, telecoms microwave links, adjoining residential properties and heritage. In areas populated by high net worth individuals, the likely level of opposition is such that wind can be more challenging, he suggests.

Alongside structural and regulatory issues, there are technical and commercial considerations that make the decision to invest a complicated one – among the main ones are which equipment to choose, its reliability, siting and the quality of technical advice and support.

Balanced on top of all of these is the challenge of gaining planning permission and the risk of projects being “called in” and then refused.

Add tax and single farm payment eligibility into the mix and the risks are increased. In addition, many livestock farms in particular have only single-phase electricity supplies which makes it impossible to export anything more than 15kW.

With a larger, three-phase grid connection, 50kW, 250kW and particularly 500kW wind turbines are still very profitable, so the risks are worth pursuing, says Mr Newton.

Positives

Despite significant challenges, there is scope for these to be tackled and the Farm Power vision has the support of some big industry names in its bid to promote the uptake of farm-based renewable energy.

Those who have embarked on renewable energy generation are largely positive about it and their businesses are benefiting from lower power costs and/or income from exporting energy to the grid.

Costs and returns for typical solar energy project

Solar

4kW

50kW

150kW

250kW

Generation (900kWh /kW)

3.5 MWh/year

45 MWh/year

135 MWh/year

225 MWh/year

Typical capital cost

£6,500

£55,000

£155,000

£250,000

Income from Fits (Assuming 100% electricity exported)

£586/year

£7,605/year

£20,398/year

£32,985/year

Value of electricity if 100% used/sold on site (10p/kWh)

£350/year

£4,500/year

£13,500/year

£22,500/year

Costs and returns for typical wind energy projects

Wind

50kW

225kW

500kW

 

Generation (@ 6m/s wind speed)

165 MWh/year

440 MWh/year

1,600 MWh/year

 

Typical capital cost

£250,000-270,000

£580,000-630,000

£1.2m-1.4m

 

Income from Fits (Assuming 100% electricity exported)

£34,270/year

£79,684/year

£289,760

 

Value of electricity if 100% used/sold on site (10p/kWh)

£16,500/year

£44,000/year

£160,000/year

 

Costs and returns for typical AD project

AD

250kW

500kW

   

Generation (gross)

2,000MWh/year

4,000 MWh/year

   

Typical capital cost

£1.4m

£2.2m

   

Income from Fits (Assuming 100% electricity exported)

£225,000/year (Does not include RHI)

£417,000 (Does not include RHI)

   

Value of electricity if 100% used/sold on site (10p/kWh)

£181,000/year

£362,000/year

   

Most stress the huge value in talking to others who have been through the process before embarking on a renewables installation.

The higher the proportion of generated power that can be used on farm or in associated businesses, the greater the savings.

The good news for those exporting power is that the market is hungry for electricity generated by renewables means, to the extent that the open market will pay more for exported power than the default rate offered by the government.

Renewable energy provided 17% of UK electricity in the past quarter and over one weekend in October it consistently produced more than nuclear in a 60-hour period, he says.

Ask the experts

Do you have a question about planning, funding, costing, grid connection, tax – or any other aspect of a project? Farm Power’s panel of experts can help provide an answer. Email fwbusiness@rbi.co.uk or write to Farm Power, Farmers Weekly, Quadrant House, The Quadrant, Sutton, Surrey SM2 5AS.

Ground-mounted solar is already very close to becoming competitive without any government support,  says Dr Scurlock.

The way agreements and projects are put together is also developing. “We’re getting more creative, with  flexible contracts, clever technology,  active power management, energy storage and more pre-approved kit.”

The prospect of affordable battery storage has the potential to move user-generators from 30% of their electricity supplied through solar to between 60% and 70%.

The UK also now has its first floating solar farm, offering an easier planning route, lower installation and decommissioning costs as well as reducing evaporation losses from reservoirs and lower land use.

More efficient panels are becoming available, including those which move and tilt to achieve maximum exposure to the sun. The Department for Communities and Local Government is also consulting on extending permitted development rights (PDRs) for larger solar roof schemes (up to 1MW), removing  a planning barrier for relatively large projects.

With grid connection presenting a significant barrier for so many, potential generators are thinking creatively. For example, there may be the opportunity to sell energy to a neighbour by installing a private wire between two properties.

Provided agreements are properly constructed, this could offer a solution and there are examples where this is working, says Mr Newton.

Lord Curry

Lord Curry on why Farm Power matters

“Renewable energy technologies offer huge, but largely untapped, opportunities for UK farming businesses to provide sustainable energy solutions for society as well as build greater economic resilience for their own businesses,” says Lord Curry (pictured) in support of the Farm Power initiative.

“And the benefits to society go way beyond delivering a sizeable chunk of electricity to the national grid; they can also deliver enhanced biodiversity, reduced carbon emissions and crucially a stronger relationship between farmers and local communities.

“With older, non-sustainable, energy technologies now at a major crossroads, it is even more important to grasp the potential of more sustainable technologies.

“That’s why the Farm Power coalition is such an important initiative. It is bringing together key players in the industry to help provide direction to unlocking some of the many barriers that are currently impeding uptake, as well as a vision to the potential that farms could deliver for the UK.

“It’s in all our interests to get behind this and champion the benefits, and opportunity, that renewable energy technologies can bring to society and farming.”

Farm Power's logo 

FarmPower was founded by Forum for the Future, Farmers Weekly and Nottingham Trent University, and is guided by a steering committee made up of National Grid, United Utilities, NFU, Business in the Community, The Farm Energy Project, Lely, Thompson Farms, Lightsource, Endurance and additionally funded by The Ashden Trust and the Esmeé Fairburn Foundation.

Endurance Wind Power is a proud supporter of the Farm Power project. Its small-scale wind turbines are designed to farm the wind and are the choice of more than 600 farmers, landowners and community groups in the UK. Collectively, they are making a difference. Endurance is proud to support Farm Power to highlight what wind can do for you.

Lightsource has seen first-hand the many benefits that solar energy can bring to rural communities through its work with landowners and farmers across the UK. The Farm Power project can help spread these important messages and ensure the full potential of UK farms is realised on all scales of solar power deployment, including ground and roof installations.

Winds of change blow in

Sponsored by EnduranceEndurance Wind Power is a leading global manufacturer of farm-scale wind turbines. With 600 turbines in the UK, Endurance is the bestselling and most recognised name in the UK. Attractive in design and proven with more than 14m operating hours, Endurance machines are solidly backed by the manufacturer’s warranty and supported by a network of field service teams up and down the country.

The Endurance E series and X series turbines generate low-voltage, clean energy for farms, rural businesses and communities. With five new designs coming to market in 2015, Endurance has an ideal design for every site and every wind type, each offering farms and communities a reliable revenue source, significant reduction in energy costs and endless clean energy from wind.

Employee-owned and engineering driven, Canadian-based Endurance has its European headquarters and manufacturing facility in the West Midlands, where up to 100 new jobs are being created.

The UK is rapidly developing the adoption of renewable power in general and farm-scale wind and is reporting five-year average growth rates of more than 26%. The large number of farms with wind turbines, either through direct ownership or land lease, speaks to the important benefits that renewables bring to farmers. This includes offsetting rising electricity costs, securing long-term revenue from Fits, contributing clean energy to the grid and realising opportunities to grow business equity.

Endurance Wind Power sees a consistently growing adoption of wind energy applications, particularly on UK farms. The trend is shifting towards higher producing small wind turbines, which have enhanced production levels to enable farms to continue to see the strong investment returns they are accustomed to. Endurance is meeting this need by introducing new designs with larger production capacity throughout 2015.

Solar’s future shining bright

Sponsored-by-LightsourceLightsource Renewable Energy is the UK’s leading solar energy company. Founded in 2010, Lightsource has achieved an unrivalled track record in the deployment of solar power across farms and commercial rooftops in the UK.

The company develops, operates and maintains the largest portfolio of commercial solar projects in the country, working closely with rural businesses to achieve sustainable, future-proof income.

A British-domiciled company, its 300 full-time staff are based across offices in London, Bath, Scotland and Belfast providing full service capability on solar projects from design and planning through to long-term maintenance.

Over the past four years, Lightsource has been working closely with farmers and landowners who have been able to capitalise on the flexibility of solar power by providing secure rental income on ground installations and free solar panels for larger farm buildings.

Lightsource prides itself on being part of the rural community, managing more than 1,600ha of land that has been diversified with solar farms and hundreds of solar rooftops nationwide.

Funded by Octopus Investments, the UK’s leading retail fund management company, finance for all projects originate from UK investors and is readily available.

This enables Lightsource to act quickly and efficiently – and you can start to benefit in a matter of days.

This partnership has seen Lightsource deploy more than £1.1bn of UK investment into solar installations, making Lightsource the largest operator of solar power installations in the country.

Lightsource experts are readily on hand to provide free, no-obligation advice on how you can start benefiting from solar power today.

Visit www.lightsource-re.co.uk