Green energy options increasing for farmers

There’s cash in green energy, be it from on-farm generation or growing raw materials for power stations.

Drax Power is launching a grower contract in early July to secure 1.5m tonnes/yr of biomass. Three more 300MW biomass-only power plants are planned for Immingham, Drax and another site, which will each need 1.3m tonnes/yr.

Pie in the sky? Far from it insists the firm’s energy crop buyer Rob Wood. “We’ll fight tooth and nail for all the UK-sourced biomass we can afford.”

The reasons are clear. UK-grown biomass is backed by government incentives, is more secure than imports, and local sourcing provides a robust environmental message for electricity consumers.

The energy crops sector had stalled for various reasons, so new proposals were needed to revive production, explained Mr Wood.

Clearer long-term contracts, index-linked pricing, agronomy and management support plus an option to deal with Drax directly or via grower groups were the result.

“We used to look at sourcing from within 50 miles of Drax, but now we’re looking national. The logistics can be overcome by lorry, rail container or coastal vessel.

“Drax needs to move forward and we have a very clear road map.”

One organisation not doubting Drax’s commitment is Renewable Energy Growers, a farmer-controlled producer group looking to extend beyond Yorkshire.

“Willow and miscanthus can be just as profitable as second wheat, provided they’re managed as crops,” said REG member Henry Wilson.

The group delivers 90% of its output to Drax and offers advice on what to grow, grant applications, agronomy, crop management and harvesting. It also sells to other customers such as energy plants, schools, swimming pools and glasshouses.

Straw for fuel is another route to the green energy market.

Energy Power Resources wants more for the world’s largest straw-fuelled power station it operates at Ely.

Intake is 200,000t/yr, with another plant highly likely, according to the firm’s John Stannage.

Straw in the swath is bought for £5/Hesston bale, plus 50p-£1.50/bale for on-farm storage. That more than covers the straw’s nutrient value when the fuel savings on chopping and straw incorporation plus faster combining and cultivations are factored in, he said.

Farmers baling, stacking and storing their own straw get £30/t ex-stack. “Whichever way you go we’re all about putting something on the farmer’s bottom line.”

Another option is to burn straw, waste wood or biomass on-farm for low-cost heating.

“A Dragon boiler can recover your investment faster than wind or solar power,” said David Taylor of Dragon Heat. “One tonne of straw with 20% moisture yields at least 300kW of energy, equivalent to 300 litres of fuel oil. If oil costs 30p/litre, each tonne of straw saves £60.”

A typical four-bed farmhouse could be heated by a £4,000-5,000 boiler, cancelling an oil bill of £2000/yr. With installation costs of £2000-5000 pay-back is within four years, noted Mr Taylor.

Another approach is to harness wind power with a turbine.

Gaia-Wind’s generators need no inverter to convert electricity for mains use, unlike dynamo-based turbines, and lower blade speeds produce less noise and disturbance.

Turbines cost about £45,000 installed and can achieve £5000/yr through energy cost savings, carbon credits sold to energy companies and power sales to the National Grid, explained the firm’s David Roe.

But how easy is it to market farm-generated power?

The final word goes to Tim Foster of SmartestEnergy, the UK’s largest buyer of electricity from independent generators.

“On-farm generation certainly gives farmers a bigger share of the value in green energy, with rates of return on investment of 10-15%. But maximising returns can be difficult and bureaucratic, which is where we can help by offering tailored Power Purchase Agreements.”