Bioenergy options boost farm incomes

Generating your own renewable energy can provide useful income and help cut energy bills. But choosing the right system for your business is crucial.

Swinton Park Estate, Masham

The 20,000-acre Swinton Park Estate at Masham, near Ripon, has cut its fuel bill by 50% since installing a wood-chip burner five years ago, and the £200,000 cost, partly grant-funded, has almost been covered by the savings made.

The estate also runs a luxury hotel, and it was the combined costs of heating the hotel as well as staff accommodation and ancillary properties that instigated the initial evaluation of generating power from a sustainable source.

“We have 2000 acres of forestry on the estate and employ four full-time foresters,” explains owner Mark Cunliffe-Lister. “There was an ample supply of thinnings that could be made use of, so by installing a wood-chip burner, we were tackling the rising costs of electricity and also making full use of the timber we produce.”

Initial calculations showed the estate was spending £40,000 a year on electricity, but by using between 300-400 tonnes of thinnings a year in a wood-chip burner, substantial savings could be made. The timber was costed at £60/t – a price that hasn’t deviated much since then.

Installation of the 300Kw boiler attracted grant aid as well as an interest-free loan from the Carbon Trust. In total, it shaved £100,000 off the installation cost and made a five-year payback look an attractive option.

The burner uses one tonne a day of dried, chipped timber. Thinnings are stored in the estate’s woods until dry enough. They are then moved into a storage area close to the hotel in readiness for chipping, which is undertaken by a contractor once every three months. The contractor can chip around 100 tonnes a day.

“Having had five years experience of the system, we certainly believe it has been a great success and achieved very worthwhile savings,” says Mr Cunliffe-Lister. “But there are aspects you need to be aware of when assessing the suitability of installing a wood-chip burner. Having a constant supply of dry chip is essential and it needs to be of consistent quality.”

Denton Park, Ilkley

What began as a small-scale operation at Denton Park Estate, Ilkley, West Yorkshire, to supply home-produced woodchip for domestic boilers, is rapidly expanding into a significant part of the estate’s business.

The estate is owned by the Bailey family, who use part of the 27-bedroomed Denton Hall as the headquarters of their own business and as a corporate events centre. A 220kw wood-chip boiler has just been installed in the house and is now supplying its entire heating needs, with a payback time of about five years.

While beef and sheep production underpins the primary agricultural output of the estate, farm manager George Bush is confident the production of timber for fuel is set to expand.

“We began in a small way supplying a local domestic customer but things have escalated and we’re now buying-in timber and chipping it on the estate to meet the needs of new customers in the commercial sector as well as for our own use,” he says.

His son James has been the driving force behind setting up the new enterprise, which as well as using home-grown timber – and for every tree felled, a further 10 are planted – the business now relies on purchased supplies to meet the demand.

“We’ve got almost 30 clients, ranging from domestic users to local council offices and even part of a university. We began using farm trailers, but now we need to use articulated vehicles to haul the wood-chip.

“Interest in renewable energy can only increase and demand will follow. There are some big organisations looking at the environmental benefits of using renewable energy and it’s definitely a trend that’s going to continue,” says James.

The estate’s own boiler uses around 25 tonnes of woodchip per month. The hopper feeding the boiler is filled weekly with G30 (3cm) size chip – all produced from timber grown in sustainable plantations under the Forestry Stewardship Council scheme.

“It’s a system of power generation that does require more monitoring than one using non-sustainable fuel sources. We give it a daily five-minute check and keep an eye on the hopper that feeds the chips into the boiler. The ash is automatically removed but we need to empty the bin once a week in the winter and once a month in the summer,” says James.

Kilnsey Park, Skipton

Kilnsey Park and Trout Farm near Skipton is a popular Yorkshire tourist attraction that has switched to using green technology to become completely self-sufficient for its energy requirements.

Owner Anthony Roberts is using water flowing through a natural spring to feed the trout farm and generate power through a hydro-electric plant.

Depending on flow rates, the generator can produce in excess of 27kW per hour, which is more than enough to meet all of the park’s electrical requirements. Any excess power will be sold back into the National Grid at a fixed rate.

And with the introduction of the new Feed-in Tariff from the beginning of April 2010 – which guarantees income for 20 years – Mr Roberts urges other landowners to consider the benefits of going green.

“The introduction of a guaranteed and inflation-proof power price is something many landowners and farmers have been waiting for to ensure an investment in renewable energy makes financial sense,” says Mr Roberts.

Based on a payment rate of 17p per kW of power produced, plus 3p per kW for all surplus supplies to the grid, Mr Roberts predicts the £20,000 cost of installing the plant will be covered within three to four years.

“The turbine itself is actually quite old technology,” he says. “All it needs is an occasional squirt of grease and should last for many years to come, so my overheads are surprisingly low.”

The Yorkshire Dales National Park has undertaken extensive feasibility studies to evaluate the potential of other sites where water could be harnessed to generate power.

“You don’t need a raging torrent to generate power from water. There are a lot of opportunities for landowners to consider using running water. As well as using water to create electricity, we’ve installed a water heat pump that’s running the central heating system in our farm shop,” adds Mr Roberts.

Middlesmoor Power

Stephen Ramsden, owner of 5500 acres at Middlesmoor, Pateley Bridge, near Harrogate, is urging all landowners and farmers to consider alternative energy sources following the successful installation of a wind turbine on his land.

As well as generating enough power to cover all of his domestic electrical costs, he will be able to sell any surplus energy he generates back to the National Grid.

“Climate change is having a considerable impact on the upland environment but these areas have great potential to contribute towards micro-energy schemes such as wind and hydro-energy generation.

“This is the time when anyone with suitable land or resources should consider getting involved in renewable energy projects,” says Mr Ramsden.

His 6kw wind turbine cost around £20,000 to install – plus VAT at 5% – although £5000 of the cost was covered by a grant from the Carbon Trust. It is estimated the turbine will generate between 10 and 15,000 kWh of electricity per year, half of which will be sold back to the National Grid at a pre-agreed rate of just over 11p per kWh.

In addition, Mr Ramsden is also paid via the OFGEM Renewable Energy Certificate scheme at 4.5p for every kWh produced.

“Based on these figures, I should recover the cost of installing the turbine within five to seven years. It’s totally automatic with only a minimal amount of maintenance once a year and has an expected life-span of around 25 years.

“As well as the environmental benefits, this is also a great diversification project that will provide additional income well into the future,” he says.

Find out more about how renewable energy can benefit your farm business here.