Farmers Weekly 80th birthday: Barriers to farm energy must be removed

The future of farm energy is bright – if attitudes can be changed.

The future of energy production and the role farmers might play in it is one that Forum for the Future has been mulling over for some time.

We know many farmers are making energy work for them. But we also know it can be a hard slog to get something up and running.

From planning rules to the lottery of grid health, the willingness of banks to lend, and competing (and confusing) information about the different options available, it very much appears that farmers are fighting the system, rather than being supported by it.

Iain WattIain Watt
Forum for the Future

It has become clear, however, that the overall potential for farms to contribute to the energy system is substantial.

As a founding member of the Farm Power project (see right), Forum for the Future has been exploring this potential. We’ll have more to say about this in a few weeks, but our original hope – that we could demonstrate that farms had the potential to provide a chunk (rather than a sliver) of the UK’s energy production, and thus deserve greater attention and support from the powers-that-be – will be validated.

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However, it’s also becoming clear that a number of people – including some in government – will view this as a threat, rather than an opportunity.

The government, for example, wants to see no more than 20GW of solar PV installed across the UK because of fears that any more than this will stress the grid.

The frustrating thing from our standpoint is that while 20GW of solar PV might stress the current grid, the grid of tomorrow could be designed – indeed must be designed – to cater to a much-changed energy landscape.

It must change if the government’s long-term low-carbon ambitions are to be met. It must change to accommodate the roll-out of electric vehicles. And it must change to enable the “big 60,000” energy generators that government itself has called for.

Yet, in the here and now, highlighting the potential of solar PV can make a nervous politician think of risk rather than opportunity.

This is exacerbated by ongoing concerns that energy generation on farms is in conflict with food production. Yet it does not have to be so. Indeed, it’s quite possible to design and promote rural energy systems that complement food production – whether that’s by providing additional income to farmers and helping them become more resilient through to providing space for the pollinators upon which much food production depends. Small- and medium-scale wind, and ground-based solar can, if designed properly, also go hand-in-hand with meadow-based biodiversity.

See also: Farmers Weekly 80th birthday: Expert ideas for upping crop production

Moving forward, we therefore need to get beyond the overly simplistic either/or depiction of energy production in the countryside.

We also need to think about – and reward – the non-energy benefits of smaller-scale energy systems.

Small-scale anaerobic digestion (AD) systems, for example, not only produce energy but enable improved slurry management and can thus help protect water quality.

Yet the only support mechanisms AD can tap into are those geared towards energy production. Until we can find a way to value technologies on the basis of the range of benefits they provide, brilliant solutions such as small-scale AD will continue to fall through the cracks.

And while it’s fair to say that onshore wind isn’t the most politically popular option at the moment, farm-scale wind – typically involving single turbines – is not only at the less-intrusive end of the scale, but also supports a fledging manufacturing industry. An expansion of sustainable farm-based energy would benefit British jobs as well as British farmers.

Farm Power project

Farmers Weekly, Forum for the Future and Nottingham Trent University have been working together on the Farm Power project to better understand the barriers to, and potential for, sustainable farm-based energy.

A survey of more than 700 farmers, carried out in 2013, showed three-quarters of farmers believe renewable energy generation could play a greater role in the future of their businesses, but there are barriers that remain a source of frustration.

To try to change this, the Farm Power project is:

  • Developing a vision of sustainable farm-based energy that can gain widespread support from farmers through to multinationals. We’ll be launching this soon alongside the fuller findings from our research, and hope it will inspire more organisations to get involved in Farm Power.
  • Building a diverse and effective coalition to co-develop and implement innovative solutions, to provide insight and experience, and to become a powerful voice for change.
  • Developing a set of workstreams to tackle some of the barriers and to make things easier for farmers on the ground. We’re also interested in developing workstreams to create new markets for farm-based energy, in local communities and up and down the agricultural supply chain.
  • And, finally, through Farmers Weekly, we’ll be highlighting which technologies and approaches work best in different contexts – thus enabling farmers and rural communities to quickly find the solutions that work best for them.

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