Teaching the next generation about renewables

Renewables technology plays an integral role in one Devon farmer’s business, offering guaranteed energy production and cost savings.

And it’s not just Ian Shears’ family that is benefiting from the green investment on the 48ha organic sheep farm, local schoolchildren are being taught the importance of renewables and how farming can play a key role in meeting future energy requirements.

Highfield Farm, in Topsham, hosts around 50 school visits a year at its purpose-built classroom, built in 2012 with the help of grant funding from Natural England.

“We have diversified a lot over the years,” says Mr Shears. “The whole farm is organic and we have been in a Higher Level Stewardship scheme since 2006.

“We wanted to be green and sustainable in the long term; it comes down to a business decision as well though because we are trying to save costs.”

He says renewables offers farmers a chance to control their energy costs and budget more easily.


Renewables investments on the farm include 10kW of roof-mounted solar panels installed in 2010, and a 90kW biomass boiler installed in August 2012.

“We were really pleased with the solar PV and then we thought we would like to put some more renewables in, but were limited on the amount we could put to the grid,” says Mr Shears.

The boiler, installed by Fair Energy, was 50% funded by EDF Energy as part of a green funding for school visits scheme; the remaining 50% of the £40,000 project was paid for from the Shears family’s savings.

Project costs were kept to a minimum due to Mr Shears constructing the biomass boiler house and fuel store himself.

The boiler is currently run on woodchips, and used to heat the classroom and a four-bedroom farmhouse.

In the future, Mr Shears hopes to try and use as much home-produced woodfuel as possible.

“You have to think about fuel supply very carefully,” he says. “We are cutting coppice now to chip this coming autumn, but I don’t know if we are going to get quite self-sufficient because we are going to need about 40t a year.

“I am investigating other sources like waste pallet wood. You have just got to look around and see what’s available locally – if you look in the right places you can find timber quite cheaply.”

Lessons learned

The biggest challenge Mr Shears faced was getting hooked up to the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) – the boiler started producing heat in October 2012 and only received accreditation from Ofgem in January this year.

This was due to having a more complex RHI application because the system had more than one heat meter (see box for RHI application tips).

In addition, heat loss at the site has been a problem most likely due to not having an underground pipe from the boiler to the farmhouse. RHI payments, at a rate of 8.3p/kWh, from October 2012 to February 2013 were about £1,300; however £250 was lost due to heat loss.

Mr Shears says it is difficult to estimate the exact payback period on the project as it is not currently running at full capacity – office lets and a toilet and shower block on the farm’s campsite will be heated in the future – but he hopes to save around £2,000 a year in heating costs for the farmhouse alone.

He anticipates an annual RHI income of £9,500 a year when the boiler is running at full capacity, which would result in a four-year payback. Wood chip is costed at £3,200 a year based on using 40t at approximately £80/t.

“If we can get some more barns getting heated, we will be able to sell our tenants the heat and that’s applicable to a lot of farmers,” says Mr Shears.

“For people who have something which is all ready to heat, it [biomass] can work a lot better.”

Getting your RHI application right

The RHI application is just as important a process as the installation of the boiler, says Kieran Crowe from Strutt & Parker’s resources and energy team.

He provides five top tips for getting your RHI application right:

1. Take ownership of the application, even if you are paying a contractor to complete the documentation

2. Identify early on whether it is a simple or complex application – a complex system is one with more than one meter

3. Get an independent RHI consultant involved from day one – they will ensure the meter locations are compliant and provide the technical documents, including a schematic diagram outlining where the meters are, for the RHI application

4. Ensure the RHI meters are compliant – these must be Class 2 MID (Measuring Instrument Directive)

5. Always follow the criteria checklist on Ofgem’s website and get in touch with them if you have any questions – www.ofgem.gov.uk

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