The future of farmers is to become energy producers

The UK's agricultural industry is turning to renewables as a fresh source of income at a time when farming subsidies face uncertain prospects.

When the UK’s National Farmers Union bought one of the country’s largest ag energy consultancies last year, few disputed the business case, says Jonathan Scurlock, the trade assocation’s chief advisor on renewable energy and climate change.

“We bought FEC Energy because a growing number of our members are investing in renewable energy projects. They’re constantly in need of professional advice.”

As the UK approaches its deadline for exiting the European Union, whose subsidy regime provides farmers with dependable support, its farming policy is in flux. Owners of agricultural businesses are starting to see renewable energy projects as “a sort of refuge,” Scurlock notes, capable of “diversifying income in a way that’s perhaps less prone to disruption.”

In a poll conducted last year, the NFU found that 39 percent of respondents were using renewable energy. That’s a marked jump on even 12 months before, where 35 percent did; the trend has accentuated since 2014, when only 28 percent relied on green power. The first time the NFU polled its members, in 2011, less than 20 percent had started generating their own power.

“Renewables are now seen as a sort of refuge”

He says that’s still counter-intuitive to many officials in Westminster, who are more used to think of renewables in terms of large-scale projects, such as wind farms at sea or tidal barrages on estuaries. Yet 70 percent of the country’s solar panels are located on agricultural land, he observes.

It is not all owned by farmers: a lot of facilities have been developed by third-party investors, with agricultural producers acting as landlords. But a significant proportion also belongs to farmers.

“In this country at least, it’s much easier to develop solar energy on agricultural rooftops than it is on other kinds of industrial buildings, for reasons mostly linked to industrial building ownership,” Scurlock says.

Monetizing sun

Beyond producing a commodity, large agricultural businesses may also involve value-adding activities such as drying grain or storing vegetables in a chilled shed, with the produce sold continuously from that shed throughout the year. Or it could be about accommodating livestock indoors, with ventilation fans and heating.

“Some agricultural buildings are using quite a lot of energy in their production activities. They may benefit from large-scale renewable devices,” Scurlock says. “The biggest return generally is in offsetting your input electricity cost, because otherwise you’re paying retail price for that.”

When projects are developed by external investors, the full power output is generally exported to the electricity grid. In these cases, farmers tend to be paid a rent by the devices’ owners.

“The biggest return generally is in offsetting your input electricity cost”

Solar is clearly the technology farmers favor: 31 percent currently use it. Next comes biomass – where heat is produced through the burning of straw and other agricultural residue – and wind. In some cases, more than one technology is being used, Scurlock says.

He argues that the government has been slow to appreciate farmers’ growing contribution to the national energy supply, explaining why support is often lacking. But there are encouraging signs. The UK’s agricultural ministry recently started offering grants for storage technology – either as battery packs that go into indoor cabinets or in large shipping containers – provided it is tailored to farmers’ own on-site use.

“We may be importing some energy, we may be harnessing some energy out at sea from wind turbines, but land will remain a substantial part of our energy supply,” Scurlock says.