Thursday, August 22, 2019

Renewable energy moves beyond incentives as production rises

May 1, 2019 by  
Filed under News & Business

Profitable renewable energy is becoming more important for farm businesses as government incentives for the sector continue to decrease.

About half of AF Group farmers have invested in or have access to green energy – and renewables are becoming more core to their businesses, says the Norfolk-based farmer-owned cooperative. Examples include anaerobic digestion and energy crops.

The role of renewable energy within agriculture will be discussed at an Agri-Tech East event on 23 May. AF Group chief executive Jon Duffy said the event would see industry leaders and energy experts compare experiences and consider new developments.

“Although early installations focused on taking advantage of incentives to help farmers diversify their businesses and create extra revenue, more recently our members have been designing and installing systems according to their own consumption patterns.

“Solar is by far the most widespread due to its lower entry costs and certainty over performance, which benefits from the predictive science available in terms of sun or wind hours. The proportion [of farmers] investing in wind or anaerobic digestion is much smaller.”


Mr Duffy said the perception among AF members was that anaerobic digestion had been oversold, with some plants not performing as expected. Reasons for underperformance included construction, design and feeding issues.

One concern was that the systems required a lot of time and effort to keep running, added Mr Duffy. This included the monitoring of pH levels through to maintenance of the Combined Heat and Power (CHP) engine.

“Originally it was expected to fit in with other farming practices – but it has become a role in itself to achieve the expected output and associated revenue,” he said.

“There are also various issues related to the disposal and utilisation of digestate, especially within nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZ), but members are adapting and we are seeing an increasing number of contractors specialising in this area.”

Many initial concerns are being addressed. But managing an anaerobic digestion plant – sometimes referred to as a concrete cow because of the way it turns green matter into energy – can still be as involved as feeding a real dairy herd, said Innes McEwan, head of farming for Future Biogas.

“They need consistent, quality, repeatable feed delivered hourly,” said Mr McEwan.

‘Concrete cows’

A typical crop-fed anaerobic plants might require 100 tonnes per day. But Mr McEwan said that didn’t mean the farm involved should grow energy crops to feed the plant – and indeed should do so only if planned cropping was sustainable.

“Green waste from councils and food waste can generate gate fee income and produce high levels of energy, although this can be unreliable in quantity and consistence,” he said. “Often the problem can be that the source of origin of the food waste can be a long way from rural AD sites.”

Alex Parnell, also from Future Biogas, said renewable energy was moving beyond incentives and had the potential to compete effectively with fossil fuels. But he warned: “The need for subsidy will continue until genuine carbon cost of fossil fuels is reflected in energy prices.”

NFU Energy senior consultant Jon Swain said government policy influenced all types of energy. But it was important to accept that the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and Feed in Tariff (FiT) were designed to popularise renewable energy, not support it in the long term.

Called We’ve Got the Power – On-Farm Solutions to Energy Demands, the Agri-Tech East event takes place on 23 May at the Hethel Innovation centre, Hethel, Norwich, NR14 8FB. For details, visist