A Nottinghamshire farming business has turned a renewables investment into profit in just four years.
With two children in their 20s and a farming business with limited options for expansion, Kathleen King and husband Tom had a decision.
How could they continue to develop their Nottinghamshire-based 250-hectare arable farm? Their answer was renewables.
Kathleen says: “We are surrounded by vegetable production, so it was not easy to expand our business through taking on more land unless we looked much further afield.
“We had been looking at renewables for a long time prior to actually installing a wind turbine in 2014.
We knew the wind blew over the farm, so for us it was about harnessing the power for the benefit of our business.
“It was a risk and that is why a lot of other people have not taken the plunge,” says Kathleen, who runs the business in partnership with Tom and their two children Anthony and Georgina, with the farm mainly focused on a rye-crop grown for Ryvita and used in its crispbread.
Kathleen says: “But if you stand still in business, you go backwards.
We want to leave a business our children can carry on with.”
An increasing number of farmers and growers across the UK are already investing in renewables.
Between 2014 and 2017, the uptake of renewables among NFU members grew from more than one-quarter of farmers and growers to almost two-fifths (39 per cent).
The most popular is solar PV, installed by nearly one-third of NFU members.
NFU renewable energy adviser Dr Jonathan Scurlock says: “Farm businesses are seeing the benefits of contributing to the decarbonising of the economy and diversifying their income streams through renewable energy production.”
Earlier this year, the UK became the first major world economy to set a target for achieving net zero on greenhouse gas emissions into law, with former Prime Minister Theresa May committing the UK to net zero emissions by 2050.
The NFU has said UK farming could achieve the goal by 2040.
Three pillars Renewables was one of three key pillars of the NFU’s plan for how the UK farming sector could achieve the emission reduction target, helping displace greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels.
The farming union has said the rising numbers of electric cars, and tractors soon, on the road could create opportunities for farmers to host battery charging stations.
The first step for Kathleen and Tom was to contact a turbine manufacturer, who checked on the wind speeds on-farm and advised on suitability, as well as expected income.
Once that hurdle was cleared they used a land agent who was experienced in wind turbine applications to guide them through the planning application process.
This included multiple wildlife surveys and checking air traffic and flight paths.
The biggest restriction for them was the capacity of the National Grid, or lack of it, in their local area.
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“For larger farms in particular that are using a lot of energy on their own, investing in renewables and taking the farm off-grid makes sense”
There was only capacity for one turbine.
They had considered solar power, but given the limited capacity they wanted to make sure they maximised its usage.
At that time, six to seven years ago, solar panels were only effective during good sunlight.
Tom says: “Nowadays they call them daylight panels because the technology has improved their effectiveness for much longer.”
It took two and a half years in total from that first contact with a turbine manufacturer to having a turbine up and rotating on-farm.
But four years on from installing the turbine, the business has already paid back an investment of more than £50,000 in planning applications, surveys and set-up costs, and is earning a profit.
The turbine itself is rotating nearly everyday, with perhaps just 10 days a year when it does not generate any power or revenue for the farm business, says Kathleen.
She says: “For about six months, everything is up in the air and you do not know if your application will get turned down, but that is the risk you take.
“We were confident in the agent we used and his experience, so were far from stabbing in the dark on it.”
She adds they were also lucky to have no objections from any local residents.
For many farm businesses, having a good story to tell on energy supplies and use of renewables is a valuable proposition if they, for example, are a supplier to a supermarket, with many retailers now setting themselves ambitious greenhouse gas emissions targets.
NatWest director of agriculture Roddy McLean says: “For farm businesses looking to expand, renewables is still something they should consider.
For larger farms in particular that are using a lot of energy on their own, investing in renewables and taking the farm off-grid makes sense if they can produce it cheaper than they can buy it from the grid.
“With the UK having recently set its own net zero targets and looking to set itself on a path towards being a net zero economy, the spotlight will also be on the farming sector in the future.
“Investing in renewables and exporting power back to the grid is a clear example of how farming can make its own significant contribution back to society beyond food production.”
For Kathleen and Tom, the next investment is likely to be battery storage.
With capacity limits on the National Grid and the closure of the Government’s Feed-in Tariffs scheme earlier this year, the best upcoming prospect for renewables is likely to come through storage.
Tom says: “We are getting improvements all the time in battery storage systems, so that may be the way forward in the next three to four years.
“These can be sited on-farm and store power before returning it to the National Grid during peak times when it is needed.”