Renewable energy accounts for nearly a quarter of UK electricity production and campaigners are lobbying the Government to increase that to 100% by 2050.
While green energy is lagging behind in overall energy consumption, the rise of combined heat and power plants and biofuels means renewables contributed almost 9% of total consumption in 2016.
So what are the next steps for UK renewables? It is estimated farmers own or host more than half of the UK’s solar power and anaerobic digestion (AD) capacity, as well as the majority of wind power.
They are, therefore, well placed to capitalise on new technology and demand. According to Iain Watt, principal climate change specialist at the Forum for the Future, the costs of renewable energy equipment are coming down all the time.
“However, local support and the cost of connecting to the national grid are both potential challenges.”
Adopting innovative approaches to projects, such as collaborating with the local community to spread the costs is therefore well worthwhile.
There are other business models to consider – some solar companies will build a new agricultural barn for the farmer if they can install solar panels in the roof, while ground-based panels, if raised, also offer the potential for wildflower meadows or grazing sheep.
Small-scale AD plants are generally still cost prohibitive, even though the slurry management and water protection benefits are considerable, says Mr Watt.
“Much larger units supplemented by purpose-grown crops are more profitable, although they bring up the food vs fuel debate. Nevertheless, if well-planned, they can have rotational, and even biodiversity, benefits.”
According to Jonathan Scurlock, chief adviser on renewable energy at the NFU, methane from large-scale AD plants can be injected straight into the gas network.
The other main options for heat generation are biomass boilers, followed by ground or air source heat pumps. Farmers might also consider an AgriDigestore – which is a combi slurry store and biodigester.
Other options include novel crops for biofuels, hydro-electricity, and even floating solar pv panels.
The choice of technology will depend on the natural assets on the farm. But there are particularly exciting developments in the solar sector, says Dr Scurlock. New perovskite photovoltaic cells enable solar panels to be placed in areas they traditionally could not have been – forming the roof structure rather than sitting on the roof, or even placed on glazed areas like greenhouses.
Battery storage is enjoying a huge step forward, with Drax power station planning to install 200mW of storage and the opportunity for batteries to be placed at crossroads of the national grid. Not only do batteries help even out the supply of energy to the grid, they can do the same for people generating their own energy, smoothing out the peaks and troughs of wind or solar power.
With the introduction of half-hourly electricity tariffs, there will be a strong incentive for farmers not to run equipment at peak times of day – using battery storage and smart timers can help here, he adds.
Batteries can also be run on machinery powered by biofuels, so farmers could grow crops for biofuel to use in their tractors and then when the vehicle is not in use it can be linked to the grid as a battery store.
Guy Hopwood, senior renewables consultant at ADAS, agrees batteries are real game-changers in the industry. “If you export energy to the grid [at peak generation times] you get paid a relatively small amount, but if you can store it and export it at peak demand times you could get a significant premium.”
The cost of smaller batteries is still slightly prohibitive, but as more are produced the price will come down, he adds.
“There is great potential for farm-scale systems where you’re generating wind or solar power and need to store it for use at peak times. There could be quite rapid changes in the way energy is generated and used in future.”