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Family embraces renewable technology to secure farm's future

Ruchlaw Produce has embraced three types of renewable technology in order to stabilise its costs. David Burrows went to meet the family behind the enterprise
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Jamie Wyllie sees renewables as a natural and necessary progression of the business
Jamie Wyllie sees renewables as a natural and necessary progression of the business

With 200kw of solar panels, a geothermal heating system and a lofty wind turbine, it is fair to say Ruchlaw Produce, East Lothian, has embraced renewable energy.


Some might see the changes across its three farms as dramatic, but third-generation farmer Jamie Wyllie sees it as natural and necessary progression of the business.


He says: “Generating our own energy allows us to stabilise costs.”


In the face of increasingly volatile commodity and energy markets, Jamie is not the only farmer to have diversified heavily into renewables. Research by the Farm Power Coalition in January suggested British farms could ‘easily’ generate a combined 10GW of energy. This is the theory, but in practice, it is not always simple.


The report concluded, despite the pioneering efforts of some, the considerable potential of farms and rural communities to contribute to the energy system remains ‘largely untapped’ with farmers ‘finding ways to invest in renewables despite the system, rather than because of it’.


Ruchlaw Produce is the perfect example of the time, effort and commitment required to get things right.


From 100 sows in 1976, the business has grown to 2,700 sows, with 1,000 each at Ruchlaw Mains, East Lothian, and Penmanshiel Farm, Berwickshire, and the rest in Lanarkshire at Chesterhall Farm.


Jamie says the expansion has all been down to his father James. When he took over a couple of years ago, he wanted to ‘focus on what I had and stabilise it’.


Pig farms are energy intensive – heating for piglets, fans to keep rooms cool and lighting are all significant costs to the bottom line. So Jamie, as part of his agriculture and business management degree at the University of Reading, decided to study the potential of renewable energy.


He says: “I wanted to research something which would be useful on our farm and to other farmers like us.”


He concluded hydro was not readily available and solar was too expensive. This left anaerobic digestion (AD) and wind power.


AD was a clear favourite, with James and Jamie heading as far afield as Germany and Denmark to check out technology available. For each venture, no stone was left unturned.


Jamie says: “Every time we have looked at a project, we have been critical of the figures [provided by manufacturers].”


He likens it to economy figures for cars, where miles per gallon listed is often way off what can be achieved in ‘real life’.


He says: “We use our data and the payback might be longer than they suggest, but then we can really see whether it works for us.”


As it turns out, AD would not work for their business. Jamie says: “We did not want to grow crops to feed the digester, so our model was based on taking food waste from Edinburgh, but we did not win the tender.


“I was awarded a grant towards costs, but I could not accept this as well as the Feed-in Tariff, because it would have meant double-funding, which is not allowed. We could have taken Renewable Obligation Certificates, but they are worth less.”


After three years of research, they were almost back to square one. Attention turned to wind power, which they saw as ‘low risk with reasonable returns’ compared to the ‘high risk, high return’ strategy of AD. They opted for a 275kW Vergnet turbine, which stands at 32 metres (105ft) tall.


Having been up-and-running for a couple of years now, they are on track in terms of the project’s payback, even though average wind speed is less than expected.


The turbine provides 40 per cent of the energy for the 1,000-sow pig unit and anything else is exported to the grid – a challenge which is often underestimated.


Connections can take years and can be costly, but Jamie is hopeful a new pilot he is part of with the Scottish Power Energy Network could make a huge difference.


Accelerating Renewable Connections is an under-publicised initiative to help green energy projects connect to the local power network. Trials are underway at sites such as Ruchlaw, using an active network management system, allowing generators to connect to the grid where previously it was believed to already be running at full capacity.


It is particularly exciting for businesses which consume significant amounts of energy, such as pig farms, and therefore need to install technology delivering decent energy outputs.


Jamie says: “In the past, we had have been stopped from exporting to the grid unless we paid vast sums to upgrade the local network.


“The new system is connected to 80kW of solar and ‘watches’ voltage on the grid. If it hits certain parameters and we are currently exporting, it forces the solar system to reduce its output.”


Indeed, having ‘almost forgotten’ about solar as the ‘expensive option’ while researching AD then wind energy, Ruchlaw is now home to three sets of rooftop solar arrays. There is a combined 60kW installed on the piggery and another 10kW up at the farm, as well as 50kW at Chesterhall.


Solar has become an attractive option in the past couple of years thanks to a fall in prices. According to consultants at Frost and Sullivan, prices of the modules dropped 70 per cent between 2008 and 2013. They are expected to keep on falling.


Efficiency, meanwhile, is improving – from about 11 per cent in 2000 to 16 per cent last year, with the best panels now hitting 20 per cent in the field and 24 per cent under laboratory conditions.


Jamie is undoubtedly a big fan, with another 80kW on the roof of the new feed mill. Capable of producing 1,200 tonnes of feed a month, the Wyllies have once again done their sums; it is another investment which will provide security in the long-term.


He says: “We had been looking at a feed mill for years, but we kept looking at the cost and thinking we would rather spend it on more pigs.”


The sale of a farm in Aberdeenshire brought in some of the initial capital. “We only grow about 12 per cent of the grain we consume, so this means we will be buying a significant tonnage of cereals locally.


“We hope this will lead to significant savings in manufacture and delivery costs of current feed bills.”


There is further meticulous attention to detail. A disc mill has been chosen so they can adjust feed according to requirements of the piggery.


It is also quieter, as Jamie says: “We work closely with the community so noise level is very important to us.”


Dust will be reduced to a minimum – at £1,000-2,000 per tonne for the minerals, it pays not to waste anything.


Ruchlaw Produce breeds pure Landrace and pure Large White, exporting as far afield as China. Animals are crossed to create a female hybrid for both domestic and international markets.


Management of pigs has not changed with the addition of all the renewable technology, but everything Jamie has done since he took over is designed to give the farm a competitive edge.


Focus is already on the next project, which is the installation of 100kW of solar and a 100kW turbine at Penmanshiel Farm.


At Ruchlaw, developments are also far from over. “We want to reduce energy costs by taking heating for the piglets off electric and on to biomass, with feedstock coming from existing woodlands,” Jamie says.


As always, there will be the thorough attention to detail which has made all the other projects a success.


Renewables at Ruchlaw

  • Wind turbine is 275kW and has been running since 2012
  • Solar is 10kW plus 50kW and was installed in 2013 and 2014
  • Feed mill has 80kW of solar on the roof
  • Farm buildings have 10kW of solar and a ground source heat pump
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