Reducing reliance on fossil fuels and farm subsidies were two of the key drivers behind Robert Ramsay’s diversification into renewable energy. Ewan Pate was given a tour of the farm.
For most farmers the move into renewable energy is made first and foremost for financial reasons but for Robert Ramsay, the trigger was an ethical concern.
“We had some Australian farmers staying in one of the holiday cottages at harvest time one year,” says Mr Ramsay.
“They came along to the farm when we were drying grain and they were amazed at what were doing. They could not believe we were spending such a high proportion of the value of the crop on fuel for the dryer.
“I thought about it and realised what we were doing was just wrong. At the time, barley was worth £100 per tonne and we were spending £8 per tonne on dryer fuel.”
Having an agricultural with engineering honours degree to his name, it came as second nature to start thinking of a better system but one which would still use his Carrier continuous flow dryer.
With most of the 720 hectares (1,779 acres) which he farms on the family owned estate at West Mains of Kinblethmont, Arbroath, under combinable crops, he had a substantial tonnage of cereals and oilseed rape to dry but he also had plenty of straw available to use as fuel.
And so the project was born.
A heat exchanger was installed across the air inlet to the dryer. Rather than use direct air-to-air heat transfer, Mr Ramsay opted to use a more controllable system using hot water. A 300kW biomass burner heats water from a 30,000-litre tank and it is this water which circulates through the heat exchanger.
He says: “We started using the system in 2010 before Renewable Heat Incentives were available.
“Initially we used round bales of wheat but now we also use oilseed rape straw and old tattie boxes. We now have two drying towers and have added another biomass burner.”
This second unit has a 600kW output and heats water in a 20,000-litre tank. With a total capacity of 900kW produced mostly from straw, this is a formidable installation.
The 2017 harvest was a wet one but although the old diesel burner is still in place, it was never used.
“We do sacrifice some output but we can get round this by only drying grain to between 16 and 17 per cent at the busiest periods at harvest and then running it through again later,” says Mr Ramsay.
“Having an engineering background I have been happy to tweak the system as we have gone along.
“We have found keeping the bale size down a little helps combustion as there is more air space in the chamber. A slightly looser bale helps too as it breaks up more readily.
“I am pleased we are now able to dry in excess of 3,000 tonnes of grain without using any fossil fuel.”
ROBERT Ramsay’s next move into renewables was driven by a more straightforward need to keep costs down.
The estate has six holiday cottages mostly ranged around Kinblethmont House which hosts art exhibitions and is used as a wedding venue.
These are now heated by three ETA biomass boilers fuelled by wood chip. The largest is rated at 200kW with the other two at 70kW each. Apart from the houses and cottages, farm offices and workshops are also heated and all three systems attract Renewable Heat Incentives.
Mr Ramsay says: “The grain drying is an industrial process and people need to supervise it. The holiday cottages are different in there has to be heat on demand.
“We have accommodation for up to 54 people so reliability is everything. Guests do like the thought of using renewable energy but it is the icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself.”
The boilers are fuelled by woodland thinnings from the estate and bought-in timber which is chipped by a contractor.
He adds: “We do not use biomass to dry the woodchip, preferring to use well-seasoned timber.
In terms of a diversified energy policy, these two biomass projects would seem to have most bases covered but they are only half the story at West Mains of Kinblethmont.
There is also a wind turbine and, more recently a solar park. Much thought has been given as to how these projects will be structured.
“I did seriously consider a large wind turbine,” says Mr Ramsay.
“There were some issues with the Ministry of Defence but these could have been solved. I was more concerned about the visual impact. I was sure there would have been quite a number of objections and I did not want to upset neighbours.
“I settled on an 11kW Gaia and, without its performance being spectacular, it has supplied some of our electricity.
“About the same time we installed 96kW of solar panels on the roofs of south facing sheds and these give a reasonable if not very exciting return.
“Although we have reduced power consumption by the use of biomass we do need electricity to power fans and pumps so why not produce it on-farm?”
Extending the concept, farm vehicles are now either hybrid petrol/electric or electric only.
The latest solar development is however on an altogether different scale.
Covering 10 hectares (25 acres) the arrays of panels have a combined output of a mighty 5MW, the equivalent of five large wind turbines.
“In general I think farmers should run their own renewable project, but the size and complexity of this ruled that out, so I am effectively the landlord.”
Timing was also a big consideration as there was a deadline to be met before Feed-in Tariffs were reduced.
The cost of such a project is between £3 million and £5m, dependent on location and distance from the grid.
Fortunately at West Mains of Kinblethmont, a high capacity overhead line passes close to the field selected.
Mr Ramsay says: “This field was actually not the first one we chose but when the surveyors tested this one the figures jumped through the roof. It is apparently the second most favourable field they have tested in Scotland.
“It is on a south facing hill and we are only few miles from the east coast which all helps create a favourable microclimate.
“It is in the middle of the farm, which is ideal, and it is also quite rocky, making it difficult to plough in places so we are not losing too much production.”
The field is sown in a grass, white clover and red clover mix for sheep grazing.
Brown hares are flourishing and raptors seem to enjoy using thermals produced from the panels.
Asked whether he had any qualms about taking land out of agricultural production for 25-50 years, Mr Ramsay says: “Not for a second. Food shortages are unheard of but many people are unable to afford heating. If projects like this mitigate climate change and save us going to war over energy, then this is all to the good.
“As farmers we are being signposted away from agricultural subsidies, so why not reduce our reliance on them by becoming energy producers as well as food producers.”