The growing importance of green energy in agriculture

Dale Edwards, a specialist consultant in green energy with national law firm Clarke Willmott LLP, shares his thoughts on the changes that have driven the renewable energy agenda in agriculture. 

Energy and agriculture are inextricably joined at the hip. Without energy in all its forms, agriculture as we now know it would not exist. Whether it is the physical energy of the farmer to tend crops and animals; the energy of the sun to grow food for the table or livestock; the energy to make fertiliser either naturally or synthetically or the energy to power all the essential farm kit; without it our economy and landscape would look quite different.   

Over the last 100 years, exceptionally labour-intensive farming has become largely mechanised thanks to equipment made and powered by fossil fuels. In fact, the farming sector was arguably the first to embrace technology dating back to the industrial revolution. The first steam powered tractor, which was introduced over 150 years ago principally to move timber, has advanced to the state-of-the-art combine harvesters we see today. 

However, the world’s finite supply of fossil fuels and the adverse environmental impact of using this resource means the existing relationship between agriculture and energy must be rethought.

Increasingly the sector is taking advantage of the latest technological advances to produce crops and tend animals in the most cost-effective, low carbon way possible. Machinery and equipment are becoming more energy efficient including smart irrigation and feeding as well as the new electric and low carbon tractors which are coming on stream.

When looking at renewable energy whether solar, wind, hydro or biomass as a cost reduction and income generator, farms are perfectly placed to use their land for clean green energy development. Certainly, the focus on renewable energy in agriculture has increased in recent decades, not only from an economic perspective but also because of society progressively understanding the harm of fossil fuels. Many farms are moving towards organic production and pledging to become carbon neutral as part of their strategy to appeal to their markets and to improve already tight margins.  

Wind and solar farms are often the most visible rural renewable energy developments, a common feature on the motorway corridors and arterial roads. Over a thousand years ago, farmers understood the power of wind by building windmill devices for the grinding of cereals. Fast forward to today and the power of wind is being harnessed to create energy through the building of wind turbines, both on land and at sea. Solar panels and farms over recent years have also seen significant growth, partly due to incentives. These solar electric systems and heat collectors can also provide most of a farm’s own energy needs along with the ability to provide long term and regular profitable income for farmers who can sell unwanted energy to grid operators. In addition, once wind and solar installations are in situ, they can still allow grazing for animals or certain crop production, maximising land asset usage and value. 

Biomass technology has and continues to be an effective way to reduce waste and costs. Whether it is slurry, trees, manure or crop by-products; all can be harvested through the use of anaerobic digesters into energy. Hydro is also a great option for those farms with water flows in the right location, and which have the necessary volume and speed to be able to build and connect to the grid in a cost-effective manner. 

Looking at it from both an environmental and an economic perspective, farming has always been ahead of the curve in terms of maximising the value of its natural resources. Farmers are custodians of the countryside managing over 70% of the UK landscape, often passing ownership to the next generation who place significant though on the economic and environmental impacts for long-term decision making. I can only see that as the Government develops their green recovery programme due to Covid-19 and implications of Brexit, the part the rural economy will play will continue to grow in terms of importance, particularly green energy. 

Over many years Clarke Willmott has been at the forefront of supporting the green energy and agriculture sectors. We have built long standing partnerships with many of our clients, providing seamless green energy and agriculture sector-focused legal advice through our nationally rated specialist cross-disciplinary team of solicitors. Our experience has grown considerably and we look forward to supporting new green energy developments in the coming years.

Clarke Willmott is a national law firm with offices in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, London, Manchester, Southampton and Taunton. 

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About The Author

John Swire - Editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is a season ticket holder at Stoke City and also of late has become a fitness freak, listing cycling, swimming and walking as his exercises of choice.