Euan Caldwell, Head of Farm, Field and Glasshouse services at The James Hutton Institute talks about what renewable energy can offer the agri sector.

The Scottish Government has set a target for Scotland to be net zero by 2045. But what does that mean for the future of energy in the agricultural sector?

While there’s a lot of focus on emissions, there’s also potential for farming to deliver – and benefit from – more renewable energy production.

At a farm level, benefits include reducing energy costs, adding a new income stream as an energy supplier, and helping reduce carbon emissions.

We’re already seeing electric quad bikes come into the market. There’s a good chance the future could also include fleets of electric robots sowing and maintaining crops and even hydrogen-powered systems for the more heavy-duty work.

Producing energy that fuels these systems could be a prudent hedge against future energy shocks while enabling greater self-sufficiency.

Finding ways to make use of excess power generated, which often can’t be put into the grid due to connection capacity limitations, could also create new opportunities, such as producing your own fertiliser. There is a challenge to be met in balancing periods of excess generation and periods of high demand.

The positive news is that options are being worked on. Some could make farming look radically different to how we farm today, while others will look more like business as usual.

At The James Hutton Institute, we’re working on a number of options that could demonstrate what’s possible through initiatives like our Advanced Plant Growth Centre (APGC) at Invergowrie, and the HydroGlen project at Glensaugh, in Aberdeenshire.

Vertical farms are promoted for being able to their ability to grow a wide portfolio of fresh produce. Also, when powered by renewable energy, they could also act as an energy buffer. That’s because they (the plants) only need power for around eight hours a day and the load they use can be varied to help balance local or even national grids.

One idea is to put vertical farms next to supermarkets – direct at the source of supply. But could they also be integrated into more traditional farms as part of a renewable energy future?

It’s one of the ideas we’ll be looking to explore more through the APGC to help deliver a more sustainable energy future, alongside increasing our food security, thanks to Tay Cities Region Deal funding. Indeed, this is being extended via the Islands deal to put a vertical farm on Orkney, which is at the end of a long fresh produce supply chain.

However, we are also exploring how a more traditional upland farm could use renewables to become more energy self-sufficient.

At Glensaugh, our 1,000 ha upland research farm, we’ve had a 50kW turbine and 70kW of solar panels since 2014. That’s alongside a biomass boiler, fed with wood from the farm, for heating and hot water for the main farmhouse and a mini heat network for a cluster of neighbouring households.

The HydroGlen project, part of our Climate-Positive Farming Initiative, looks to take this to another level, creating a community and farm business that is energy self-sufficient using green hydrogen – that’s hydrogen produced via electrolysis using renewable energy. Using hydrogen allows us to smooth out the otherwise intermittent energy supply that can be a challenge when using renewables by acting as a large store or battery when we produce too much power.

To create the energy source we will require anther wind turbine, to store the energy we will require hydrogen cylinders and to use the energy on site we will require electric and hydrogen powered vehicles and plant. All of this will be done using commercially available equipment.

Thanks to funding from the Scottish Government’s Just Transition Fund, this is something we can build, test and demonstrate, to help create a blueprint for thousands of other Scottish farms which share similar challenges to those we face at Glensaugh.

These are scalable systems that could also be adopted across the sector, from powering heavy machinery through to energy intensive processes like grain drying and cold storage, which, again would otherwise put variable seasonal demands on the grid.

Continuing the theme of self sufficiency, we could explore other ideas such as making nitrogen fertiliser by using excess energy to synthesise ammonia on farm. Our Climate Innovation Hub at Glensaugh has been set up to serve as a testbed, including laboratories, farm-wide wireless communications networks and of course the ground itself to test climate and nature-positive solutions, including new renewable energy ideas, helping de-risk innovation for the farming community.

There’s no single solution to the energy challenge or one single solution that’s going to solve all our problems. Our role at the Hutton is to help explore the options and provide evidence so that industry and policy makers can make informed decisions about our futures.