By David Black

I THINK it's widely accepted now that our industry will face a considerable shake-up in the next few years with a significant focus on green credentials. Is setting productive land aside to sit fallow or for trees really the answer?

The popularisation of selling credits to huge carbon producers seems crazy to me. Are we fixing the problem or just kicking the can down the road? We as an industry have the opportunity to set an example to the rest of the world on sustainability not only environmentally but economically.

There's been a considerable uptick in the adoption of electric vehicles over the last few years, although it looks unlikely they will be efficient for high power agricultural machines. Hydrogen seems to be the suggested answer; this is great, but what do we need to produce the hydrogen? Power. It always comes back to power. Energy costs have tripled in the last three years. Many landowners and rural businesses have taken advantage of FIT payments, which unfortunately came to an end. As nice as the paycheck every quarter is, I'm not 100% sure I agree with the principal. There's no denying they have drastically increased renewable adoption while also pushing innovation and ultimately reducing equipment cost, whether solar, wind or hydro. My question is, why do we need those payments to make these schemes viable? Now I don't want to point the finger, but as someone who has struggled to get connections in the past, I firmly believe the monopolistic structure of energy companies is a massive part of the problem. What other industry do you pay for a quote, have almost no negotiating power and can't quote another company? And to top it off, as a power user, you have to pay a standing charge each month for the privilege of being allowed to buy electricity. It is insane!

Now, I do not begin to question the background costs and regulations which help to inflate the price of new infrastructure and energy, but we have to be proactive and think of a solution.

Rural businesses often have an abundance of sustainable energy just waiting to be harnessed. Whether it be the use of slurry and waste through anaerobic digestion, hydro, solar or wind, few businesses couldn't take advantage of at least one. All of the above certainly have their merits but also their downfalls. Now hydro would have to be the holy grail with a constant supply of clean electricity. Unfortunately, how many people have access to a sufficient water source? AD has seen a significant rise in popularity again, supplying a steady, reliable source of gas or electricity. The issue with AD comes back to perception, and how green is it? I've seen some phenomenal set-ups operating almost purely off of waste with a small amount of roughage to help with the diet. This, to me, seems far more sustainable than vast areas of land with multiple 10s of thousands of litres of fuel being used to haul forage back to the plant. I do not want to take away from businesses with AD for one minute, the energy produced far outweighs the fuel used, but I still feel there is potential to make it a far more sustainable business model. Finally, we come to wind and solar. Both of these forms of energy have seen a dramatic reduction in set-up cost over the past few years. Our issue here lies in the irregular and unreliable supply of power determined by our fantastic British weather. Not only this but huge connection costs to the grid often make these schemes unviable.

Huge uptake in these forms of power has made the irregularity of these methods very apparent, with huge spikes and blank patches in power. This can lead to turbines being shut off, and energy wasted or periods where traditional fossil fuels are required to make up the shortfall. We need a way to be able to store and slowly release the energy back when needed. The obvious solution would be batteries, although they have their issues as well.

At the current time, large scale battery storage costs in the region of £500/kw and only last 6000 cycles, at which point it would need replacing. The large costs involved make this solution at present unviable or only efficient enough to cover its costs. If we could have access to a low cost reliable, and slow-release battery solution, the possibilities on-farm could be endless. We could get to the stage where farms with battery facilities in conjunction with any combination of energy sources above would be able to go truly off-grid. No need for expensive connections or huge standing charges.

The power you produce is yours to use and not only as pure electricity. Advancements in technology could lead to tractors powered by hydrogen, which could be produced on-farm utilising the power you generate. Implementation of Heat Pumps can use electricity to harness the heat from the ground to dry grain, heat workshops, operate climate-controlled sheds and keep the farmhouse warm. Not only this, but they can use recycled heat from cold stores if the business has them.

These are only a few starting ideas. The possibilities are endless. Vertical farms to breed seed or produce high-value crops, offer charging points for the public or bring in extra income, mining bitcoin with excess electricity. Ideological thinking is great, but I do not deny significant set-up costs are required. Not only that, but as I mentioned, batteries aren't quite there – well, not just yet. An exciting announcement by the Massachusetts company Form energy led me to write this article. Their new revolutionary Iron-air battery system looks to provide a low cost (as low as £20/kw) solution to large scale storage with cells coming in washing machine-sized units which are modular. They claim to be able to store and release energy for multiple days up to 150 hours. Their 300MW pilot plant looks to come online in 2023. I find the possibilities a solution like this could present extremely exciting.

My only concern is when will we get access, or again, will this be reserved for the large power companies to take advantage of while we sit on the sidelines and think of all the opportunities we are missing.