Hosting the energy transition

6th June 2024

Sarah Spencer on the clear case for stronger partnerships between farmers and renewable energy developers

As the world races towards net zero, rural landscapes are witnessing a profound shift. Renewable energy projects, from solar farms to wind turbines, are increasingly dotting the countryside, reflecting our transition towards a decarbonised energy system.

It's crucial to recognise that farmers and landowners play a pivotal role in this transition. For renewable energy to truly complement traditional land use, we must ensure that those who steward the land are not only on board with the transition but also stand to gain tangible benefits from hosting these projects.

I've had the privilege of working closely with farmers and landowners to identify suitable sites for renewable energy projects. Through these partnerships, I've come to understand the deep-rooted connection farmers have with their land and their desire to ensure its viability for future generations.

However, the challenges they face are daunting - and it's getting tougher by the day. Extreme weather events brought on by climate change are damaging their crops and land - for example, Storm Babet swept across the UK in October and wiped out fields' worth of harvest.

Add increasing economic pressures to the mix, such as rising costs and fierce global competition, and you have an industry crying out for help.

Win-win partnerships?

In this context, hosting renewable energy projects can hold immense promise. It offers an avenue for farmers to diversify their income streams and soften the blow of unpredictable revenue, while maintaining their land's integrity, especially when projects are designed to coexist with traditional farming practices like sheep grazing.

Yet many remain wary of hosting projects. Landowners are typically required to sign long-term contracts where they might not see any money for years. A grid connection is needed to get most of these projects up and running, which currently takes five years on average - and that's before the project is even built. Due to these grid connection delays, their land remains tied up in eight-year 'options', meaning most won't

receive rental income for at least five years after signing an agreement. Some also fear opposition from local communities and have concerns about the legacy they're leaving to younger generations.

Going beyond the grid

So how do we bridge the gap between the promise of renewables and the practicalities for farmers? First, we need a paradigm shift in our approach - one that prioritises the economic viability for farmers and landowners. This is where behind-the-meter initiatives can come in. These are projects that feed electricity directly to a business, rather than the national grid, using nearby land to situate the project.

The allure of these projects lies in their simplicity: as they bypass the grid, they don't rely on securing a grid connection. This means they can be built comparatively quickly, with farmers seeing returns from renting out their land in as little as two years instead of five. Added to this, behind-the-meter projects typically generate higher revenues for landowners, providing further incentives to adopt this approach.

Landowners can also utilise behind­ the-meter opportunities while planning for a standalone grid connection in the future, giving them security in both the short and longer terms. Renewable technologies that suit their land can secure them multiple revenue streams.

The benefits of behind-the-meter projects also extend beyond farms to local areas. The projects feed electricity directly to local businesses, so they can enjoy lower energy prices. As a result, they're able to channel more investment into other business areas, such as growth and providing more local job opportunities.

When we consider the benefits that behind-the-meter projects provide, it's no surprise that I'm seeing landowners pursue this avenue over more traditional partnership models. It's definitely one option we have at our disposal to decarbonise the economy while supporting traditional industries.

The fruitful path ahead

Beyond economics, we also need to foster more genuine collaboration between landowners and developers, and recognise their needs and aspirations. Project developers must actively engage with farmers, listening to their concerns and co-creating solutions that deliver value for all stakeholders.

To achieve net zero, we need more than clean forms of energy - we need farmers who are empowered to thrive in a sustainable world. By forging genuine partnerships that are built on trust and collaboration, we can unlock the full potential of renewable energy for rural communities, carving out a more effective path to economic prosperity and environmental protection.

Sarah Spencer is land manager at Balance Power


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