Make hay from sunshine

THE REST of the food industry should follow farmers’ lead when it comes to cashing in on renewable energy argues Carl Benfield.

Foodservice Footprint P23-2 Make hay from sunshine Features Features  Sainsbury's Renewables FDF Farmers Weekly CO2 Carl Benfield













Farmers have gobbled up the opportunity to generate renewable energy – wind and solar farms now seem synonymous with British farming methods. Harvesting electricity along side traditional crops has become commonplace, and with great financial benefits. Yet the rest of the food chain – manufacturers, restaurants and retailers – is lagging behind. What do our farmers know that the rest of of the food industry doesn’t?


Farmers Weekly magazine commissioned research last year as part of its Farm Power project. More than a third (38%) of 700 farmers surveyed had already invested in renewable energy, while 76% believed that renewable energy would play a greater role their business. These are staggering take-up figures for a relatively new opportunity, so what’s the reason?


First of all, there are the incentives. Recent changes to the single farm payment and common agricultural policy have created much concern among farmers, and the clear financial benefits of the feed-in tariff or the renewable heat incentive are an obvious alternative way to generate income.


Second, diversification is a practised art in farming: when solar panels can earn more money per hectare than crops, the move to renewables is more of a leap than a sidestep. Pasture land can even be maintained at the same time as sheep graze beneath solar panels.


Third, we’ve found farmers to have a deep understanding and respect for the natural environment. Indeed, no one relies on it more directly than the farmer.


Put simply, renewable energy gives businesses the ability to save money and generate income.


The feed-in tariff pays an amount for every unit of electricity generated from renewable means such as solar photovoltaic, wind turbines and hydroelectricity, even if you use it on site. The renewable heat incentive works in a similar way for heating technologies such as biomass boilers, heat pumps and solar thermal.


Renewables have also made farmers more resilient to rising fossil fuel prices and reduce their carbon footprint. With many of their larger customers demanding low-energy, low- carbon food, this can be an environmental and commercial benefit.


This brings us back to the original question: why aren’t other related food industries following suit?


The Food and Drink Federation is aiming to reduce CO2 emissions by 35% by 2020. Much of this is through energy efficiency measures which we, at Prescient, strongly support. But efficiency isn’t always easy or appropriate. So what about actually taking that next step of generating your own energy?


Finding the capital expenditure seems to be the biggest barrier we’ve come across when speaking to the manufacturing sector: if investment doesn’t pay back in two years then it doesn’t get past the board. The financial benefits over the 20 years of the feed-in tariff or renewable heat incentive can be kick-started by tax-beneficial loans or hire-purchase schemes that keep thesystems off balance sheet. Communities can also be engaged by allowing them to become shareholders in the project.


At the consumer-facing end of the industry there are chinks of light. The Sustainable Restaurant Association points green-minded consumers in the direction of eateries with a green conscience, but again energy efficiency seems to be the goal.


And then there are the retailers. Sainsbury’s seems to be setting the example here; its latest 2013 update states it has 107,396 solar panels installed across its sites, making it the largest multi-site solar array in Europe. The supermarket hits the nail on the head when it states that its sustainability practice makes “good business sense”. But this is just one example; there are many other retailers where renewable energy has become a core policy.


With adoption of renewable energy in farming set to reach greater heights, it’s about time the rest of the food industry paid attention. Farmers could teach us all a bit about seizing opportunities and how the early adopter can catch the sun.