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Publish date

17 February 2023

Power to the People

In this article, I give a very brief overview of the possibilities of diversification for farmers, or for simply satisfying a desire for self-sufficiency on a smaller scale. Excuse the fleeting reference to a Phil Collins classic (what can I say… I am ‘of an age’!)

Planning for it

Already embedded in the heart of the planning system, government policy makes it clear that the planning regime should assist in the protection and enhancement of our natural environment, mitigate and adapt to climate change and support the transition to a low carbon future.

The recent consultation on proposed changes to the National Planning Policy Framework incorporate an extension of these protections and improvements by the encouragement of renewable and low carbon energy production and distribution, both at a commercial and household scale.  One of the main threads of its consultation is to support the government’s Net Zero Strategy which sets out a clear vision for decarbonising and transforming the way energy is produced.  Whilst the focus in the consultation paper is on onshore wind, there are clear pointers for farmers to adopt new strategies towards contributing to not only their own operations, but those which could assist the national grid and provide energy to the local community.

I can feel it…

The consultation confirms that the current legislation (which provides that all onshore wind applications be considered by local planning authorities rather than through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects regime) will be retained, providing reassurance to farmers that their schemes will be considered locally, taking account of local benefits, rather than against a national provision.

Wind energy, however, is clearly not the only potential renewable energy diversification that farmers can consider.  Depending on the location of the farm, it may be more convenient to utilise other methods of renewable energy such as hydro power, solar panels, biofuel and anaerobic digesters to provide the farmers operations and local community with the energy it requires.

A shady story

One of the most talked about forms of renewable energy adopted by the agricultural industry and which has been the topic of many publications in recent months is the use of pasture land for a combination of grazing and solar panels.  A recent article in The

New Scientist (1 February 2023) confirmed that “sheep living among rows of solar panels spend more time grazing, benefit from more nutritious food, rest more and appear to experience less heat stress, compared with nearby sheep in empty fields”.  These “agrivoltaic farms” which combine grazing animals with solar panels offer a more efficient renewable energy at lower overhead costs.  Where no grazing takes place, solar farms could also help address the biodiversity crisis by providing habitats and food for wildlife.

Water, water, everywhere…

One of the oldest forms of renewable energy is, of course, hydro-power.  In a country which is not only surrounded by water but comprises a large network of rivers, streams and lakes, in some situations it makes sense for this source of energy to be put to use.

Unlike solar and wind energy which is reliant upon the (somewhat unreliable!) weather, water power is consistent. Watermills have been used for centuries to provide power, reports going back as far as the 1st century, when they were originally used to move gearing mechanisms which ultimately ground grain. These days, hydro-power technology is so advanced that even the smallest of streams can produce enough energy to power a small village. In the northern Alpine village of South Tyrol, electricity has been “free” for decades, the village (and many of its surrounding neighbours) harnessing the power of the alpine streams which surround it.

In an era of unsustainable energy prices, it makes no sense not to look for alternative methods of power production, even if only for individual or small-scale use. But what planning and land-use restrictions are there?

Permission or forgiveness?

Permitted development rules provide that solar panels can be placed on the roofs of buildings without the need for planning permission (but subject to prior approval), so long as they comply with certain conditions and restrictions, including limited consent where the buildings are listed or in a conservation area.  Panels can also be installed at ground level if sufficient roof area is in short supply.  This applies to domestic and commercial panels which produce up to 1 Megawatt of electricity (which is enough energy to power between 400-1000 average homes, depending on consistency and use). Once this production threshold is reached, planning permission will be required.

Wind turbines are a different matter, for obvious reasons.  Whilst the windmills of old were a welcome sight to most and now represent a treasured part of our history, opinion is split on the practical and aesthetic benefits of the new designs. Without wishing to spark a debate, there are quite glaring pros and cons of installing a wind turbine on agricultural land, but the biggest obstacle is likely to be local opposition. The planning regime does aim to support the installation of land-based (on-shore) wind turbines, but the rights are limited.  No more than one turbine (of a certain size) can be installed under permitted development rights, so long as it is not in a conservation area, world heritage site or in the grounds of a listed building. Financially, whilst initial outlay for a turbine can be expensive, in the right location it can generate enough electricity to be a worthwhile investment.

And lastly (for the moment, at least), hydro-power. This is a little more complex, with the main issues being around ownership, impact on the environment and the landscape, and the relationship with the legal regime for water. To install a new system (or indeed to revive an existing system which has been dormant), a full environmental impact assessment will be required to evaluate the effect of the installation on the local flora and fauna, water and air quality, noise levels, etc. Whilst the equipment itself may be owned, the water which runs through it is not and the Environment Agency should always be consulted when there is a risk of harm to the water source or its occupants.

Obviously, this article only takes a mere sideways glance at the planning regime for installing renewable energy and professional advice should always be sought when considering the options.  The financial cost and benefit of each type of installation will depend greatly on its geographical and geological location, so technical assessments as well as cost analysis will steer you in the right direction. Once on the way, the prospect of being self-sustaining and moving away from reliance on mainstream power supplies should provide enough momentum to keep you on track. You have the power!

For more information about this topic, please get in touch

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