What role could – and should – farms play in a sustainable energy system?
That’s a question we’ve been mulling over for a while at Forum – not least as it sits at the critical junction between food and energy.
But before it can be answered, lots of other questions have to be considered, and these too, spawn a multitude of further queries.
Take the role of bioenergy for example. An answer to the question “how much biomass is available for energy production?” is anything but simple. First, we have to negotiate a way through the longstanding food vs. fuel debate (but this itself remains a huge simplification of a complex dilemma. Not all ‘food’ ends up equal for starters – why, for example, is a doughnut inherently better than a kilowatt-hour..?)
Even if we limit ourselves to a consideration of agricultural (and food?) waste as a potential input to the energy system, we still need to explore if and how and when using such waste for energy makes more sense than using it for animal feed, compost, biochar or the like. Of course (as with the food vs. fuel debate) some of these dilemmas are false choices – the digestate from anaerobic digestion units is a useful fertiliser, for example – so we actually need to consider how all these uses might fit together as part of a sustainable system.
We might then want to consider how our answers might change over time – especially as climate change kicks-in and the global resource crunch starts to squeeze.
All in all, it’s complicated stuff.
Nevertheless, despite this complexity, our hunch is that farms should be playing a much more central role in our energy system. Farm-based energy not only represents an opportunity to diversify our energy infrastructure, but also to build resilience in both the energy and food systems, all while helping to revitalise struggling rural communities.
We need to make sure we don’t promote solutions that will pose problems in the years to come (biofuels anyone?) – hence the need to consider all the trickiness outlined above – but we also need to make it much easier for farmers, and rural communities alike, to embrace (and benefit from) sustainable energy.
Which is where we hope our Farm Power: Putting Agriculture on the Grid project will help.
As this project kicks off, not only will we explore the sustainability implications of various farm-based energy options, we’ve also set ourselves the grand goal of creating the broad societal support structures (everything from policy and financial confidence through to grid connectivity and farming culture) that will make sustainable energy a smart, obvious and easy option for farmers.
There’s obviously no way we could do this alone. So, for starters – and courtesy of some initial funding from the Ashden Trust – we’ve joined forces with Farmers Weekly and Nottingham Trent University to run a 3-month pilot study that we hope will make the case for something much bigger. Beyond that, however, we envision building a grand coalition – involving everyone from farmers and community groups through to big retailers and land-owners – to work together to change the energy landscape in the UK.
If you’d like to join in, then get in touch!
- Contact Iain Watt if you would like to get involved
- The Farm Power: Putting Agriculture on the Grid overview
- Watch the Farming Futures video case study about Richard Gedge's farm where he generates energy from wind and biomass
Homepage carousel pic courtesy of Farming Futures - a climate change communications project that Forum for the Future ran for five years until it was taken on by the Centre of Excellence for UK Farming.