NFU column: Fuelling a powerful crop debate

RECENT surveys show that 35% of British Farmers are involved in some form of energy production.

I have to admit that I am a fan of renewable energy; my enthusiasm is not driven by fear of Global Warming or its new sidekick Climate Change, but by fear of the dark.

A large percentage of our power requirements are supplied by countries we seem hell-bent on falling out with, and there is always the chance that someone who doesn’t agree with our rather conceited foreign forays will pull the plug.

While the fundamentalist Green lobby seem determined to make us live in a modern dark age, surely the preferred solution must be to move towards providing more power from our own resources.

While we can do much to reduce power usage by increased efficiency, there is still the prospect of any energy deficit which requires a bit more than a few extra inches of loft insulation and despite extra draught proofing a chill wind will blow.

As a farmer I am comfortable with growing crops and am pleased that new uses for the crops and their by- products can find alternative uses in providing fuel for the future.

The production of electricity, gas or oil replacement products offers new and exciting outlets for crops that can be produced without radically altering the look of the countryside. The harvesting of wind or sunlight doesn’t even require any agricultural expertise.

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There is of course the “food versus fuel” debate that rather muddies the waters. But without fuel to husband, process and transport the food, modern society will cease to exist.

There can be no return to the days where each family unit grew all their own food and cut or mined their own fuel.

The harsh facts are that for every noble allotmenteer or gardener, there are tens of thousand of people who require their nourishment to be brought to them.

Agricultural and technical research must provide the knowledge for the production of sufficient food and fuel for everyone now and in the future.

While the production of agricultural raw materials for fuel or food can go ahead with very little change being observed, the conversion of these products to power does require considerable investment in plant and infrastructure, which cannot go un-noticed.

It is, perhaps, lucky for Suffolk that so far all the large bio-fuel production facilities that are either planned or under construction have been sited well away from this area.

However, for a county with the ambition to be the “Greenest” Suffolk should be prepared to shoulder its share of the burden.

If the need for large purpose built power plant is proven, they surely should be sighted close to the raw materials. This may mean strong decisions being required by our planning departments.

Solar panels, carefully sited, are probably the least intrusive option, closely followed by farm scale anaerobic digestion.

There seems to be many misconceptions about AD, but having visited a plant in Germany I can assure you it is quiet, clean and odourless and looks like many other farm installations.

The digesters can run on all kinds of plant matter and wastes producing gas for use in gaseous form or for powering electricity generators.

Wind turbines, particularly those onshore, are not to everyone’s taste and at time seem to the untrained eye to be a highly unreliable source of power.

Despite their limitations they remain part of what should be a large and varied portfolio of generation options. Nuclear power, as yet, is not a small scale option and probably if it was , be the quickest way to fall out with the neighbours.