Time to Invest in the Future of On-site Renewables
One of my roles at Clearfleau is talking to people. Whether speaking to general audiences or potential clients, I try to promote the benefits on-site Anaerobic Digestion (AD), alongside Clearfleau’s unique approach to AD in the food, beverage and biofuels sectors.
Recently I gave a lecture to a group of students at Keele University, studying for an MSC in Environmental Sustainability and Green Technology1. My lecture focused on development of community, farm and industrial AD.
The alternative to large merchant plants (many of which use imported technology) is smaller on-site systems that meet local energy needs (and can be supplied by British companies). Misguidedly, many financiers and policy makers seem to be pushing for ever-larger plants, despite concerns about operating efficiency and investment returns.
So – as the general election approaches, it is a good time to highlight some of the issues that were important to the students I met, some of whom would like to work in the small-scale renewables sector with companies that generate on-site renewable energy.
The concerns of the next generation of managers and entrepreneurs include:
1. Do policy makers base decisions on lifecycle costs or the impact on GHG emissions?
2. Is enough effort going into helping British companies to develop new technologies?
3. Are investors willing to back innovative British companies that are creating jobs here – rather than investing in imported technologies or ever-larger scale plants?
Unfortunately the answer to these questions is a resounding NO! The backers of smaller on-site renewables feel let down by politicians from all parties who are ignoring the benefits of decentralised renewable energy generation, particularly in rural areas. Earlier optimism has also been undermined by the mess DECC has made of smaller scale FIT incentives.
A key objective for on-site AD is the development of farm-scale manure plants. They provide a means of generating energy for farm use while cutting methane emissions, offering wider environmental protection and boosting farm income for hard pressed livestock farmers.
The outgoing government has failed to support investment in novel technologies with an incentive regime that has ignored decentralised generation and has undermined British companies that are developing systems that facilitate on-site renewable energy.
Investors seem more interested in backing foreign technology rather than emerging British solutions. With this blinkered approach they are failing to keep pace with some key changes in the market or learn from the mistakes that have been made.
Recently, a farmer who runs a successful small on-farm digester commented that 10 rural digesters of 100 kWe will do more for the rural economy (in terms of jobs, farm revenue and rural growth) and the environment than a large 1MW digester.
It is extremely disappointing that the much-vaunted (by the outgoing Government) Green Investment Bank (GIB) has announced that it’s first on-farm AD plant is to be fed with crops (grown using fossil fuel derived inputs), rather than manures and production residues.
In addition to its questionable green credentials, the project highlights the inconsistency in policies that support rural renewables investment. Despite DEFRA’s concern (ethical / land use related) about crop based digesters, DECC has facilitated this with over-rapid FIT degression undermining the viability of manure based digesters.
While applauding GIB for investing in farm-based digestion, the message being received by farmers, most of whom are more concerned about sustainable management of production residues, is not encouraging. A more enlightened approach from GIB and its investment partners and a change in policy to encourage farm-scale AD is essential – and will boost the rural economy.
We also need policies that encourage addition of local food waste (from within 10 miles) to rural anaerobic digesters. This will make a serious dent in reducing the mileage associated with delivering food waste to centralised merchant plants, while supporting the viability of farm plants and reducing the use of purpose grown crop feedstocks. Let’s hope that, after the impending election, more politicians will get this message. I and others will continue to press the case for a more enlightened approach before and after the election.
Policy makers want industry to contribute more to growth, jobs, import substitution (and export opportunities). A thriving British on-site renewables industry can do this.
Talented and enthusiastic students from Keele (and other universities and colleges) are keen to work for innovative British renewable energy companies. Providing work experience and creating more job opportunities for emerging talent from our universities will help establish a thriving renewable technology sector and provide a useful boost to the British economy.