Where is our energy going to come from?

Jon Abbatt, principal consultant for ADAS, looks at the future of energy generation in the UK.

We have heard a lot from politicians over the last month about the economy, immigration, defence and tax. However there has been very little discussion about how we are going to deal with one of the biggest issues facing this country over the next decade. Where is our energy going to come from?

With plentiful supplies of coal in the first half of the 20th century and gas and oil from the North Sea since the 1980s, the UK has until recent times been a net exporter of energy.

As a nation we have become accustomed to knowing that all our energy supplies are under our feet or under the sea just off the coast.

Many European countries such as France and Denmark have not had the luxury of a surplus of readily available energy and have invested heavily in alternative energy sources - wind power in the case of Denmark and nuclear power in France.

The UK, with a heavy reliance on what were cheap and easily available fossil fuels, faces a huge shift in the way we generate and use our energy as our supplies start to run out. Are we ready for the change?

Energy in all its forms is central to our way of life and an essential element of modern agricultural systems.

We use energy to heat our houses and agricultural buildings; we use the energy in diesel to power tractors and machinery. Where would we be without electricity to provide light, refrigeration, cooling and keep the all important computer going!

In the UK virtually all our energy services depend on fossil fuels.
Gas from the North Sea is used for heating and powers most new electricity power stations. Coal is still used to power our massive centralised power stations. Oil from the North Sea provides us with petrol and diesel.

Less than 2% of our total energy needs comes from renewable sources, the second lowest percentage in the EU.

Our comfortable reliance on UK fossil fuels and the knowledge that we have more energy that we need is changing and changing quickly.

Oil production in the North Sea has now peaked and is declining with gas production not far behind; most coal for power generation is already imported. If that wasn't bad enough our existing electricity generating capacity is nearing the end of its operational life.

Most of our large coal fired power stations must close in 2015 to meet EU emissions targets and our nuclear power stations will close by 2018.

For the first time in a century the UK is now no longer a net exporter of energy, 20% of our gross energy needs are imported, an unsettling thought in an already uncertain economic world situation.

So what can we do to ensure that we all stay warm, have light when it's dark and keep agriculture in business without the need for actual horsepower?

One thing is clear; we will need all possible sources of energy to replace our dependence on declining fossils fuels. Nuclear power, offshore wind, onshore wind, biomass, anaerobic digestion, photovoltaics, energy from waste, carbon capture and storage will all have a part to play.

No one technology can provide the answer and we do not have the luxury of being able to choose between different approaches. We need all of them as soon as we can.

There are big changes in the pipeline; perhaps one of the biggest developments has been the award of licences to a number of developers to construct 6,000 wind turbines in the seas around the Britain.

The first gigawatt (GW) of capacity has recently been completed and there are plans for another 30 GW, equivalent to 20% of our current electricity consumption. Work has already started on the preparation of sites for 10 new nuclear power plants.

We continue to see an expansion of onshore wind and there are plans for a number of biomass plants in Scotland and in several ports around the coast.

Councils are getting to grips with generating energy from organic waste as well as incinerating other waste to generate heat and electricity.

These changes to our energy landscape present both risks and opportunities for farm businesses.

There is no doubt that the price of energy in the form of electricity, diesel and gas is likely to more volatile in the future and it is very hard to see a scenario where prices are not going to increase significantly.

Energy efficiency in all farm operations is the first key step to control costs and reduce the exposure the increasing energy prices. A simple audit and monitoring of energy use can readily bring about savings of 10% or more in most operations. The recommended strategy is to insulate, A-rate, then generate!

ADAS has worked with many businesses to reduce energy costs through specific individual advice on efficient use of machinery and process. This work can often be funded through the Carbon Trust and RDA initiatives.

When it comes to generation with its increasing emphasis on renewable energy, farmers and landowners are well placed to take advantage of the new renewable energy feed in tariffs (FIT) that provide tax free, index linked revenue for the generation of renewable electricity.

There are a wide range of potential technologies that can provide both cheaper fixed priced energy to the farm business as well as a potential return. FIT is banded to the technology so that the higher cost options receive a better rate. It also gives security to potential funding sources through guaranteed returns for energy sold.

Photovoltaic panels and medium scale wind power are currently the leaders in the race to install renewables on farm sites, but anaerobic digestion and biomass are also receiving a huge amount of interest. ADAS has delivered feasibility studies and planning consent for many renewable energy projects and with farm business knowledge we can help you make the right decision for your business.

No one single technology or solution can provide all farm energy in the right place, at the right time and in the right form. We need to be open to all new forms of energy generation and the impact that these new energy technologies will have on our landscape, homes and businesses.

If we are to maintain anything close to our existing lifestyles and foster a competitive agricultural sector we need new sustainable forms of energy and we need them soon.

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