Renewables: Reaping the benefits of farming in harmony with solar power

WITH a five megawatt solar farm in operation on his land - enough to meet the electricity needs of 1,500 homes – Clive Sage is one of a new generation of renewable energy farmers who have made the most of recent commercial interest in leasing farmland to generate solar power.

Not that Mr Sage, who farms 100 hectares (250 acres), with about 550 ewes and 60 cattle, would want to be known as a solar farmer. Twenty-five years ago he owned little or no land of his own and was shearing sheep.

After studying at Bicton agricultural college, near Exeter, he left for New Zealand and Australia to work on farms. When he returned, he rented land close to his parents’ family farm near Bridport, Dorset.

Within a short space of time, he had built up a successful contract shearing business. With a team of Kiwis, he managed to shear 20,000 sheep in one year.

He took over some of the land from his family’s farm in the mid-1990s and later switched to running the farm full-time, giving up the shearing contract work. Although, with prices per sheep now more than double the rate he was getting a few years ago, he admits to looking at trying to fit in contracting again.

His farm business is based around selling his beef and lamb within the local region. He is director of Dorset Farmers Markets and is involved in the producer group Direct From Dorset.

Currently about 90 per cent of his meat is sold directly through farm shops, hotels, mail order and farmers’ markets.

The meat is slaughtered locally and delivered back on-farm, where a part-time butcher is employed to process his own-branded produce.

Getting started

The story of how he came into solar energy is one which almost never happened - thanks in part to his wife, who works from the family home as a osteomyologist, looking after farmers’ aches and back pains.

Just over three years ago, there was a knock at the door from a developer, who turned up out the blue, asking if they would be interested in renting out a field and putting solar panels on it.

“My wife sent him packing, saying no we wouldn’t,” says Mr Sage.

Although he had installed solar panels on his barn roof, the thought of giving over an entire field or more to it did not appeal.

However, when he subsequently found out that he could continue to graze livestock on the fields after the solar panels had been installed, he was converted to the idea.

“That got me quite excited. I thought, it is the best of both worlds here if I can still graze and maintain the sites as well as producing green energy.”

Three years on, his solar farm has been up and running for more than six months now. To get to this point, though, he says it has been a ‘bit of a rollercoaster’.

The introduction of government subsidy through Feed-in Tarriffs, which provide a higher price per unit of electricity generated, helped kick-start the industry in 2010.

However, it also led to a rush of speculators and ‘cowboys’, something Mr Sage admits to having had concerns about.

“I had heard the scare stories and knew there were several companies out there who were prepared to offer farmers’ money, without having the funds to deliver it. They just planned on selling the site on to someone else.”

An early deal fell through after the Government subsidy was reduced two years ago, but he soon had a choice of six new offers from energy companies from around the world.

They all offered slightly different deals - rent payments, payments up front, an amount per acre or megawatt installed.

Research

“You have to try and read between the lines, but they were all more or less offering the same. I did my research and spoke to a number of other farmers in Cornwall who had installed solar panels, so I knew what was on the table and what was a fair price.”

He eventually chose British Solar Renewables because of its successful delivery of previous farm projects; his own knowledge of the company, which is ‘owned by a respected Somerset farming family’; and the appeal of supporting a local British company.

“From my point of view, I am producing meat on this land and trying to sell it through local markets, so the food miles thing is quite important to me.

“They call it sticky money. If you are generating work for local people, selling food to local people, it is money that stays within the locality.

“I could have quite easily gone with a Spanish or German company and they would have sent all their employees and equipment over and there would have been little benefit to the local economy.”

There was the stress of contracts and solicitors, but ultimately it was the company which applied for planning permission and stumped up the finance for the £6 million project.

In return, Clive gets quarterly payments, guaranteed for the 25-year term of the lease.

“I just had the right land, in the right place. In farming, every bit of land lends itself to different opportunities.”

For the developers, his site had a number of key attractions - a south-facing field, shaded from view and not overlooked, and perhaps crucially, a major regional sub-station less than 500 metres away to feed in the electricity his site produces to the national grid.

Such is the potential of his immediate vicinity for generating solar energy that there are already three other solar farm sites either under construction or up and running, within a two mile radius of his farm.

There have been objections from local residents, as the site is visible through the hedgerows in places as you drive along the minor roads running past his 12ha (30-acre) site.

However, the intrusion is arguably mild in comparison to the presence of the electricity pylons which have been running from the regional sub-station out over the landscape since the 1950s.

Nationally, the UK government has set a target of installing 20 gigawatts of solar power by 2020 - enough to meet the electricity needs of four million homes.

Even with a further reduction in government subsidy support, experts have told Farmers Guardian they expect developers to continue to look for more sites.

There are proposals for a much larger 28MW solar project on a farm in Blandford Forum, North Dorset.

Income

Whatever the objections, for Mr Sage his site is already a source of pride. He recently had a film crew from BBC Countryfile visiting the farm - and most importantly he has a new guaranteed source of income.

With fixed, index-linked payments, whether the sun shines or fog descends, he will still get paid for the next 25 years and longer if the site is successful and the lease is extended.

“There is little in farming that gives you a guaranteed market price, even if you might get lucky and be able to find a niche market for a certain crop.”

There is still an unknown impact in terms of the grazing quality of the land used by the solar panels. Mr Sage had to cut back his sheep numbers during the construction phase, which lasted for four months, but is now building numbers up again.

On the site itself, he admits weed infestation is likely to be a problem.

“It will be continuous grazing, as you can not bring a crop in and rotate, so it is likely to take some long-term grazing and flock management.”

The wires have been safeguarded, but there could be occasional loose wires which could get chewed on by the sheep, unless he monitors the site closely.

However, the supporting legs on the panels seem to be standing up to the sheep’s fondness for rubbing and scratching themselves.

Unfortunately, his somewhat optimistic idea of bringing his lambing sheep into the field, under the protection of the security fence around the field, have not worked out. “The foxes have managed to sneak under it,” he says.

Farm facts

  • 100 hectares (250 acres)
  • 550 ewes
  • 60 cattle
  • 90 per cent of meat sold through farm shops, hotels, mail order and farmers’ markets
  • Solar company funded the £6 million development and dealt with planning issues
  • Fixed, index-linked quarterly payments on 25-year lease
  • Major regional sub-station close by
  • Three other solar farm sites within a two-mile radius of the site

 

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