Increasing numbers of developers and farmers in the South West are looking to anaerobic digestion in a bid to reduce their waste and create their own energy, according to an expert in renewables.
Sonya Bedford, partner and head of the renewable energy team at Westcountry-based law firm Stephens Scown LLP, says she has received many new enquiries and an influx of interest in the region recently.
Sonya, who represents clients across the firm’s offices in Exeter, Truro and St Austell, says, “There is a lot of interest in anaerobic digestion because it’s a viable waste reduction solution for many farmers who want to power and heat their farm and other buildings, sell renewable energy to local customers or electricity to the Grid and grow energy crops to support the AD plants. Although the technology is complex and needs skilled maintenance, it is a huge growth area in the region.”
Anaerobic digestion (AD) is a process where micro-organisms break down biodegradable material without oxygen. Agricultural waste, sewage sludge, amenity waste and household and food waste is collected, mixed and shredded in a digester before bacteria breaks it down, creating biogas and digestate.
Biogas is used to generate heat and electricity, while digestate is a nutrient-rich by-product for conditioning and fertilising soil. Government policy and support from the rural community is helping to make AD more prominent in the renewable energy mix.
Sonya adds, “In my view, whilst the technology has been around for some time this is the next renewable energy development for a number of reasons. AD can have a number of benefits for farmers including increasing profits, helping mitigate against climate change and disposing of waste material. Some farmers have an on-farm operation, while others may use a centralised plant, but this obviously involves higher costs.”
Sonya is currently advising Cornwall-based AD business Green and Pleasant Recycling Ltd. Director Julian Maiklem said “Green and Pleasant was founded by farmers for farmers and is delighted to be working with Stephens Scown in this exciting new agricultural opportunity.
“The South West is one of the UK’s most important livestock regions. AD can help farmers and growers to reduce costs and increase incomes by processing manures and slurries, crop residues, food wastes and energy crops and producing renewable energy, high organic matter soil improver and fertiliser. AD is an ideal technology for livestock farmers because an AD unit is essentially a large artificial stomach; if you can feed a pig or a cow you can feed an AD unit. There is an increasing number of companies and technologies out there now and the market can seem confusing. We are here to help with any part of the process, from feedstock sourcing through technology appraisal and obtaining the appropriate permits to funding, building and operating the unit.”
Costs vary depending on size, but typically a small 15kW plant fed by 150 cows might cost £150,000 while a larger centralised plant of 1MW capacity could cost £3-4 million, but could earn energy and gate-fee revenues of over £1m per year, according to Farming Futures.
Sonya added: “With the Renewable Heat Incentive and income from the Feed-In Tariff (FiT) scheme providing financial incentives, AD is a viable option for farmers. Set-up costs are usually high but there are funding streams available. Local farmers can also work together to reduce or share costs.”
Sonya warns landowners should get advice before entering into any contract: “Inevitably it will be a large investment and farmers may not think about speaking to a lawyer first. It’s particularly important when planning, buying new kit, negotiating contracts, dealing with feed stock supplies and digestate removal, warranties or installation.”