David Clubb, director of RenewableUK Cymru, argues that rural communities unsure about how Brexit will affect subsidies should not discount the opportunities for energy projects
The farming community is no stranger to change, but the coming years will test the adaptability and resilience of the rural sector hugely, and Wales perhaps more than most other areas of the UK.
Brexit will leave no part of the rural economy untouched. With greater uncertainty around a whole host of social and economic factors, it is the most innovative, forward-thinking and flexible will thrive in the new world. With variability a perpetual risk for incomes from traditional farming sectors, can renewable energy offer a potential hedge to this uncertainty?
The potential for landowners to benefit from renewables was highlighted to me recently when I was delighted to present the Wales Green Energy Award for Agriculture to Hendre Glyn farm. Once a traditional beef and sheep farm, the family farm started to diversify into renewable energy in 2007 with the development of small-scale (13 kW) hydropower system.
With their entire electricity consumption accounted for by the hydropower, they tackled the issue of heat in 2014, installing a 75kW biomass boiler for the main house and a second 190 kW biomass boiler to support a firewood business.
They have been able to employ additional staff to work on the firewood business, and have hosted visits from across the world from people eager to replicate their success.
This is not an isolated case. We hear on a regular basis of farmers who have grabbed a lifeline from economic uncertainty by developing wind turbines on their hill farms, solar thermal on their dairy units and solar photovoltaics on their agricultural buildings.
But the impacts of this new potential income stream for the rural community go far beyond the individual households and farms. Without exception, these rural entrepreneurs are proud of what they have achieved, often against challenging planning requirements, and delighted with the extra resilience provided by their new energy systems.
Local-scale biomass systems herald the possibility of an improvement in the management of the private woodland sector by improving the viability of small woodlands and increasing demand for good-quality firewood and adding value to forestry skills.
Electricity generating projects require a range of skill-sets for construction, operation and maintenance, and support the preservation of countryside jobs against the powerful tide of urban demographic shift.
The additional income stream means that landowners are able to take a longer-term view of their custodianship and business development, with less focus on prices for the traditional products of farming.
That the rural community as a whole benefits from the growth of the renewable energy sector cannot be in doubt; but there is the potential for even community engagement as business models develop.
Community-owned energy projects will increasingly benefit everyone who lives and works in the countryside. The visionary Ynni Ogwen community hydropower project in Bethesda – another of this year’s award-winners – aims to provide cheap electricity to nearby villages whilst increasing the return to investors and the community fund from an increased power generation value.
There is much to be gained from a combination of farmers and community groups working together on these kinds of project in the future. Land-owners have the resource and many of the skills required, and community groups have the passion and the networks to leverage additional funding and public support.
I can envisage a time when land-owners benefit from cheap access to capital through local share offers by hosting community energy projects, which in turn reward local investors through the return on their investment, and benefit all local residents by provision of cheaper energy.
Perhaps even more important than the financial outcomes will be a deepening of the existing strong ties between the land and the rural communities which depend on it. It is the relationships between the millions of individuals and groups living in the countryside which will determine whether these communities continue to prosper, and not the outcomes of individual projects, significant though they might be.
I know from my time working in the sector that there is no shortage of innovation, business acumen and tenacity in the people and communities of the rural areas of the UK. Whilst the future is more uncertain following the vote to leave the EU, there is still opportunity, with renewable energy being part of that opportunity. And seize it we must, because the alternative puts at risk much of what we love about our treasured rural areas.
First published in the January 2017 issue of New Power.