Written by Sarah Butler and Rowena Mason
Visitors are stalking Britain's rural communities in unsuitable footwear, offering farmers the deal of a lifetime. They're not pushing a wonder fertilizer or trying to side-step their local farmers' market in the hunt for a new superfood, but offering help to cash in on the new gold rush - solar power.
Since April, when the Government brought in new subsidies to promote the development of renewable energy, farmers have found they hold the key to a secure investment.
"The county is swarming with people in suits and shiny shoes looking for a few acres to shove a solar panel in," says Stephen Frankel of Carhart Mill near Wadebridge in Cornwall.
It's potentially great news for farmers who saw income drop nearly 7pc last year as commodity prices fell. Tom Hind, head of economics at the National Farmers Union (NFU), says that although farmers saw a pick up in income in 2007 and 2008 after a decade of falling trade, many farmers are "treading a fine line" in terms of survival. Many are reliant on money from the EU to turn a profit.
"Investment in renewables and developing new income streams from land and buildings is part of the defence against volatile commodity prices," says Mr Hind.
Farmer Frankel has already installed a small 3kW solar system on the barn roof at his rare breeds pig and cattle farm, earning him £1,700 of income a year. But all the farmers contacted by The Sunday Telegraph for this article said they were inundated with calls and correspondence from investors wanting to engage them in solar projects.
So does this unprecedented solar push really offer a viable extra revenue stream to our rural economy? And what can history teach us about Government-backed energy initiatives for farmers?
The Government's so-called feed-in-tariffs offer guaranteed cash back for the next 25 years on every unit of electricity generated by a solar panel, wind turbine or biomass energy technology such as anaerobic digestion.
What's more, the tariff system is designed to offer an 8pc to 10pc rate of return on all scales of project, making it more attractive for investors than a bank account and more reliable than the stock market.
Since the feed-in-tariff scheme began, there have been 3,721 installations in the
UK, 98pc of which were solar panels, according to the latest figures from Ofgem, the energy regulator. While many of those are on homes, farmers could be among the biggest beneficiaries.
The average barn roof could generate as much as £20,000 of income a year if devoted to so-called photovoltaic solar panels, which generate electricity. Meanwhile, large field-based projects promise income of several million pounds a year, with the potential to secure and diversify farmers' income.
The British scheme follows in the tracks of similar ones in Germany, Spain and Italy where thousands of farmers have set up solar and other renewable energy projects.
Madeleine Lewis of Farming Futures, a body backed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the NFU and Forum for the Future, the environmental group, says: "A year ago, farmers thought of solar as not very profitable and that's obviously changed. They are now very keen to invest in renewables. They are using a lot of energy, prices are going up and that has hit their businesses hard. Renewables projects insulate them against rising prices and provide a new income. There's a lot of buzz around it."
With more sunlight hours than elsewhere in the country, Cornwall is set to be the heart of the UK's new solar industry.
Nearly 40 farmers have already inquired about planning permission for solar projects in the county and more are likely to follow. Installations are also being planned in Herefordshire, Somerset and even the
North East of England, despite there being 20pc less sun than in England's south-western foot.
The NFU believes that as many as 100 farmers will be setting up major solar projects by next year with many more already planning small-scale developments. Potentially as many as 1,000 wind projects could be in the pipeline by next year.
Jonathan Scurlock, the NFU's chief adviser on renewable energy, says: "Farmers are extremely interested in diversifying and this is completely compatible with the traditional business of a farm."
Just last week, Michael Eavis, the high-profile farmer and host of the Glastonbury music festival, started work on a £550,000 project using 1,100 panels on the roof of his cow barn. The project will be the biggest solar roof in the country, although that record isn't expected to last long as the UK's chicken, pig and dairy farmers all begin to view their barn roofs in a new light. In Herefordshire, a group of eight farmers is clubbing together through advisory company 7Y Energy, owned by 450 farmers, to buy solar panels for their barn roofs. Another group of 35 are undergoing surveys to see if their sites are suitable.
Julian Cotton of Pomona Farm in Hereford is typical of the first group. He is planning a 42kW system on top of a former hop kiln he uses partly as a cold store for the cherries, apples and other fruits he grows.
Cotton says: "The amount of sunlight here doesn't vary from year to year much at all. We should have a guaranteed income over 25 years - index-linked - and that means we can reduce farm costs."
The panels should cover all the farm's electrical needs, saving about £800 a year, and leave three times more electricity to sell into the electrical grid.
He says: "Farming goes up and down. We are having an OK time at the moment, but not fantastic, so this will be a useful addition to the farm income."
Yet he points out he will not be making any real profit for about 10 years, the time it will take to pay for his panels.
The NFU is encouraging farmers to mount panels on barn roofs or to use land around the edge of fields for solar panels rather than using fertile agricultural land for so-called 'solar vineyards'.
Mr Scurlock suggests farmers could graze chickens, geese or even sheep underneath field-based panels to maintain agricultural use. However, these large projects are subject to more planning constraints and may face local opposition because of their visual impact.
Still, such projects are attractive to investors because of their massive scale. One of the most ambitious investors in solar energy in the UK is MO3 Power, which is already engaged with 15 farmers and wants to have 100 sites generating 500MW of energy within fives years, the equivalent of a small commercial power station. A typical site would cover 13 to 15 hectares, generating 5MW with the potential to give an annual income of £50,000 a year for farmers leasing their land for the solar farm.
Adam Oliver, operations director says: "There is no real capital commitment on the part of the farmer and no on-going cost on their part." The implication is that once a farmer has agreed to the solar project he can sit back and reap a steady income.
R-Eco is a rival investment firm offering similar deals through its Silicon Vineyards project. It is working with some 30 farmers in the West Country who together will be operating 56mW of solar panels.
Benbole farm in St Kew in Cornwall is one of the most advanced schemes in the project. It has applied for planning permission for a 2mW array in a seven-acre field which it hopes will start construction this autumn. John Vidler, project co-ordinator at Benbole, says the array will provide electricity for 600 to 800 homes locally and about 10pc of the income will be set aside for a community fund. Mr Vidler says the environmental and community benefit adds a feel-good factor but: "There's no doubt about it, the feed-in-tariff brings financial rewards for us. We are going to be making a lot of money out of it."
Some farmers are suspicious of partnerships with developers or financiers because they fear the money men will take the lion's share of any income.
Experts also warn that the returns for solar projects are being overestimated by investors keen to persuade farmers to sign up. At the same time, choosing good quality equipment for schemes more than 50kW in size, for which equipment does not have to pass micro-generation licensing laws, can be tricky.
Mr Frankel says: "I'm not for large-scale, externally-funded solar vineyards because I think that's motivated by 'money for old rope'." But Mr Vidler says he is more comfortable using a developer such as R-Eco which has the experience and expertise to source and construct a solar array. Under the R-Eco scheme, he can choose the amount of investment he wants to make within a joint venture arrangement. Out of the £13m turn-over expected to be generated by the array, the farm could take between £5m and £9m depending on its investment, he says.
Yet hopes of new income sources for farmers have been dashed before. The creation of energy from animal slurry or crop residue has been a real disappointment for farmers. The previous government wanted to see as many as 1,000 small-scale anaerobic digestion plants over time.
But as many as 50 on-farm projects were cancelled earlier this year when farmers realised the feed-in-tariff for anaerobic digestion (AD), the most popular form of biomass power generation, was too low to make the projects viable.
AD plants, which use heat and bacteria to turn organic waste into energy, require considerable investment of around £1.5m for a small-scale 500kW plant. Larger plants are able to boost income by charging fees to local councils or businesses in return for taking in food or other organic waste and so can be profitable with little or no subsidy. But farm-based projects don't have the facilities or environmental permits for this option.
Leonie Green, head of external affairs at the Renewable Energy Association, says the group is putting pressure on the government to increase the tariff for small farm projects. About 18m tonnes of slurry is produced in the UK every year and she says: "The potential for farmers is fantastic. It should be taking off everywhere because every farmer has organic agricultural waste outputs."
Wind turbines have been a potential source of income for farmers for some time, but large -scale developments have struggled to gain planning permission in many areas.
Mr Scurlock at the NFU says things are now changing on that front. He says: "In the past wind was only of interest on a large commercial scale. Now with the feed-in-tariff, small wind projects look bankable, economically viable and within the capability of a farmer to borrow money."
He says smaller turbines can cost £500,000 or even £50,000 and potential income is higher, if less predictable than solar.
Sarah Wells, an energy consultant at 7Y Energy says that, of its members taking up renewable energy projects in the wake of the feed-in-tariff, about a third are doing wind projects and two-thirds solar.
She says this is because wind projects are seen as higher risk: "You can't predict the wind as easily as daylight hours. It can vary from one year to the next."
Wind is also not appropriate for as many farmers as solar. Firstly it requires the right kind of weather, which can best be found in Scotland, the North West of England, Wales and the South West. With many of those locations in beautiful natural settings, gaining planning permission may still be a barrier.
For now, Britain's farmers' biggest ray of hope comes from solar.
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