For some farmers, renewable energy systems offer new opportunities for energy savings, additional income streams, and diversification options.
However, for others, the emerging renewable sector is seen as a threat and a source of competition. It’s not easy to represent the views of both sides, but that’s exactly what the next IFA president will have to do.
At the recent Irish Farmers Journal IFA presidential debate, our editor, Jack Kennedy, posed a range of questions to both candidates, Martin Stapleton and Francie Gorman, in order to understand their stance on renewables.
The drive towards renewables should be the opportunity of a generation for farmers, but this isn’t currently the case. Here is what the candidates said about what they are going to do about it.
When asked about the government’s plans to develop up to 200 anaerobic digestion (AD) plants by 2030, both candidates were sceptical.
Gorman said that he doesn’t agree that they need 200 AD plants around the country, but targeted plants could help the tillage sector and dairy farmers impacted by nitrates.
Stapleton also said he wasn’t sure about the 200 figure and that, as farmers, we need to decide if this is something we want to bring closer to reality, as there isn’t any level of farmer thought consistency around this.
He said there’s clearly a huge lack of knowledge among most farms about the impact they are going to have, citing the impact on the availability of land.
However, he wanted to clearly set out his belief that there is a real opportunity for a partial solution to the nitrates issues on highly stocked dairy farms and pig farms, by having AD plants run on slurry and slurry alone.
Gorman emphasised that building AD plants cannot be the “preserve of big business”, and he compared this to the beef sector.
He said if you look at the co-op model for the dairy industry, margins are transparent and you know what you can get for your price of milk. That same transparency isn’t there in the beef sector, he said.
“If we are going to have an AD sector in the country, farmers need to have a certain level of ownership of it and they need to be supported to do that,” he said.
Addressing planning costs and delays, Gorman said that no farmer or farmer group will be able to submit planning permission for an AD plant and sit there for maybe four or five years before they get it, but big business can afford to do that.
Stapleton said there has to be confidence from farmers that whatever they are committing to, such as providing feedstock, that they are provided with a sustained regular income and a fair share of the profits.
Stapleton said rooftop solar is now up and running for farms with a relatively large energy demand, where their own usage justifies the panels. With the TAMS grant, it’s a very viable solution he said.
Gorman said that rooftop solar should be the preserve of all farmers, not just those that have a high usage of electricity, implying that they should be allowed to export the electricity.
On wind turbines, Stapleton said that planning for turbines is very frustrating, and said that planning should be streamlined. He also said that access to the rural grid is very difficult for either wind or solar, which will be sold into the grid and you almost certainly need three-phase power to do it.
Gorman said that for wind turbines installed on farmland, when farmers go to transfer the land onto the next generation, the current taxation process could mean that they may well end up having to sell land.
He said that it is no incentive for farmers to allow them on their farms, and that this is an issue that needs to be looked at.
When asked by Jack Kennedy about the competition for land from AD plants, solar farms, and a growing tillage sector and what can be done to balance land competition, both said there was a need for a new land use policy for the country.
Stapleton said that there is a real need for a national plan on how we develop our land use. He stressed the need to protect farmers’ freedom to farm and their freedom to decide how they use their land.
Gorman said a proper land use strategy for the country would include how we could supply the AD sector, if it comes.
The candidates both have well-defined views on the renewables sector, but they both need a clearer vision on how to develop it with farmers’ interests at the core.
Soundbites like, “This needs to be looked at” and “It’s very frustrating” are not good enough answers on how to address the challenges facing the sector.
In the opening line of my dialogue at the debate, I emphasised that renewables should be the opportunity of a generation for farmers. This can only be achieved with strong leadership.
Why wouldn’t you take the opportunity of renewables seriously?
If designed correctly, schemes coming down the line could allow farmers to sell electricity from rooftop solar panels and generate €10,000 per year in income, or install an on-farm wind turbine and generate €100,000 per year, or build an AD plant, turning over €1 million per year.
These are the opportunities which could be available to farmers, but it needs to be at the front and centre of IFA policies, driven from the top.
Instead of fearing renewables policies and technology as competition for your own sectors, embrace them, steer them, and use the skillset already in the IFA to ensure that farmers are the ones who truly benefit from this green transition.
If you don’t, then watch as this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity passes by while you’re at the helm of Ireland’s largest farming organisation.