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Renewable energies to transform farmers into 'energy moguls' within 20 years

Mar 1, 2006 - Refocus Weekly

Cambridge, UK: Farmers will move into a strategic position in world energy markets within two decades, concludes a British research analysis.

Farmers receive money for siting wind turbines on their land, but farms with an area of 1 km˛ could be worth US$600 million to manufacturers of solar PV technology, explains ‘Farming Renewable Energy’ produced by CarbonFree, a UK-based research company that has completed the study of the renewable energy market for farms.

Large-scale capture of wind and solar energy requires the management of significant areas of land and, if the market for renewable energy continues to grow at the current rate, farmers will occupy a strategic position within the energy market within two decades, it concludes. While conventional energy producers are starting to look beyond oil and petroleum as resources, farmers need to look beyond ethanol and start to build comprehensive energy supply businesses.

“For several decades, the energy market has been dominated by a handful of companies and closed to new entrants,” says analyst Peter Kruger. “Advocates of a distributed energy generation model, the so called ‘Internet of Energy’, are particularly interested in farmed renewable energy ... because this source of power is readily available and is a good fit with their plans for a reformed energy market.”

The ability of the agricultural sector to organize itself and to provide a comprehensive range of energy products and services will be the key, the report explains. The importance of farmed energy will grow, but the fragmented nature of agricultural production will prevent farmers from dominating the global economy as oil producers do today, although farmers should be able to make a significant impact on the energy market.

Although not economic now, farming of solar energy eventually will benefit from advances in solar cell technology, particularly the ability to deposit PV materials on low-cost polymer-based substrates. In theory, installation of such photovoltaic material could be as straightforward as the deployment of the large amounts of polythene farmers use to speed up the growth of fruit and vegetables.

The report examines improvements in the equipment used to farm solar and the companies that may help to reduce the cost of PV devices to the point where solar energy farms are self-financing. The potential of nanotechnology-based materials which extract hydrogen from water when exposed to sunlight will provide a “step change in the farmed energy market,” noting that sites with effective areas up to 1 km˛ could be worth more than $600 million to manufacturers of thin-film and polymer-based photovoltaic technology in the medium-term for large-scale energy farming trials.

This third generation of photovoltaic devices based on nanotechnology “would greatly reduce the cost of turning the sun’s energy into a fuel,” and such materials will start to reach the market at a time when oil-producing countries find that the cost of activating oil becomes prohibitively high, says Kruger. “Farmed energy will come at a cost, both political and geopolitical, as the agricultural sector is empowered economically, and countries within the solar belt attempt to leverage the advantage they have over the U.S. and Europe.”

“On any given day, the solar energy falling on a typical oilfield in the Middle East is far greater than the energy contained in the oil extracted from it,” the report explains. “While oil provides a highly concentrated source of power, solar energy is distributed over a wide area.”

Collecting energy from a wide area is an activity associated with farming, and an agricultural model should be used for the harvesting of renewable energy, as opposed to an industrial model. Wind energy is already profitable in some areas, and a trial in Dakota of a hydrogen station powered by wind turbines is noted as a potential application for energy farming in rural areas.

“Energy farming would see rural economies within countries empowered, and global companies will move operations from Europe to countries within the solar belt, where they can take advantage of low cost renewable energy,” it notes. “A key driver for the farmed renewable energy market is the next generation provider who is currently unable to enter the energy market; these entrepreneurs, who are seeking a model that will provide them with a strategic advantage over incumbent providers, will be attracted to the distributed nature of farmed renewable energy.”