Farm Of The Week: Smallholding harvesting green energy

Mark Woodward
Mark Woodward
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THERE is not much farming left at Townfield Head Farm but Mark Woodward makes a living out of its homestead and 10 acres. And how he does it will be of interest to others contemplating the incentives on offer for renewable energy.

He has had a wind turbine since 2005 and is about to install another. He has been sourcing ground-heat, from 1.25 kilometres of pipework under an acre of hay meadow, for the same period. He has solar panels on the roof, converting light into electricity, and he is contemplating going back to the older form of solar power to heat water just for hot water.

None of those technologies is uncommon but to find them all side by side is still a bit different. And even more unusually, Mark is happy to talk figures. In fact, real-experience information about renewable energy has become one of the most important products of this old dairy farm near Stannington, between Sheffield and the Peaks.

Mark, 53, grew up in Birmingham and started work as a music teacher – then went freelance in education and the audio business, with ventures as diverse as inspecting for Ofsted and making celebrity-soundalike answerphone tapes with the impressionist Jon Culshaw.

Meanwhile, Townfield Head Farm got out of dairy and was stripped back to a smallholding, supplying livery. Mark and his partner, local lawyer Sheila Brown, lived nearby and kept their horses there. And when it came up for sale, eight years ago, they were sure they could make something of it.

They moved in with three children and added a fourth, which encouraged Mark to get stuck into developing a home-based business.

The eldest, 18, is at Exeter University. The youngest is now five.

First idea was a teaching and conference centre, carved out of the old house and an adjoining barn. They wanted to use the generous spaces available, rather than partition them up into pokiness, and the results are elegant. But to keep those high spaces comfortable, even with first-class insulation, they were looking at energy needs six or seven times the average house.

Even before the barn conversion, the old oil-fired central heating was costing £2,500 a year, and the oil price has doubled since.

After six years of trying alternatives, wind has repaid best, but it is a windy location. The first 6-kw turbine cost £20,000, including a £5,000 grant, and has produced 14,000 kilowatt hours a year and cost £400 a year for routine maintenance. It needed a new set of blades after two years, which the manufacturers paid for, when the original timber-and-fibreglass set started to fall apart. The new plastic ones are still going strong.

Unfortunately the British manufacturer, Proven, is not – thanks to problems with another model. But Mark says: “I chose a simple machine, with no gearing, and I’m fairly sure I can get the parts anyway.”

The underground heat extraction cost £30,000 to set up, including £10,000 for underfloor heating in the house. Cold fluid running through the field pipes, a metre under the surface, is warmed just a little bit.

Back in the house, two big pumps, which act like refrigerators in reverse, take out the heat and concentrate it. The ground recovers to normal temperatures during the summer and can be ploughed and cropped for hay as usual. Mark reckons the pipes will last at least his lifetime and he can get at everything else.

It is not free heat. It costs a unit of electricity to get the equivalent of four more in heat – and electricity is sometimes required to top up the output of hot water in cold periods, which is why Mark is considering having a solar input too. Because electricity is expensive, the financial advantage over gas-fired heating is small. But the saving in CO2 emissions is significant, and the new Renewable Heat Incentive – postponed, but expected to start in November – will pay a bonus for heat from this kind of source. However, the Townfield Head scheme was too early for it – and householders, as opposed to businesses, will have to wait another year before they are eligible for it.

Those first investments reduced the farm’s draw on the National Grid, for an all-electric building, to about twice the average – offset to some extent by the surpluses sold into the grid. Now the aim is to wipe out the deficit altogether, by making more of their own heat and light and selling more to the grid.

Meanwhile, Mark has turned his experiences into presentations which tie in with national curriculum requirements to look at global warming and the possible cures. And in between the school parties and the business conferences, he offers briefings and tours for anyone contemplating an investment in alternative energy.

Farmers, householders and small businesses, pay £35 a head for three hours getting a point of view free of the gloss and spin of manufacturer-financed exhibitions, usually on Saturday mornings.

He is talking to Sheffield University about wiring the whole place up for telemetric monitoring of how the solar panels perform when the light is at Level X; what the turbines do when the wind is Y; how house demand reacts to both; and so on. Meanwhile, he can offer some useful rough calculations.

The 4-kw solar array cost £15,000 – two thirds down from a quote in 2005 – and would be even cheaper now if you bought Chinese. It is on course to contribute about 4,000 kwh over its first year.

A new wind turbine, and a new three-phase connection to the grid, to deal with the increasingly large exchanges of power, will cost £60,000, but that will include ten years parts and labour and should produce 24,000 kwh a year. The contractors he has come to trust, Rotary Engineering of Sheffield, recommend an American Xzeres.

In the end, Mark expects to be still drawing about 30,000 kwh from the grid but to be selling about the same back when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. And thanks to the new Feed-in Tariffs, he reckons his investments will be paying back £10,000-£12,000 a year in various ways.

One spend too far was £15,000 for a rain-water recycling system. Environmental Health is still dithering about whether to allow him to use it and although it might earn a small saving on water rates, it will never be enough to repay the costs.

Against his instincts, by the way, he went for high-tech insulation materials rather than sheep’s wool, having weighed up factors including the amount of internal space the wool would have taken.

The smallholding itself supports a few horses; grows hay to spare; and supplies pork, fruit and vegetables for the conference business kitchen. The pork comes from half a dozen Tamworth weaners a year, bought in and fattened in an outdoor paddock to eight or nine months old.

“I sometimes sell a half-pig for £135 and make nothing,” says Mark. But he is exploring one possibility which might pay for a few extra pigs – Continental-style charcuterie. A Parma ham treatment turns a leg of pork into something which retails at £50 a kilo, he points out. Watch out for Sheffield Salami. Meanwhile, his latest venture is into the ‘green weddings’ business. See www.greendirections.co.uk or call 0114 230 4722.