Anaerobic digestion and the smell of intolerance

Lesley Garrett Strictly Come Dancing

Kent Barker | Country Matters
After taking a leap from London, the plan was to start a new life in the countryside and a career as a famous author. Instead I acquired a dog and part-time work managing a community orchard. You can read these experiences on my

I was most shocked when a large group walked out just as I’d been called to speak. I’m under no illusion about my (un)popularity among the protestors, nor about the (in)eloquence of my oratory, but for 45 minutes I’d had to sit and listen to their views – now I really thought they might, just possibly, have the courtesy to hear mine.

We’re in the Village Hall. It’s a special meeting of the parish council to consider just one planning application – this blasted anaerobic digester at an outlying farm.

We’ve already had public meetings on the issue, as well as any number of planning committee and full parish council discussions at which the protesters have given vent to their feelings in no uncertain terms. They even sent out anonymous leaflets to whip up opposition.

In synopsis, a farmer wants to build an anaerobic digester which will be fed by the manure from his cattle and other waste products from his and his brother’s farms. He might need to grow some crops to supplement the input. In return, it will produce about four million kW of electricity – equivalent to the annual consumption of 1,200 homes – i.e. more than our entire village – which will be sold back to the national grid.

It also produces an inert digestate which is an excellent natural fertiliser. The cost of the scheme runs into millions and it will be nearly a decade until it has paid for itself.

The downside – as so vigorously pointed out by the opponents – is that the plant is pretty big and would take up half an acre of pastureland in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There are also fears about noise, smell and increased traffic movements down narrow lanes.

I know I go on about climate change and CO2 ‘greenhouse gas’ emissions from fossil fuel power stations, but I believe it’s an important issue. My generation, from the 1950s on, has caused huge damage to the environment, so I’m unapologetic about campaigning to do what I can for the future. I’m pretty ashamed at what I’m passing to my son.

The Government’s target of 15 per cent of UK energy from renewable sources by 2020 is pretty modest and, given that it had only reached 8.3 per cent by last year, probably unobtainable – unless there’s a big increase in micro-generation (small-scale wind, hydro, solar or AD plants) alongside ‘microgrids’ – where communities are encouraged to aim for self-sufficiency, sharing power round locally rather than over the more inefficient national grid.

AD plants can use almost any organic matter – so instead of your garden and kitchen waste going to a landfill site to produce damaging methane gases, we could and should all be taking it to an AD plant where the methane is burned cleanly to produce power. Plus, here in the country, instead of the smelly habit of spreading slurry (cattle waste) and chicken manure all over the fields, you can use it to feed the digester, create electricity and produce a better fertiliser which doesn’t smell.

But a sizeable group of residents who live near the plant proposed just don’t see the wider picture. They simply refuse to believe what the applicant has said – and doubt other evidence. At the meeting they argued that it would lead to an increase in CO2 emissions; that everyone in the village would have to pay extra ‘carbon tax’ to fund it; that it couldn’t be sustained by the farm waste so more would have to be trucked in along the lanes; that it was an ‘industrial’-scale plant which would despoil the AONB, and so on.

But they produced little or no evidence for their assertions and some, when challenged, were either plain wrong or deliberately misleading. Plus the AONB supports the proposal.

However, it wasn’t the protesters’ views that were the real problem, it was how they expressed them. I thought they showed unpleasant personal animosity towards the farmer in question, effectively accusing him of mendacity. And they certainly didn’t like me questioning parts of their evidence.

But what I found most distressing was their apparent contempt for the democratic process. This was an official Parish Council meeting at which four people had given notice they wanted to speak – but many others simply called out from the floor or barracked anyone who had the temerity to disagree with them or put an opposing view.

Although there are quite a number of supporters of this AD proposal in the village, I was the only one to speak in favour of it. And about ten people walked out when I started. A great demonstration of tolerance, open-mindedness and respect for others’ points of view, I thought.

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