AS OIL prices rise and government and energy suppliers come under growing environmental pressure, renewable “green” sources of power and heat are increasingly hailed as the way forward.

Indeed, recent announcements by two of the country’s largest power stations, Drax and Didcot, that they are seeking growers to help them meet their renewable obligations, seem encouraging.

However, time is running out for the fledgling fuel-from-the-fields industry to get under way in time to meet key deadlines, warns Wilts-based willow enthusiast Rupert Burr.

“It takes four growing seasons to get willow to harvest,” he points out.

Under Kyoto agreement rules energy providers must generate 10% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010. If they opt for biomass, 25% of the fuel must come from energy crops by 2009, rising to 75% by 2011.

Only by being offered “cast iron” long-term contracts and prices that cover all fixed costs, not just variables, will farmers plant, believes Mr Burr whose recent bid to supply Didcot via his Roves Energy project was unsuccessful.

“It’s worth remembering that Energy Crop Scheme grants are available only to those with Letters of Intent/Contracts to purchase the crop,” he adds.

The government agrees with a Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution report that biomass has a significant and important role to play in reducing carbon dioxide emissions and generating heat and power.

However, in launching a new biomass task force under former NFU president Ben Gill last month (News Oct 22), agriculture minister Lord Whitty acknowledged the challenges.

“Barriers have to be overcome if we are to establish confidence in the industry.”

Indeed in the wake of the failed ARBRE project, which some specialists suggest was doomed from the start as it tried to employ new, unproven gasification technology, growers remain wary.

“ARBRE was a severe set-back,” acknowledges willow breeder and supplier Murray Carter. “But I now believe we are on the verge of something very exciting.”

Co-firing, by which coal-fired stations blend in a small amount of biomass, is the key, he maintains.

However, co-firing with bulky soft plant material is not as easy as using relatively brittle coal, admits Drax biomass manager John Hamlett. “Yes! We have had problems.”

In future biomass will be processed on site and burned through a separate direct injection system, he explains.

“There are always technical problems with anything new,” agrees Neil Bryson, chaiman of ESD Biomass which is offering contracts for 30,000t of willow to supply Didcot.

To encourage producers and provide security both its contracts, on a tonnage or area basis, are “take or pay” types, he adds.

However the £26/t does not attract Mr Burr.

“If farmers become involved in this project, at these prices, they will set the scenario of price structures that will tar the energy crops industry for ever. It will never become a financially sustainable crop.”