16 November 2001

Alternative uses ease path of energy grass

JUST as Farmers Markets have renewed public interest in the origins of food, so consumers will soon be demanding to know where their electricity comes from.

So says Paul Carver of Bical, the Devon-based company set up in 1998 to promote commercial production of miscanthus, a fast growing perennial grass and renewable source of energy.

"Ten years ago fewer people worried about where their food came from. I suspect we are about to see the same sort of thing with energy where people are increasingly concerned about sustainability."

The government is committed to producing 10% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010.

While wind and solar power will provide most of that, he believes there are considerable opportunities for miscanthus and short rotation coppice willow, the two crops the House of Commons pinpointed in 1991 as ideal for energy production.

"The DTI reckons we need a total of 125,000ha of both," he says.

Planting grants are available for establishing energy crops. But new uses for miscanthus, developed through a four-year research Bical-sponsored studentship at Warwick University, offer alternative outlets.

Biodegradable plant pots made from miscanthus and natural resin, of particular interest to the National Trust, are already being produced by Swiss company NAPAC, says Dr Carver.

Chopped miscanthus, which can be grown satisfactorily without pesticides, can also be used for mushroom compost and as a cheaper alternative to hemp for horse-bedding. "It is a low dust product."

In the UK there are about 70 growers with a total of 400ha (1000 acres), says Dr Carver.

Several important lessons have already been learned in the effort to scale up the area, not least about establishment. "Many of the early plantings suffered extremely poor emergence."

In particular the need for high quality, vigorous rhizomes has been highlighted. A mature plant may appear to have plenty of rhizomes, which like couch can be cut up to create new plants, but only a proportion are fully viable, he warns.

Ensuring good soil contact with its uneven rhizomes is tricky, but specialist planting equipment is being developed.

Although the crop is particularly vigorous and, unlike willow, suffers few pests and diseases once established, a clean start is essential, he advises.

Over half the UK crop is for rhizome production, for which Bicals net margin is a guaranteed minimum of £716/ha (£290/acre).

Long-term contracts for cane, using the firms "propagules" (potted plants) or rhizomes, offer a margin comparable with peas or approaching that of wheat when including set-aside payment based on 2001 figures, says Dr Carver. &#42

Much has been learnt about growing miscanthus already, says Bicals Paul Carver (left) here discussing the crop with potential grower Robert hooton.

MISCANTHUS

&#8226 Renewable energy source.

&#8226 Several other interim uses.

&#8226 Establishment lessons learned.

&#8226 Minimum £716/ha margin contracts available now.