27 October 1995

Back to basics with biomass

By Alan Barker

BIOMASS from coppice willow will emerge as a prime resource for future energy production.

Peter Billings, British Biogen chief executive told the northern region Farming and Wildlife Advisory Groups conference that the clock could be turned back 150 years to the time when 40% of farm output served the energy market.

"We are moving back to basics – to the historical position where agriculture played an important part in the energy market. As we develop into the next century, agriculture will be a more robust business servicing the food market, the energy market and the industrial feedstock market," he said.

The total energy market was 200m tonnes of oil equivalent with 1m tonnes equating to 190,000ha (469,000 acres) of energy crops. Three energy crop projects, producing 20mW of electricity and needing up to 5000ha (12,355 acres) of coppice fuel, were in the development stage. A network of small-scale gasifiers was planned and a further 40-50mW of production capacity was likely to figure in the next round of bids under the non fossil fuel obligation (NFFO).

Europe wanted to increase the 8% market share of renewables by 2005 and with the UK share at 1%, that left much to be done.

Dr John Capel, Humberside County Councils principal landscape officer, said people were frightened by the possible development of biomass "prairie farming". But it was never likely to happen. Coppicing would integrate well with the landscape – not destroy it.

"My personal view is that rotational coppicing has enormous potential. Whether it is economic or not is something the market will decide," said Dr Capel.