14 June 2002

Delays put biomass plant on hold

By David Green

IT HAS been a frustrating 12 months for farmers in Suffolk and Norfolk who signed up to grow willow coppice to feed a proposed new power station.

Planning permission for the plant, at Eye on the Suffolk side of the border, was granted last year.

But a combination of a business takeover and teething problems with a similar biomass plant in Yorkshire has led to a delay in the start of building.

The proposed new biomass station at Eye was given the go-ahead by local authority planners after an application from Ambient Energy, a firm that was taken over last year by Novera.

The power station is earmarked for a site on the former Eye Airfield, next to a generating plant which burns poultry litter and uses horse bedding to create electricity.

Interest in the biomass scheme was initially expressed by a handful of farmers after a meeting organised by Ambient and the NFU in March 2000. It led to the planting of about 65ha (160 acres) of willow coppice by five landowners.

John Alston, of Wood Farm, Attleborough, Norfolk, is finding growers within a 25-mile radius and overseeing the planting. He said more than a dozen more farmers willing to dedicate a total of 200ha (495 acres) had later signed up.

But between 900 and 1000ha (2225 and 2470 acres) would ultimately be needed to supply about 300ha (740 acres) of coppiced timber on a three-year rotation.

Grants of up to £1600/ha (£647/acre) are available from the Rural Development Programme and biomass production on set-aside land can increase the margin over fallow as well as bringing environmental benefits.

"There is a lot of interest because in todays farming climate it represents a low input crop," said Mr Alston.

But some farmers are reluctant to plant willow on their arable land because of the 15-year plus commitment and the perceived problem of removing roots before possible restoration for conventional crops.

Meanwhile, the UKs first straw-fired power station, built near Ely two years ago by Energy Power Resources (EPR) at a cost of £42m, has had to extend its catchment area from a 40 to a 50-mile radius because of the low availability of straw after last years wet harvest period.

It needs a total of 205,000t of straw or miscanthus a year to generate 36MW of electricity.

Farmers in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Lincs and part of Northants willing to supply straw have been offered contracts extending to one, five or 10 years.

DEFRA and EPR are trying to encourage more planting of miscanthus on set-aside land, although it takes three years to produce the first crop.

Farmers in the region are also eagerly awaiting the commercial development of "green" fuels which can be produced via conventional crops such as wheat, sugar beet and oilseed rape. &#42