Scope for biomass power
Dont dismiss energy cropping, say enthusiasts. Tightening world markets for feed grains could make alternatives increasingly attractive. In this special focus on energy crops we consider the latest developments, starting here with a look at the scope for adding value on-farm. Edited by Charles Abel
WHY sell coppice willow chips when you could process them on your own farm and sell profitable heat and power instead. Investing a modest sum in farm equipment could see willow margins soar from £125/ha to nearer £400/ha.
That is the argument which underlies Northern Ireland farmer John Gillilands drive to establish a small scale approach to biomass processing, which would leave the added value in the pockets of farmers rather than large industrial corporations.
He is already well on the way to meeting that goal. For the past eight years he has used two Farm 2000 straw-fired boilers to heat houses and dry crops on the 260ha (650-acre) Brook Hall Estate near Londonderry. "They showed me that biomass power really can be cost effective."
Now Mr Gilliland has won approval to develop an on-farm coppice fired heat and power unit under the governments Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation. His unit will provide heat for local use and electricity for the Northern Ireland grid.
Coppice willow is already growing on 16ha (40 acres). And Mr Gilliland recently formed a consortium – Rural Generation Limited – to develop the combined heat and power gasifier project at the Enniskillen College of Agriculture.
"My aim is to use Brook Hall Estate to show that on-farm heat and power generation can work. That will demonstrate what the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland has been working on for the past 17 years. The next stage is to encourage farmers to set up small co-operatives or businesses, in association with local energy users."
In Northern Ireland plans are already well advanced. Mr Gilliland has clear support from the Department of Agriculture for Northern Ireland and two textile companies – Desmonds & Sons and Fruit of the Loom International – which have numerous small manufacturing plants in the rural community. Supplying them with heat and power would give farmers a healthy return, thanks to the high price of electricity in rural Northern Ireland.
It is hoped that the project will secure additional funds under the EUs INTERREG II programme, which supports cross border links in rural areas. Mr Gilliland has already gained funding for an initial feasibility study. If that proves successful up to 50% grant support could be forthcoming from Brussels to kick-start the project.
"To really work biomass projects have to be competitive with energy from fossil fuels," stresses Mr Gilliland. Competing with large generators supplying electricity at a wholesale price of just 3p/kWh is not on, he says. Instead biomass power needs to chase premium retail markets, like rural users, where prices can rise to 7p/kWh at peak demand in Northern Ireland and 5p/kWh in England.
"Small is beautiful," says Mr Gilliland. Not only can small, local plants readily supply the lucrative rural market, they also avoid hefty transport costs. A large 5megawatt power station requires 2000ha (5000 acres) of willow, which would require at least a 60-mile catchment area. "The trouble is that bulky coppice chips are just not worth enough to justify the cost of haulage." A small 100kW plant would require just 40ha (100 acres), which could easily be supplied from a five-mile catchment area.
A small biomass power plant is also easier to switch in and out of production. That means season and time of day tarrifs can be exploited.
One very tangible result of the sectors growth in Sweden is a fall in establishment costs from £1450/ha to £700/ha, thanks to economies of scale and development of new technologies.
The UKs key commitment to biomass – NFFO – fails to take account of the difference between energy from biomass and other renewable resources, Mr Gilliland maintains. With wind power the technology was already there and NFFO has simply helped it gain a foothold in the UK. With biomass the technology is still being developed. It requires a more committed approach from government,including pump priming funds and a greater commitment to research.
If farmers are to be encouraged into biomass cropping in the UK the sector needs acceptable margins, says Mr Gilliland. Achieving those depends upon:
• Reliable government support to pump-prime the industry and cover grower start up costs.
• Farmers securing the added value of heat and power.
• A high electricity price.
• Minimal transport costs.
Local projects can address the last three points. That leaves government to provide the first. According to Mr Gilliland it needs to go beyond NFFO. "We need support for ineligible grassland security of support on set-aside land and more funds for research and to bridge the initial years when farmers see no income."
Those are goals Mr Gilliland and others in the trade body British Biogen will continue to push government for.
Experience with two straw boilers at Brook Hall Estate showed the scope of using biomass power for Northern Ireland farmer John Gilliland. Now he is championing the on-farm production of premium priced electricity using coppice-fired gasifier units to supply local outlets.
BROOK HALL COPPICE
• 42ha plantation – 16ha in, 14ha next year, 12ha 1998.
• Least productive land on 260ha unit near Londonderry.
• Qualifies for set-aside and farm woodland grants.
• Enniskillen gasifier being developed – install mid-97.
• Energy demo scheme capital funding 50% up to £150,000.
• 15-year crop, 3-year harvest.
• 35t/ha = 500t dry chip/yr.
• 6.95p/kWh electricity price secured under NFFO scheme.