2 August 2002

Power plant interest grows

By Andrew Blake

GROWERS in Hereford are warming to the idea of producing non-food crops to feed a local power station.

But several hurdles need clearing before they get the go ahead, not least assurance of a government grant.

Nearly a third of the 80 farmers at a presentation at 7Y Rural Services Network near Leominster last week were keen enough to sign notices of intent to grow a range of energy crops on contract, says Ludlow-based John Amos.

For several the idea appeared much more attractive than growing cereals at £50/t irrespective of whether the crops are produced on set-aside or not.

The area they identified is almost a tenth of the 3500ha needs to grow enough miscanthus, reed canary grass, switchgrass, willow and poplar to supply United Utilities proposed 20MW electricity generator at an as yet unspecified site.

"We already has 700ha contracted," says Mr Amos, who aims to set up a producer group and supply the necessary planting material.

Under the Kyoto agreement the UK is legally obliged to get 10% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010, and twice that by 2020, he says. "Under the EUs mid-term review Franz Fischler wants to see 1.5m hectares of energy crops in Europe and compulsory 10% set-aside in the same place for 10 years."

Quite how energy crop production on set-aside will sit after the review, remains unclear, Mr Amos admits. "It is all still a bit up in the air at the moment." But his figures suggest energy crop production at an ex-farm price of £25 a dried tonne should be rewarding, whatever the changes.

One reason for the UK to be particularly interested is that some pundits believe the countrys natural gas supplies could be exhausted as soon as 2006, he adds.

As part of its renewables support programme the government has ear-marked £66m to back biomass systems, says United Utilities Green Energy business development manager, Peter Dickson. "That is enough for three to five plants." The proposed Hereford generating station will supply about 37,000 homes.

Despite the financial strength of the parent company, with assets of £2.8bn, the power plant will not be built without grant aid, he says. "It is imperative that we get that support. Without it we will not be able to generate sufficient return on our investment." That in turn needs commitment from enough growers to make the project attractive to the government.

Mr Dickson acknowledges the scepticism surrounding earlier biomass energy schemes after the governments NFFO funding saw only a few plants built.

"There is a degree of cynicism among farmers and others which is quite justified."

But the economic and political climate has changed since NFFO5 ended in 1997, he says.

Applications for the latest government aid close on Oct 31. Decisions are scheduled for December and the plant could be commissioned in 2005.

To stand any chance of success projects must be environmentally sustainable and offer significant benefits to the rural economy. With nearly all the fuel drawn from no further than 25 miles, Mr Dickson believes the project, which will use the latest proven Scandinavian fluidised-bed technology, easily meets those requirements.

"The main thing the government wants is credibility. The credibility of applications is the key.

"We need people to sign up and demonstrate their enthusiasm for the idea."

Signing his intent to grow miscanthus, Richard Sparey (centre) hopes planning permission wont thwart the hopes of Peter Dickson (left) and John Amos for a 20MW biomass power station in the Herefordshire countryside.

&#8226 20MW power station.

&#8226 Needs 3500ha commitment.

&#8226 Government grant essential.

&#8226 Credibility key to application.