Continuing growth in the demand for straw and other crop
residues to fuel power stations will mean more work for the
contractors who supply the bales. Mike Williams reports
BRITAINS first straw-fired power station began generating electricity two years ago at Sutton, Cambs. Called the Elean power station, it cost £60m and is said to be the biggest and most advanced electricity generating plant of its type in the world. Fuel consumption amounts to the burning of 40-50 big bales every hour of every day and night to meet the electricity needs of 80,000 households.
Most of the 200,000 tonnes of fuel burned each year is cereal straw provided by farms up to 75 miles away. Residues from other crops can also fuel the boiler, including peas, beans and rapeseed. Miscanthus grass and other energy crops grown on set-aside land will make an increasing contribution in the future.
Annual payments for straw supplied to the power station total more than £3.5m, shared between farmers who grow the crops and contractors who do the baling and stacking.
Other areas will be able to cash in on the biomass fuel market in the future. The success of the Elean power station has encouraged operator Energy Power Resources (EPRL) to plan a second plant near Corby, Northants. It will be fuelled by 175,000 tonnes of crop residues from the east midlands and it may be followed by additional installations in other areas.
The expansion is encouraged by pressure to use biomass fuels to help meet government plans to increase electricity production from renewable energy resources, and the result will be more work for baling contractors.
Mechanical handling equipment used at future power stations will almost certainly be based on the Cambs installation. These are designed for bales measuring approximately 1.2m x 1.3m x 2.5m. Bales with a 1.2m x 0.9m cross-section can also be used, but Quadrant type bales and round bales cant be processed. Typical bale weights are 500-575kg.
Because excess moisture reduces the energy yield from the burning process, loads of bales averaging more than 25% moisture content are not accepted. Payments for cereal straw are based on 16% moisture.
Anglian Straw, a subsidiary of EPRL, buys some straw for the Elean power station in the swath, paying the farmer on a per bale basis plus an additional sum to use land occupied by the stack. The contract also covers access to the stack to load the bales for transport to the power station.
Baling is covered by a separate agreement between Anglian Straw and the contractors who do the work, with payments based on average bale weights. For this years harvest, contractors will earn from £5-6/bale plus a further £1.40-1.80 for moving each bale from the field to a stacking area on the same farm. Making the stack earns an extra 50p/bale.
Alternative contracts are available for farmers who prefer to bale and stack their own straw and for contractors who buy straw in the swath to bale for the power station. Anglian Straw also buys baled straw on the open market when necessary.
To ensure continuity of supplies, Anglian Straw offers medium and long term contracts to suppliers. They have a built-in inflation factor and can be attractive to suppliers, as Malcolm Snowden discovered.
Mr Snowden was a cowman who had previously worked for an agricultural contractor. But four years ago he started his own contracting business. Venture Farming, based at Chesterton Lodge Farm, Chesterton, Peterborough, Cambs, provides a broad range of services for both arable and livestock farms.
It was the Elean power station that gave Venture Farming its biggest boost and Mr Snowden was among the first contractors to make bales for Anglian Straw. That was in the 2000 harvest, before the power station was operating commercially, and he is now one of 15 baling contractors working for Anglian Straw on a regular basis.
Venture Farming has expanded rapidly and now employs a team of five on a full-time basis plus additional casual help at peak times. But baling is still its biggest operation with the aim of baling 3440ha (8500 acres) this year. Just over 80% of these bales are sent to the power station.
Four big balers, including a Claas Quadrant, are used to make bales for livestock farms, with customers for the Quadrant including the pig unit at farmers weeklys Easton Lodge farm. Big bales for the power station contract are made by a New Holland 4900 baler and a Massey Ferguson MF190 and there is also an MF187 to make bales for the power station and for other outlets.
The baling operation also includes two Heath chasers to clear bales behind the balers, and Venture Farming also operates two high reach JCB Loadall 535-95 telehandlers to perform the bale stacking and loading work. A third Loadall is hired for the baling season. The Loadalls have a 9.5m maximum lift height, and by using a home designed grab attachment, Mr Snowden can stack big bales nine high.
One of the advantages of the medium and long-term contracts offered by Anglian Straw is the extra security it provides when planning future machinery requirements, making it easier to arrange finance for machinery purchases.
Future prospects for Venture Farmings baling operations are encouraging, believes Mr Snowden, who expects to benefit from an expanding market for biomass bales.
"Most of our baling is within a 40-50 mile radius, which means some of the straw we bale will be within the supply area for the Corby power station," he says. "I would be willing to work further from home if the acreage is big enough. Miscanthus and other energy crops could also provide additional baling opportunities. I have done some of the baling work in the ADAS miscanthus trials and I believe it could be an important crop in the future."
Neil Bond agrees. He is the fuel and ash resources manager for EPRL and says some contractors are already missing out on opportunities to expand into the biomass baling business.
"We buy our straw within a radius of up to about 50 miles from the power station, and that should include most of Herts and Essex. It is an area that should have a lot of potential for supplying straw but at this stage we still dont have sufficient contractors baling for us there.
"There are still some opportunities for farmers and contractors to supply straw for the Elean power station, and the opportunities will increase when the new Corby power station opens. We have an assured long term market for the electricity we produce – we can offer long term contracts for supplying the straw and other fuels we need." *
to the Elean biomass fuelled power station.