Policy must live up to energy crop potential

Up to half of the government’s 2020 renewable energy target could be met by energy crops, wood and other forms of biomass such as wastes from agriculture, according to a government report.

The UK Bioenergy Strategy, published jointly by DECC, Defra and DfT, says biomass will play a key role in meeting the target to source 15% of all energy from renewable sources by 2020, although a number of issues need to be overcome to ensure home-grown materials form a decent part of this.

A significant increase in the planting rate of energy crops such as miscanthus and short-rotation coppice is needed, although the report does not include any specific policies on how this can be achieved.

Currently around 0.01m ha of land is planted to energy crops, but this could feasibly be increased to 0.04m ha by 2020 (equivalent to 0.22% of agricultural land) if a number of hurdles can be overcome, the report says.

“The potential to upscale is currently restricted by UK planting and harvesting capacity, grower acceptance, economics, technology compatibility and social resistance related to concerns around long-term land use change.”

The theoretical maximum available land for SRC and miscanthus in England and Wales not impinging on food production has been modeled at between 0.93 and 3.63m ha, it adds.

As well as providing heat and electricity, when grown in the right location energy crops can also help prevent soil erosion and improve biodiversity, the report says. Analysis shows that energy from biomass crops can have lower direct carbon impacts (0.5 to 6.1t CO2e/ha/year) than food crop production (3.4 to 11t CO2e/ha/year).

There may also be scope to bring more unmanaged woodland into production, although the report acknowledges that much of this may remained focused on supplying the growing renewable heat market.

However, while the government places a large emphasis on the importance of sustainability, and the potential for home-grown biomass, it says imported material is likely to make up the majority of available supply.

The Renewable Energy Association, which runs the Back Biomass Campaign, welcomed the report. Chief executive Gaynor Hartnell said that while some biomass would be UK-sourced and some imported, all must be sustainable and deliver significant carbon savings.

She urged the government not to ignore the transport sector in the move towards a sustainable energy economy and said there was an urgent need for a dedicated low carbon transport strategy. “This is vital for building the investor confidence to steer us towards our mandated renewable energy and carbon targets.”

Bioenergy could employ 50,000 in UK by 2020

As well as helping to meet energy targets, a separate report by the National Non-Food Crops Centre, suggests that heat and power from biomass could deliver up to 50,000 jobs over the next eight years.

The study, which provides evidence for the Bioenergy Strategy, suggests that employment in the bioenergy sector will exceed that of all other renewable energies due to the extra demands of feedstock production, supply and handling.

“This added benefit is currently underestimated but should be used to attract and secure future support,” NNFCC says.

The biggest area for jobs creation is the biomass heat sector, which could create up to 30,000 jobs by 2020 – with more than half of those jobs being permanent. There may be additional opportunities for those supplying this sector, either through feedstock production, harvesting, processing, storage or haulage. Electricity from biomass could offer up to 18,000 jobs by 2020 and anaerobic digestion a further 2,500.

“However the number of people employed in the sector will be highly dependent on the level of uptake, origin of the feedstocks and the supply chain structures used.”