A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Fuelling farming from willows to wheat.....

Although biomass fuels will only ever represent a marginal contribution to overall UK energy production, with the right initial support, they could still provide useful opportunities for British farmers to help to revivify UK agriculture.....

IF YOU find yourself on the Nottinghamshire-Lincolnshire border near to East Drayton, watch out for the willows, but not for cricket bats. Here Renewable Energy Growers (REG) is promoting short-rotation coppiced willow for heat and energy. It is one of the country’s more sensible developments in the commercial growing of energy crops, or biomass fuels – biofuels for short. As we increasingly become dependent on energy imports from countries like Russia, Iran and Algeria, burning our own wood chip in place of oil, gas and coal can only assist energy security, however marginally.

At £45 per oven-dry tonne (ODT), REG have shown that farmers are able to produce willow for energy at the competitive price of £2.10 per Gigajoule (GJ). This energy can be used on the farm, for local and district heating schemes, and as a co-firing material in coal-fired power stations. Above all, it can help the government to attain the goal of generating 10% of electricity from renewable sources.

The whole issue of biofuels was recently discussed at The Lincolnshire Agricultural Society’s Annual Spring Lecture on ‘Fuelling Farming for the Future’. This imaginative event was attended by over 300 farmers, all keen to share ideas on the role biofuels might play in re-invigorating British agriculture, which has suffered markedly over the last few years. There was wide agreement that, with innovative, positive farming and the right government support, biofuels could succeed in the UK.

Biofuels come in two basic forms. First, there are the true biomass fuels, like willow and poplar, for generating heat and power, as grown by REG. Secondly, there are the liquid biofuels for use in transport. These are of two types, namely biodiesel and bioethanol. Biodiesel was used by Rudolph Diesel in 1901, and it is made of mono-alkyl esters of long-chain fatty acids derived from either 'natural' virgin oils, as in mustard, oil seed rape, soybean and sunflowers, or re-cycled vegetable oil. Attempts to make biodiesel covertly from chip shop waste have led to sizzling jokes about the ‘Frying Squad’. Biodiesel is employed in diesel engines and the oils are converted to biodiesel by combination with an alcohol and a catalyst. Interestingly, the country has always turned to biodiesel in wartime.

In contrast, bioethanol is formed by ethanol-producing microbes that require either a sucrose or a glucose substrate. Key crops are thus sugar beet and sugar cane, but bioethanol can also be manufactured from starch crops, including wheat, maize and potatoes. Many regard bioethanol as a fuel for the future, because of its high energy content and its excellent environmental characteristics, including reduced carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate emissions. There are, in addition, valuable by-products, such as high-fibre protein additives, gluten meal and amino acids for animal feed. And there is a further bonus for the farmer, in that off-grade, or damaged, crops – even mixes with weeds – pose few problems. Bioethanol is used to run petrol engines. At a 5% mix, there is no need to modify the engine. At 10%, the adjustments remain minor.

But now we come to a mystery. Although this is a government that says it believes passionately in the threat from ‘global warming’ (which, of course, I don't) and in the need to develop alternative sources of energy, it has done virtually nothing to promote the successful initiation of biofuels. All forms of energy need a kick start to play their fundamental role, however small, in the economy, and, of course, this government is massively, and controversially, cross-subsidising wind farms. But with respect to biofuels, the situation makes little sense, especially when we remember that British farming is desperate to find new, environmentally-benefiting, often non-food, forms of production.

Total UK liquid-fuel use is about 37 million tonnes per year, which is largely imported. Local biofuels contribute a mere 0.7%. Yet, we have over 1.5 million acres of set-aside farmland. To raise biofuel take-up to 5% would require only 900,000 acres. But the rebate of tax on biofuel remains a miserly and uncompetitive 20p, which contrasts bizarrely with 40p on LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas) and CNG (Compressed Natural Gas), both less environmentally-friendly. A minuscule increase to a rebate of 30p on biofuels would see the industry flourish; a parallel 40p would witness it fixing carbon for England. And this is not just another farmers’ subsidy – it represents the peanuts required to start up what would soon become an independent sector.

Regrettably, we are already behind our EU competitors. Spain, for example, has tripled bioethanol production to 300,000 tonnes, and we are even exporting our rape seed to Germany, where it is then turned into biodiesel to be re-imported to the UK. This is surely Alice-in-Blunderland thinking.

Gordon Brown must act. We need an urgent increase in the rebate on biofuels to at least 30p, but preferably to 40p. We should also consider a mandatory 2% biofuel mix by January 2005, rising by 0.75% tranches to 5.75% by 2010. Above all, we must see more joined-up thinking between the five government departments involved in biofuel policy, from Defra via the DTI to the all-dominant Treasury.

There is little to lose (even for the Treasury), but much to gain from improving the UK energy mix, energy security, the energy environment, and British farming. It’s time to support the renewable-energy growers - from willows to wheat.

Philip, totally mystified by government policy(?) on this. Fuel for thought over morning coffee. "Join me, old bean?"

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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