Bioenergy industry calls for a Government champion

The bioenergy industry is calling for a single minister to champion the cause of biofuels within Government, and increase co-ordination between the variety of departments responsible for the industry.

Deligates at the Fourth UK Bioenergy Conference, in Cambridge, on 21 February, called for greater co-ordination between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), which, they said, could be most efficiently achieved with a single Energy Department.

The bioenergy industry, which involves the generation of heat and electricity from a whole spectrum of natural fuels, from poultry litter, through willow and other purpose-grown agricultural crops, to forestry residues, is both renewable, and carbon neutral. Bioenergy is also heralded by the Government, farmers, and farming associations as a possible method of reversing the current rural decline, and of bringing agriculture out of deep depression.

UK Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, speaking at the conference, agreed with the need for greater co-ordination between governmental departments, promising to bring together the other ministers under whose remit aspects of bioenergy fall, in order to formulate a common view. “I give you a promise that I will take this forward,” he said.

Brown was keen to emphasise the Government’s commitment to bioenergy, with his own department, in particular, strongly supporting the development of ‘non-food’ crops. He acknowledged that one of the greatest barriers to the development of the industry is in gaining planning permission for power plants. “The planning system can often be a constraint on change,” he said, admitting that Government has to ensure that what it is willing to deliver in principle is possible in practice.

Delegates were keen to point out that the bioenergy industry requires assistance with funding. Although other sources of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, require capital outlay for power plants, the bioenergy industry also has to pay for the fuel. When all renewable energy sources are classified together, this extra cost prevents fair competition, admitted Brown. The industry will require some form of tax break before its full potential can be felt, he said, though he pointed out that this is a matter for the Treasury.

Brown also emphasised his support for reform of the European Common Agriculture Policy to enable it to provide better assistance for non-food crops, and pointed out that due to the fight against global warming, “the European Council Ministers are more receptive to these crops than ever before”.

There was also concern amongst delegates over the lack of nationwide education of the public and of school children as to the benefits of bioenergy, and to dispel largely unfounded fears, which cause the slowing down or blocking of planning applications.

Delegates also urged the Government to recognise that the heat generation aspect of bioenergy as a renewable energy source, and that there should be no distinction between different types of fuel, including anaerobic digestion of organic waste, which is often incorrectly classified with the non-carbon-neutral incineration of waste.

Opposition spokesmen on the environment, from both the Conservative and the Liberal Democratic parties, stated doubts that the Government would be able to fulfil its Renewables Obligation of providing 10% of energy from renewable sources by 2010, which does not even include a target for biofuels (see this week’s Europe story on renewables). Conservative Party Environment Spokesman, Damian Green, stressed fears that the new climate change levy (see related story), due to come into effect at the beginning of April this year, would be expensive and disruptive to industry, and would fail to cut emissions by forcing industries with high emissions to locate to less strict countries. However, both parties stressed their support of bioenergy. “I think this is an industry that should have an optimism for the future,” said Green.

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