ETI: UK-grown biomass can support farmers and deliver carbon savings

Planting 1.4m hectares of non-food crops dedicated to the production of bioenergy can deliver "genuine" emissions savings and provide a degree of income security for UK farmers, according to new research from ETI.

ETI published its perspective paper on increasing biomass production in the UK today (25 July), and argues the more energy crops and forestry needs to be planted to reduce the reliance on biomass imports.

The paper recommends a “learn-by-doing” approach to increasing UK-grown biomass. By planting around 30-35 kha annually through to 2050, the UK could develop best practices that account for impacts on wider markets, such as land set aside for food production. Eventually, the UK should have around 7.5% of total available agricultural area dedicated to bioenergy crops, the report notes.

ETI’s strategy manager for bioenergy Hannah Evans said: “The market for second generation energy crops is nascent and requires support but there are opportunities for the sector to grow.

“As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, there is an opportunity to restructure farming support in a way which provides long-term clarity and support to farmers and encourages the sustainable growth of the UK biomass sector. This could place a value on the wider environmental benefits growing second generation energy crops can make to the farming landscape.”

ETI argues that delivery of energy crops must be balanced with the demand for land use from other agricultural sectors. Specifically, the report claims that increases in land productivity and a reduction in food waste are necessities to create space for bioenergy crops.

Bioenergy from biomass and waste is already delivering low-carbon heat, power and transport fuels in the UK, accounting for 9% of the UK’s energy mix in 2015. ETI argues that further increases in supply should be generated within the UK, rather than on imports.

The UK is the biggest importer of wood pellets used for bioenergy in the EU, shipping in more than seven million tonnes from the US and Canada in 2015. The UK has spent around £450m subsidising power stations to burn these pellets.

But with the EU attempting to source more biomass in order to hit EU renewable energy targets, critics are wary that nations will develop a harvest and planting cycle detrimental to the long-term prospects of horticulture practices.

Second generation

This is why ETI’s research focuses on developing second-generation crops. Defra estimates that around 93 kha of land was used for energy crops in 2015. However, more than 80 kha were first-generation arable crops such as wheat and sugar beet. ETI analysis suggests that second generation crops can deliver greater emissions savings at a reduced cost of more than 1% of gross domestic product (GDP).

On a broader scope, biomass continues to divide opinions. Economic analysis from 2016 found that biomass power could be causing more carbon pollution than burning coal or natural gas, although this was quickly shot down by the UK’s renewable energy industry.

More recently, a research paper has criticised the biomass standard used by Drax, E.ON and DONG to measure the environmental impact of biomass and pellets as a “forest of loopholes“.

The Sustainable Biomass Programme (SBP) standard was established in 2013 and consists of seven members: DONG Energy, Drax, EON, ENGIE, HOFOR, RWE and Vattenfall. The aim of the scheme is to provide assurances over the sourcing and carbon quality of wood pellets used for electricity generation; but it has been criticised for allegedly ignoring emissions from the burning and logging processes.

Matt Mace

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