Renewables revolution to transform British landscape

A tenth of Britain's entire land area will be turned into bio-fuel fields and wind farms by 2020 to satisfy the 20% renewable electricity target set out in the Energy Review, a new study has found.

Renewables in the Britain of 2020. Click on the image to enlarge.

Energy crops like myscanthus and willow would need to cover an area of 15,200 square km – 7% of Britain’s land area – to sustain this level of green electricity generation, according to environmental consultants Adas. Wind farms would cover a further 7,000 square km by 2020, or 3% of all land, much of it in the North West.

The Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, which calls for 5% of transport fuel to come from bio-fuel crops by 2010, will bring even more immediate changes to the landscape. While enough bio-ethanol can be made from surplus wheat and sugar beet to satisfy the RTFO target, to produce enough bio-diesel Britain needs 1m hectares (1 square km) of oilseed rape, the study found.

While the benefits to the environment in terms of greenhouse gas savings could be substantial, Britain’s renewables revolution needs to be well planned to avoid serious consequences for biodiversity and water tables, as single crop cultures could put pressure on biodiversity and water resources.

John Garstang, a consultant with Adas, told edie that land use planning is key: “So much depends on how the bio-fuel crops are laid out. If they are broken up and spread out across the country they will be less conspicuous.”

The study predicted that much of the biomass and bio-fuel crops would be grown in the East Midlands, while Scotland and Wales reaps the benefits of the wind and wave power expansion. The North West would accommodate a large proportion of the wind farm expansion, and would also see more hydropower stations built (see map).

While 1 million hectares of land turned to oilseed rape production over the next six years may seem a lot, this is well under the 1.8m hectares already used for cereals, John Garstang said.

“And don’t forget that, back in the days when we used to go around in carts and horses, a huge area of land was devoted to transport fuel for the horses – pasture. The population was much smaller then, but we satisfied most of our energy needs from biomass such as wood and grass,” he said.

As with all predictions, this glance into the future comes at a price – the reliability of the study is compromised by its numerous assumptions, which make it essentially “educated guesswork.” It is presupposed, for example, that Britain’s renewable electricity needs will be satisfied domestically in full, but while at present there are no significant imports of biomass at present this may change.

“One of the European Commission’s recommendations in its biomass review was that member states should establish a commodity market for fuel crops – wood chips and so on. This would of course change the amount of land used for renewables in Britain,” John Garstang said.

“But there is no way around the fact that the fossil fuels we are using up now took 55 million years to produce, and for renewables to cope with that sort of time delay is going to be a challenge.”

Goska Romanowicz

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie