always been something of a sceptic when it comes to growing crops for fuel
and other non-food uses. To use some of the most expensive land in the
world to produce industrial raw materials never seemed to make much sense.
It smacked of desperation, of clutching, if not at straws, then certainly
at elephant grass.
That was until I listened to a man called Melvyn
Askew talking on the subject last Thursday evening. You may not have heard
of Melvyn, but he is a man to be reckoned with. Arguably, no-one has had a
greater influence on the English landscape in the last 30 years. For
Melvyn it was who popularised the growing of oilseed rape in the 1970s,
and who therefore gave us those vivid splodges of bright yellow which,
love them or hate them, have become such a feature of the countryside in
spring. The prospect now is that he will bequeath us coast-to-coast willow
coppice; which might not be to everyone's taste but would at least be
preferable to those hideous wind turbines!
Anyway, as head of the
alternative crops and biotechnology group at the Central Science
Laboratory, Melvyn knows his subject, and he brings to it a refreshing mix
of enthusiasm and realism. He dealt first of all with what you might call
solid fuel - miscanthus, short rotation coppice and other so-called
biomass crops grown for the energy they produce when burnt. The potential
market for this sort of stuff is huge. If the EU is to hit its renewable
energy target of 130 million tonnes of oil equivalent, an additional 20
million hectares of solid fuel crops will be needed, which is more than
the entire agricultural area of the UK.
But as farmers know better
than most, having a market is not the same thing as making a profit. And
as with food, so with fuel, making a profit means adding value - selling
kilowatts of power, rather than kilograms of fuel.
That is not so
far-fetched as it might sound. A farmer called Rupert Burr from Swindon
has just been given a £960,000 grant by the DTI to set up what he intends
will be the first of a network of community willow-fuelled power stations,
owned and operated by farmers' co-operatives.
In Cornwall, the
Sustainable Energy Partnership is thinking along similar lines, although
geared particularly to some of the more remote communities and maybe
including energy generated from slurry digestion, as per the Holsworthy
Biogas project. I hear that an even bigger project, based in mid-Devon,
will also shortly be given the green light. This is slightly different, in
that farmers will be growing miscanthus and willow under contract to the
operators of the plant, rather than having a stake in it themselves. But
the potential is still considerable, especially so long as the alternative
land uses are as relatively unprofitable as they are at present. In
Northern Ireland, they've made biomass work by using the willow beds to
extract phosphate from sewage. The value of the phosphate extraction
covers the cost of growing the crop, leaving the value of the woodchips
into which the willow is eventually converted as net profit.
there are biofuels and bio-lubricants, which appear to have become the
broad acre arable farmer's Holy Grail. And the prospect of growing
millions of gallons of petrol and diesel from an infinitely renewable
resource like the land is indeed alluring.
But Melvyn has a word of
caution. "Bio-oils, like rapeseed oil, are better produced for the food
market than the energy market," he stressed, quoting a £10 per tonne price
differential in his support. But what if the Chancellor could be persuaded
to reduce the duty on biofuels so as to make them competitive with fossil
fuels? Simply this: biodiesel produced in countries like Germany and Spain
from German and Spanish wheat and rape would flood onto our newly-viable
market. It could hardly be otherwise, given that at present we do not have
any processing plants capable of producing