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28 Sep 2021

Biomass moves centre stage

As featured in Arable Farming Magazine

Biomass moves centre stage

by Arable Farming

Biomass for energy has been grown on British farms for years, but they have been ‘Cinderella crops compared to other bioenergy sources. A recent £4 million Government cash injection into biomass research could help change that. Cedric Porter reports.

The latest Defra figures show 96,000 hectares of agricultural land were used for production of bioenergy crops in 2019, which was only 1.6% of the total arable area.

Most of this area was used to grow cereals for bioethanol or feedstock, such as maize and sugar beet, for AD plants.

There are only English figures available for biomass production.

Only 8,171 hectares of miscanthus were grown in 2019, although this was up 1,000ha on the year before, but 1,000ha below the peak area in 2009.

The short rotation coppice area in 2019 was 2,233ha, down 600ha on the year before and only a third of the 2008 total.

Effectively, the biomass area has been static at a little above 10,000 hectares for more than a decade, despite the increasing need to cut carbon emissions and burn fewer fossil fuels.

The UK-appointed Climate Change Committee has recommended the planting of 10,000-60,000ha of biomass crops every year by 2035 to reach a total area of up to 1.4 million hectares by 2050.

That would require a massive expansion in planting over the next few years.

Bioenergy company Drax has recently announced it is working with the NFU to identify opportunities to scale up perennial energy crop production.

Sustainable Draxs chief innovation officer, Jason Shipstone, says: If we can source some of Draxs sustainable biomass for our bioenergy with carbon capture units from domestically grown energy crops, we could further reduce our supply chain emissions at the same time as stimulating innovation within British farming.

By encouraging British farmers to plant energy crops here in the UK, the agriculture sector can join the bioenergy industry and support national efforts to address the climate crisis, driving down emissions and building back greener.

The Government has acknowledged this need to increase biomass production and recently awarded up to £200,000 to 24 organisations to help them deliver commercially viable innovations that will increase the uptake of a range of biomass crops.

Five of the projects will focus on developing the use of algae biomass, especially from by-products in the food industry, including whisky distilling.

The potential of harvesting semi-wild crops, such as bracken and moorland heather, will also be investigated.

Bracken covers 1.5m ha of UK land and is increasing by 30,000ha a year.

Hedge trimmings Meanwhile, Hej Harvesting has been given funding to help develop its concept of collecting hedge trimmings for biomass use.

There are also three projects looking at using forest trees and shrubs more effectively for biomass.

However, most of the projects look at cropped biomass.

They include: Genetics The Micanspeed project, led by Aberystwyth University, aims to improve the genetics of miscanthus and breed higher yielding and more resilient crops.

Almost all British miscanthus originates from a single clone and scaling production will require more genetic diversity.

Rothamsted Research will carry out a similar project on willow breeding.

It says there is massive potential for rapid improvements in willow performance using genomic selection because it is a tree that can grow so fast flowering within a year from seed.

Mobile pelletisation Pelletising miscanthus in the field or farmyard will allow the product to be delivered to power stations more easily and with a smaller carbon footprint, which should help it compete with imports better.

The project, led by White Horse Energy, will work with farmers to develop practical pelleting solutions.

Automated growing The University of Glasgow is looking at how precision agricultural systems such as drones and robots developed in lowland food crops could be used in harsher upland areas where miscanthus can be grown.

Growth monitoring Another project, called OMENZ, is using technology to prepare land, plant miscanthus and monitor its growth, and is being undertaken by Terravesta Farms.

Willow planting Increasing the short rotation coppice area will require the use of more specialist equipment.

Willow Energy, part of Rickerby Estates in Cumbria, will use its funding to help develop autonomous willow planting and willow rod processing machines and to build a specialist tracked willow harvester with storage bunker.

Energy Crops Consultancy is taking a different approach: it aims to develop willow planting and harvesting technology that can be used on standard tractors, harvesters and trailers, with a focus on using low ground pressure systems.

CO2 absorption Hemp has a reputation for removing carbon and improving soil health the European Industrial Hemp Association estimates 1ha of the crop can absorb 15 tonnes of CO2.

The University of York will survey the current hemp sector and develop a 10-year plan to significantly increase the UK hemp area, which is currently less than 1,000 hectares.

The total European hemp area is more than 30,000ha.

Biomass demonstration farms Defra has earmarked funding to projects that will trial and demonstrate biomass innovations and varieties.

BioFIND is being led by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

It is seeking demonstration sites across the country which can trial innovations and act as hubs for growers, contractors and biomass end-users to discuss best practice and supply chain co-operation.

NIAB will use its crop research experience to build a network of trialling and innovation sites that will help develop a second generation of biomass crops.

It is looking at selecting sites that represent a range of climatic conditions and soil types.

PromoBio will be designed to be a one-stop shop for existing and potential biomass growers made up of a team of experts and advisers from the UK and beyond.

Government backing key

With the UK importing about eight million tonnes of biomass pellets a year to feed power stations, there is certainly a market in the country for using more British-grown biomass, argues Mark Sommerfeld, head of power and flexibility at the Renewable Energy Association, which has a Biomass UK division representing 200 members.

We welcome the recent innovation support and the prospects of a Government biomass strategy next year, he says.

Support But what needs to happen if there is going to be a step change in biomass production is for Government to include support for biomass crop planting in the new Environmental Land Management scheme and to commit to the use of more biomass feedstock in generating energy.

That will underpin the market and give farmers the confidence to plant the crop.

Mr Sommerfeld adds there are other important uses and benefits from biomass crops, including the manufacture of biochemicals and plastics and in controlling floods.

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