A couple of weeks ago I attended an event, hosted by a project called Rokwood, looking at the potential for growing short rotation coppice to generate renewable energy. Biomass is an increasingly important energy source for Europe in terms of meeting targets for renewable energy generation. Short rotation woody crops (SRWCs) are ideal for woody biomass production and management systems because they are renewable energy feedstocks for biofuels, bioenergy and bioproducts. They can be strategically placed in the landscape to conserve soil and water, recycle nutrients and sequester carbon. Currently across Europe there are around 60,000 hectares of short rotation coppice (SRC) in cultivation. To put this into perspective, to meet current EU targets for renewable energy generation this would need to rise to 4.5 million ha.
The Rokwood project is an EU wide initiative that is aiming to help create the right market conditions and improve the policy framework for the increased planting and use of woody energy crops grown in short rotation plantations. There are six European countries involved each operating a research cluster looking at the knowledge, infrastructure and technology needs to increase the amount of short rotation coppice grown and used for energy generation.
The Swedish Situation
A representative from the Swedish cluster gave an interesting presentation on their situation. Sweden has had a carbon taxation scheme in place since the beginning of the 1990s and as such the infrastructure, as well as the technical knowledge and support for growers is much more established. Indeed 30% of the total Swedish energy input is biomass, accounting for 95% of all fuel used in district heating systems. This group have been collecting data from willow (the predominant crop grown in Swedish SRC systems) in terms of growing and harvesting costs versus energy output in the plant, and have found that the willow grown in their system yields twenty times more energy than is used to grow it.
The Swedish system shows what is possible when the infrastructure is in place and growers have the support to know what crop quality is needed for processing. Germany is in a similar situation with an industry which is well established. The current UK system is much less developed in terms of systems that are starting to become more widely adopted as more producers become concerned with energy security, and financial support for heat generated becomes more developed. However we are a long way from this being a common activity.
The chicken and the egg
Currently there seems to be a standoff situation developing. Interest is rising not just from small rural communities but also by city councils, schools and offices, to increase their green credentials and look towards a more sustainable way of sourcing their energy. However in order for these organisations to financially commit and install these systems, they need to be convinced of a consistent supply of fuel that hits the quality standard that is needed. Common sense in the agricultural industry dictates that you don't grow crops (be it cereals or woody energy crops) without having an end market in mind, (as well as knowledge on how to grow it), so something needs to give to encourage wider adoption.
The Benefits of trees
The benefits of having trees on-farm are widely known, in terms of improved soil structure and water infiltration, improved biodiversity and habitats for wildlife. Interestingly these benefits have also been seen when growing short rotation coppice crops. Crops for Energy have been looking at the benefits of growing these crops to the wider farm environment. If energy crops were grown on 3.5% of agricultural land in the South West, this could enable the mitigation of 475,200 tonnes of GHG emissions from fossil fuel replacement, and sequester 186,946 tonnes of Carbon annually. These crops also provide a mechanism for keeping the soil in situ, improving soil structure and water infiltration, and as such can help with the battle against flooding that we have been facing over the past weeks. They also can provide a physical barrier against pollutants entering watercourses and hold them in the soil where they can be used to grow crops, as such maintaining water quality.
Potential in the UK
Although the UK situation in terms of heat generation is not as developed as some of our European counterparts, opportunities that arise from these cross European projects allow us to take advantage of the experiences that other countries have had while developing the industry. If we can listen to the advice and take heed of their knowledge and lessons that they have learnt, then surely we can start ahead of the game in developing the renewable heat industry in the UK and use current projects to see what works and what doesn't. Allowing farmers and processors to see systems in action and to hear from other growers will inspire confidence in the industry and allow us to move forward and generate energy more sustainably.
If anyone is currently growing woody energy crops and running a biomass heating system and would be interested in sharing their experiences please get in touch. For more information on the Rokwood Project please click here.