4% England's power could come from short rotation crops

England has the potential to generate 4% of its electricity needs from short rotation coppice energy crops grown on unused land, according to a study supported by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC).

These findings highlight that such crops, including poplar and willow, could help the UK meet its 2020 renewable energy target of 15% of all energy and 30% electricity to be sourced from renewable materials. Biomass is expected to play a key role in achieving these goals.

At the moment, energy crops that do not impact food production and environmental sustainability contribute to less than 0.1% of the total UK electricity.

Various studies have found power generated from energy crops significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The UKERC study also highlighted that new technology will see short rotation coppice used for the production of ethanol – an advantage over cellulosic crops such as wheat and maize as they can be grown on poor, unused agricultural land.

Results of the study suggest that short rotation coppice cannot be grown on over 39% of land in England, however marginal land such as agricultural land grades 4 and 5 has the ability to produce 7.5 million tonnes of biomass. This figure is sufficient to satisfy around 4% of the UK's electricity demand and 1% energy demand.

Research showed that the southwest and northwest regions of the country could produce over one third of the total figure due to the expansive areas of low quality land.

'This study shows that bioenergy crops can be grown sustainably in parts of England, with no detrimental impact on food crops or other ecosystems services,' explains Gail Taylor, professor of plant biology at the University of Southampton. 'Our current work is taking this approach further to determine how future climate scenarios will influence biomass supply.'

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