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New Energy Farms awarded millions by UK government

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The Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme, created by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), has awarded £37 million (€44.1m) to New Energy Farms (NEF) for an innovative research programme to introduce new high biomass perennial grasses into the UK and to develop novel methods of multiplying and establishing high biomass crops.

The NEF project addresses the challenge which was highlighted in the Sixth Review of the Climate Change Committee (CCC), of planting 30,000 hectares of high biomass perennial energy grasses in the UK each year and reaching the projected target of 720,000 hectares of energy crops by 2050.

The NEF project said it will address this need for a step change in the planting of perennial energy crops in the UK, by accelerating the introduction of new varieties from global breeding programmes, propagation systems to scale up planting on arable, contaminated land and paludiculture areas.

Dr Paul Carver, CEO of NEF, commented: ‘There are energy crop breeding programmes around the world that are virtually untapped by UK growers. We cannot ignore the opportunities which already exist to evaluate novel genera, species and existing varieties that are potentially suitable for the UK to improve our yields, expand production areas and widen the genetic base.

"Secondly, there has been a need for agronomic improvements, which can begin as early as when crops are planted. Many high biomass energy crops are vegetatively propagated, they do not produce seeds. NEF has already developed one patented technology, CEEDS, currently being adopted commercially in sugarcane, which overcomes the difficulties and costs of multiplying and planting vegetatively propagated crops.

"We will be applying CEEDS artificial seed technology to all the new high biomass grasses to determine what improvements we can introduce over existing multiplication and planting methods."

NEF is planning to evaluate over 40 energy grass varieties during the project over five UK trial locations.

Energy grass crops planted in the UK currently are almost all of one variety and species, Miscanthus x giganteus.

By testing promising varieties and species from existing global breeding projects in the UK, the aims are to increase yields and provide between five to 10 new variety options for UK growers.

Carver was enthusiastic about the potential improvements that will result from the BEIS funded project: "The combination of new, higher yielding varieties and improved methods of establishing new plantings of energy crops will encourage more energy crop planting. Higher yielding varieties, presented as easy to plant propagules, will increase biomass production.

"The new genera, varieties and planting technologies will also allow us to go beyond the current target of low-quality arable land for energy grass cropping and explore phytoremediation (producing biomass on metal contaminated land) and production on wetlands (for Paludiculture)."

BEIS has a £1 billion Net Zero Innovation Portfolio budget, and this project is one of its beneficiaries.

Energy Minister, Greg Hands, said: “Accelerating home-grown renewables like biomass is a key part of ending our dependency on expensive and volatile fossil fuels. This £37 million of government investment will support innovation across the UK, boosting jobs whilst ensuring greater energy security for years to come”.