The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UCEH) is leading new UK-wide trials of crops and trees which can be used to produce sustainable energy from plant material.
Widespread cultivation of biomass crops in the UK could remove significant amounts of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, the organisation said. There is potential to store this trapped carbon through carbon capture and storage technology. This bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) would also reduce the demand for oil and gas.
The new €5.6 million (£4.7m) project, funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Biomass Feedstocks Innovation Programme, will contribute to the UK’s ambitious plans to achieve Net Zero, by supporting a significant increase in UK biomass production. This is in line with Climate Change Committee scenarios which indicate that planting of biomass crops needs to increase from 10,000 to 730,000 hectares by 2050 to meet future demand.
The project, BioFIND (Biomass Innovation and Information Platform), will set up eight demonstration sites across the four nations of the UK - in Ceredigion, South Ayrshire, Berkshire, Devon, Edinburgh, County Down, Tyne & Wear and Yorkshire.
Each site will grow up to 11 species of short-rotation trees and perennial grasses. These include miscanthus and short-rotation coppice willow, which produce large amounts of biomass (plant material) that can be used in power stations to produce heat or electricity, or used in bio-based products.
BioFIND will compare how well different crops and varieties grow in regions across the UK and demonstrate innovations which have the potential to maximise their economic and environmental benefits. These innovations are being developed across 12 BEIS-funded projects within the same €38m (£32m) funding programme.
BioFIND will showcase best practice and innovations in biomass cultivation through in-person demonstration events at BioFIND sites and via a dedicated website. These activities will be designed to share knowledge gained among farmers and growers considering planting biomass crops, as well as with government advisers, trade bodies, businesses and biomass end users.
The project will provide independent information on biomass feedstock performance, agronomy, economics and environmental benefits to landowners and land managers. With a better understanding of geographic variations in the production of biomass plants and also relevant technical innovations in production methods, the project will encourage new crop production and encourage discussion and learning about the biomass sector.
This sharing of knowledge, experiences and case studies will significantly contribute to agricultural, environmental and bioenergy policy development, practical on-farm development and overall growth in the UK’s biomass sector.
Dr Jeanette Whitaker of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), who is leading BioFIND, said: “This project will provide robust, independent information on the performance, agronomy, economics and environmental benefits of the selected crops to land managers, researchers, policymakers and industry. Our findings will therefore support the development of sound policies and practices to significantly scale up biomass cultivation in the UK.
“It is important to note that biomass crops can be grown on the type of agricultural land where economic returns from traditional crops are typically low. This proposed increase in biomass crop cultivation is also part of a larger shift in how we use the land for food, fodder and fibre that is happening because of changes in people’s diets and policy priorities.”
Whitaker explained that growing the crops sustainably is only part of the process. Achieving overall reductions in greenhouse gases through bioenergy production relies on power plants having the technological ability to capture and store the carbon dioxide released during the subsequent combustion process.
Government 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."
BioFIND comprises researchers and industry partners from UKCEH, Rothamsted Research, Aberystwyth University, Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), Crops for Energy, Newcastle University, NIAB and Bio-Global Industries.
A separate, existing UKRI-funded project involving UKCEH and led by Aberystwyth University, is carrying out other field trials of miscanthus and short rotation coppice willow in East Yorkshire and Lancashire, specifically to assess the amount of greenhouse gas removal that could be possible with large-scale production of biomass crops.