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Analysis: New Defra statistics offer insight into UK supply of bioenergy and biofuel crops

New statistics reveal that around 109,000 hectares or 1.8 per cent of UK arable land planted in 2010 was used in the production of bioenergy and biofuels during 2011.

Date Posted 12 Feb 2013
Story Source Dr Matthew Aylott, NNFCC
Relevant Industries Biofuels Biorefining

Oilseed rape

The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have published their latest 'experimental' statistics on the amount of land used in the UK to produce biomass for the heat, power and transport fuel markets [1].

Challenging conditions for biofuels

According to the release, production of bioethanol from UK feedstocks in 2011 included an estimated 75,000 hectares (ha) of wheat and 14,000 ha of sugar beet. This was a significant increase from the 2009 figures published in Defra's last statistical release [2], where there was no recorded use of wheat and a little over 6,000 ha of sugar beet grown for ethanol. The significant increase in wheat production for ethanol was due to the opening of the Ensus ethanol plant on Teesside in 2010 (the refinery was subsequently closed and has since re-opened).

In contrast, UK grown biodiesel from oilseed rape was down significantly from an estimated 17,000 ha in 2008 to around 8,000 ha in 2011. This dramatic fall followed the increase in duty rates applied to biofuels after April 2010, while the use of waste cooking oil has risen in part due to the increased support for waste-derived fuels provided under the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation since December 2011.

However, these figures do not account for biodiesel produced from UK oilseed rape that was subsequently exported, as HMRC trade data does not provide sufficient detail to identify such shipments. The analysis by Defra was not able to determine whether oilseed rape exported to countries like Germany may subsequently have been used in biodiesel production and sold in continental Europe.

As oilseed rape exports to Germany (the EU’s largest producer of biodiesel) have been significant in recent years this could be a important omission. Similarly UK wheat may have been exported and used for ethanol production in other European countries.

The home-grown market for biofuels in the UK is predicted to grow over the next couple of years, with the recently opened Ensus and Vivergo biorefineries expected to convert over 2 million tonnes of locally grown feed wheat into ethanol when at full capacity, which could require more than 250,000 ha of land. This is still small compared to the overall wheat market and is unlikely to have a major impact on prices.

Beyond this there seems to be little scope for increasing biofuel production from traditional agricultural sources, with the European Government looking to implement a cap on food crop-based biofuels [3], meaning that biofuels made from food crops may account for no more than five per cent of the energy used in transport by 2020; a level the UK is already fast approaching.

Heat and power market showing steady growth

The use of UK grown feedstocks for heat and power production has increased over the past few years. According to the latest statistics, straw made as a co-product from an estimated 59,000 ha of arable crops was used in UK energy production in 2011, as well as 9,000 ha of Miscanthus (England only) and 3,000 ha of short rotation coppice (England only).

Straw was not considered in the previous statistical release but has certainly increased with the development of the biomass heat and power sector. However, there has been a small decrease in the production of Miscanthus and short rotation coppice, since 2009. This reflects an ongoing lack of confidence from the farming sector on the returns offered by perennial biomass crops and the support available from Government.

There are a number of major coal-fired power stations, such as Drax and Eggborough, who are planning to use more biomass in the future, either through conversion or co-firing. More than two thirds of the biomass required by the UK heat and power sector in 2020 is expected to be imported [4] but domestic supplies will also have the opportunity to grow given the right support and policy framework.

Statistics tell only half the story

The statistics provide useful insight into the status of the UK biomass supply chain but they are also missing key data, which according to David Turley, Policy Manager at NNFCC, means they should be treated with caution: "Biomass grown in the UK could be an important source of low carbon heat, power and transportation fuel; as well as providing jobs in agriculture, logistics and the energy sector. However, the biomass market is particularly sensitive to changes in policy, making it important to track the use of biomass and provide reliable statistics."

"The latest Defra statistics are useful but only tell half the story and do not contain detailed information on the export of crops used in biofuel production, which is an important trading dynamic for the UK market," he added.

By Matthew Aylott.

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