Domestic bioenergy production in the UK poses no threat to food production

Posted in: feedstocks

Defra has released its latest version of ‘Crops Grown For Bioenergy in England and the UK: 2O16’

In contrast to concerns raised over the amount of land being used for bioenergy purposes, these latest government statistics show that only 2% of the UK arable area of just over 6 million hectares has been used for cropping for energy applications. When considering the total UK agricultural area of 17.4 million hectares this falls to just under 0.8%.

The area utilised was estimated at 132,000 hectares. At the same time, other Defra statistics on agricultural land use show that around 262,000 ha of land in the UK remained uncropped in 2016, showing there is little conflict to date. In fact, the energy market has boosted opportunities in the rural economy by adding value to regional crop production for crops for biofuel production, as well as encouraging farm diversification for those looking to support heat and power markets with perennial energy crops.

Most of the land in question was used for crop production for biofuels, the remainder for crops, primarily forage maize, for Anaerobic Digestion (AD) and dedicated energy crops for heat and power production.  The land area used for bioenergy feedstock production currently stands at its highest level since data were first collated in 2008, However, this masks a number of variations between years reflecting, the shifting underlying bioenergy policy environment.

The area of maize grown as a feedstock for AD has increased by 55% over 3 years to 52,000 hectares, while the area of oilseed rape grown for domestic biofuel use has slumped to zero as incentives to use waste oils have diminished UK demand drivers.  However, the Defra figures do not capture information on oilseed rape volumes exported for biofuel use on the EU mainland which remains a significant market for UK crops.  Both use of UK wheat and sugar beet for bioethanol production show significant year to year variation, reflecting the impacts of EU ethanol price and competition with UK bioethanol producers from European plants, as well as the impacts of EU sugar price which will impact on the output of duel-bioethanol and sugar refining plants capable of shifting to the most profitable commodity.

Both the AD and biofuel sectors face political pressure to curb crop-use in bioenergy production, with use in AD plants being capped within the Feed in Tariff mechanism, and soon to be capped within the Renewable Heat Incentive for new installations. From 2018 the volume of crop-derived biofuels permitted to contribute to the UK biofuel supplier obligation will be limited to no more than 4%, gradually reducing to 2% against an overarching obligation of 12.4% by 2032.

In both cases, these changed should protect the interests of existing plants and installations, but it provides little incentive for further investment and development and in the case of biofuels little comfort against an uncertain future on trade agreements and tariffs that could significantly affect both local EU and global competition.

For more information:

The report can be viewed here.

This article was written by David Turley, Lead Consultant for Feedstocks at NNFCC.