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.