[permaculture] Giant grass to get larger role in energy supply - Yahoo! News

Lawrence F. London, Jr. lfl at intrex.net
Thu May 25 10:29:28 EDT 2006


Giant grass to get larger role in energy supply

By Nigel Hunt Thu May 25, 3:45 AM ET

LONDON (Reuters) - Fields of swaying giant grass and patchwork patterns of willow plantations could become common sights 
as Britain turns to crops for heating and electricity to tackle the effects of global warming.

"The main difference is the height (compared with conventional crops)," said Angela Karp, deputy head of the plant and 
invertebrate ecology division at Rothamsted Research center.

"People are used to looking at certain landscapes, such as fields of cereals, and this will change," she said.

The impact on the English landscape -- which has an almost mythical status in the nation's literature and psyche -- 
could be similar to the change after rapeseed acreage expanded in the 1970s and 1980s, covering the countryside with 
fields full of distinctive bright yellow flowers.

The use of crops to generate electricity is touted by some experts as one of the best ways to reduce emissions of 
greenhouse gases, blamed by many scientists for global warming.

Biomass -- products from forestry, energy crops and a variety of other materials which might otherwise be treated as 
waste -- generates about 1 percent of Britain's electricity and provides a similar proportion of heat generation.

Miscanthus, or elephant grass, and short rotation coppice willow, are already helping fire up power stations, heat 
schools, hospitals and factories.

Karp said research is being carried out on how best to blend energy crops into the landscape, noting in some areas they 
could eventually account for 10 percent of agricultural land.

In late April, the government announced measures to promote biomass as it seeks to rapidly expand the proportion of 
Britain's energy needs derived from renewable resources.

"We are going to need everything we can lay our hands on if we are going to reduce our carbon footprint in the world," 
said Ben Gill, a former president of the National Farmers' Union who leads the British government's Biomass Task Force.


Britain is seeking to produce 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources such as biomass by 2010 and to double 
that proportion by 2020.

A government-commissioned task force last year said biomass could reduce Britain's carbon emissions by almost three 
million tonnes a year if used for heating -- the equivalent of taking 3.25 million cars of the road, according to the 

Miscanthus is a woody grass which originated in Asia and has very high growth rates. It can reach about 3.5 meters (11.5 
ft) in height and can be harvested each year.

Short rotation coppice (SRC) are densely planted varieties of either poplar or most commonly willow. They grow to about 
4 meters (13 ft) and are normally harvested every 3 years.

"Short rotation coppice could rise 5 to 10 times from the current area of 3,000 to 5,000 hectares by 2010," said biomass 
trader Willie McGhee of fuel company Greenergy.

Greenergy said in May it had started taking deliveries of SRC willow wood chips for a 30 megawatt biomass power station 
in northeast England, expected to come online next year.

One megawatt is roughly enough power for 1,000 homes.

As well as providing cleaner electricity, biomass crops require less care and maintenance, giving farmers the chance to 
either semi-retire to spend time on other ventures.

"You just stare out of the window and watch the money growing," Greenergy trader McGhee said.


Energy crops could provide a boost for a strapped sector: total income from farming fell by 8.9 percent last year as
European Union reforms have cut back subsidies and exposed local produce to growing competition from cheaper imports.

Farmers have diversified to cope with the changes; sometimes directly marketing products through farm shops, running 
farm zoos or converting old barns into commercial properties.

Energy crops offer another alternative and have received government grants since 2000, although the current scheme is 
due to run out at the end of this year. The government has said it will continue its support in principle.

Britain is also turning to crops to help meet its other major energy need - transport fuel.

Oil from crops such as rapeseed can be used to make biodiesel while wheat is expected to be used to make bioethanol. 
Biofuels are normally blended with petrol or diesel but can be consumed directly in some vehicles.

Just how much land will be eventually dedicated to growing crops for energy will depend on the wider effects of climate 
change. If global warming begins to stunt the world's food production as consumption expands, priorities could change.

"The amount of spare land away from food production is going to become increasingly constrained as impacts of climate 
change become more pronounced," Gill said.

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