Could timber shortage lead to boom time for energy crops?

Last year we reported on a Europe wide timber shortage and the reasons for this. This led to massive increases in the price of biomass fuels, particularly wood pellets.

As a result of this we are already seeing signs that UK landowners are beginning to realise the benefits of planting more energy crops and woodland in order to self-supply woodfuel and service a burgeoning demand for wood fibre.

Around 750 hectares of energy crops were planted in England and Scotland in 2018. This might not sound like a massive amount but is a significant increase on recent years and the most planted in a calendar year since the Energy Crops Scheme (ECS) closed in 2013. The ECS provided 50% establishment grants, so the fact that growers are planting Miscanthus and Short Rotation Coppice (SRC) without financial support suggests that they are more convinced of the full lifetime economic benefits of these crop options.

We’ve spoken to several people in the industry (covering Miscanthus, SRC willow and SRF Eucalyptus), and there is a quiet confidence that the sector is expanding again. Bryan Elliott of Eucalyptus Renewables said that the seedling orders for next year’s planting season is equal to that planted in the previous 5 years.

Jamie Rickerby of Willow Energy says that his company have purchased a new willow planter to keep up with increased demand. Everyone I spoke to said that they have sold significantly more cuttings, rhizomes and seedlings or were engaged in more contract planting in 2018 compared to previous years.

Interest in planting energy crops is mainly down to their use as biomass energy. There are contracts available from several power stations such as Iggesund (SRC willow), Brigg (Miscanthus and SRC) and Snetterton (Miscanthus and SRC). All provide decent prices and long term contracts. Other people are growing to self-supply their own biomass boilers. Many users are realising that they can insulate themselves against further price rises and produce fuel quickly by planting their own perennial energy crops. You can read about getting the best from these crops as boiler fuels by following these links:

In addition, there is growing interest in the alternative uses of SRC willow and Miscanthus such as biofiltration, remediation of contaminated land, game management, screening and flood mitigation.

Woodland planting is also increasing. Forest Research recently reported that 9,100 hectares of newly created woodland in the UK in 2017-18. There is still a long way short of what is required but it presents an improving trend with the current level representing a 40% increase over that achieved in 2016-17.

The Forest Research report (Woodland Area, Planting and Publicly Funded Restocking 2018 Edition) suggests the following reasons for the increase:

  • Choices by landowners reflecting their own motivation and needs
  • The costs and availability of land for conversion to woodland
  • The availability of grants for new planting, the level of grant payments available and the awareness of grants among potential recipients
  • The tax benefits available from owning woodland
  • Expected future markets for wood products such as timber and woodfuel
  • Income from payments for ecosystem services, particularly carbon storage
  • National and local initiatives, for example on biodiversity, green infrastructure and water management

The area of woodland in the UK as of 31 March 2018 is 3.17 million hectares which is 13% of the total land area in the UK.

The impact of Brexit, likely removal of agricultural subsidies, the weakness of the pound and lack of competiveness of imports could further increase planting in the years to come. Interesting times!