The EU funded Rokwood project is drawing to a close on 30th November. The principal aim of the project was to increase the market penetration of woodfuel produced from short rotation plantations (SRP) by encouraging more dialogue between industry participants, researchers, policy makers and business.
The UK cluster was represented by Crops for Energy Ltd, together with Dorset County Council and the Centre for Sustainable Energy. We’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to learn from our partners in other countries and share information on SRPs with a wider audience through documents, training courses, events, conference presentations and articles.
Some of the written highlights of the project include:
• The Joint Action Plan – a catalogue of future joint activities, research areas and project ideas aimed at increasing research and technology development (RTD), market uptake and investments in the woody energy crops sector.
• The UK Policy briefs – designed to inform national and local policymakers, or indeed anyone with influence, on the most appropriate steps we think are needed to develop the SRC industry.
• The Best Practice Case study Booklet – provides a wealth of information and insight from people and organisations that have been there and done it.
• The Rokwood Final Publication – provides details of the work completed over the last 3 years, the many project highlights and partner perspectives. There is also information on the state of play of woody energy crops in the six partner countries: Germany, Ireland, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the UK as well a section on the history of SRPs in Europe.
Here’s Kevin Lindegaard’s perspective on the future of energy crops in Europe:
I’ve been involved in SRPs for almost 20 years. When I began my career in the mid-1990s there
was every suggestion that energy crops were going to be a really big part of future agriculture. There had already been 20 years of research and development and significant areas were being planted in Sweden and the UK. But instead of gradual and consistent growth, the industry has seen several localised surges in activity followed shortly afterwards by inertia. Across Europe there have been similar trends – anywhere where there is a significant area of energy crops grown there was once a favourable policy framework, followed by a few years of intense planting and then a rapid depression due to a market failure, a policy change or an increase in global commodity prices. Any embryonic sector like the energy crops industry finds itself vulnerable to these sorts of things – it is so easy for green shoots to be nipped in the bud. After 40 years of R&D the SRP sector can lay claim to just 50,000 hectares in the EU 28. Considering the utilised agricultural area is 176 million hectares this area is miniscule.
Yet despite this lack of penetration, forward energy plans continue to point to a massive role for fast growing trees and energy grasses. The most recent example, in the UK (Bioenergy: Enabling UK Biomass. An insights report by the Energy Technologies Institute) suggests that planting energy crops on 10% of the farmland (1.8 million hectares) could provide 6.3% of the UK’s energy demand. This could reduce the cost of meeting UK’s 2050 carbon targets by more than 1% of GDP . To put that in perspective, these savings would be worth more to the economy than the entire current output from UK agriculture (0.7% of GDP in 2014).
At the same time, researchers continue to find more benefits that can be derived from these crops such as ecosystem services and multi-functionality. The suggestion is that SRPs have a positive energy balance of over 20 to 1. So, for every 1 unit of energy in you get 20 out. That makes for pretty good land use efficiency. On top of that you might get several uses from the same area of land – such as energy, improvements of local water quality and flood defence. Woodland and forestry do these things as well but SRPs achieve better results in a fraction of the time. Furthermore, instead of depriving us of precious land, these crops actually work in harmony with food production by offering beneficial insects and pollination services – SRP willows can provide abundant pollen and nectar at a time of year when there aren’t many food sources available for foraging bees. We need pollinators to keep working for us so we can continue to produce fruit and vegetables. Potentially SRP willows could help rebuild bee populations and, who knows, if there are more bees around there may also be higher food crop yields as a result. You can potentially get so much value by planting these crops on a small fraction of the land and as SRPs are permanent crops they provide productivity and services for over 20 years. And all the while, these perennial crops are quietly locking up carbon in the soil.
The need is there and the benefits should be clear to everyone. Farmers need to be encouraged to plant and crucially, be rewarded financially for the benefits that these crops bring. It’s time for long term planning and uninterrupted incentives that will lead to a sustainable growth industry. For farmers to grow SRPs and energy grasses they need certainty: few will risk a 20 year investment unless there is some guarantee that they will make money and the returns are favourable compared to other crop options. As long as we expect farmers to take the large proportion of the risk we will get nowhere. Also, the perceived wisdom that SRPs create sterile monocultures needs to be challenged and politicians and policy makers must have courage in their convictions and respond positively to the scientific outputs from research bodies. If public money pays for research and the findings point in one direction then we need to follow this course, not ignore it or go the opposite way.
Time is short – we have 15 years to 2030 and 35 until 2050. If we really want to make a positive difference to the planet we need to act now. Rokwood has helped lay a platform to build on. There is a future for SRPs in Europe – now is the time to start realising the potential.