Planting short-rotation energy crops on England’s unused agricultural land could produce enough biomass to meet renewable energy targets without disrupting the food industry or the environment, according to a study conducted by researchers at Southampton University.
Funded by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), the researchers looked at the potential of planting short-rotation coppice (poplar and willow) in England.
UKERC researcher Gail Taylor, professor of plant biology at Southampton University, said: ’This study shows that bio-energy crops can be grown sustainably in parts of England, with no detrimental impact on food crops.’
The UKERC research states that new technology will enable biofuels to be made from ’lignocellulosic’ crops (such as short-rotation coppice — willow and poplar), which, unlike current ’cellulosic’ crops (typically derived from food crops including wheat and maize), is able to grow on poor-quality agricultural land.
The researchers said that while more than 39 per cent of land in England cannot be planted with short-rotation crops owing to agronomic or legislative restrictions, marginal land (Agricultural Land Classification grades 4 and 5) could realistically produce 7.5 million tons of biomass. This would be enough to generate approximately four per cent of current UK electricity demand and approximately one per cent of energy demand.
The south west and the north west were identified as two areas with the most potential to produce more than one-third of this figure, owing to their large areas of poor-grade land.
According to Taylor, the Southampton University researchers are now working to determine how future climate scenarios will influence biomass supply.