Catalyzing Energy Crops

The United Kingdom’s Renewable Heating Incentive encourages use of energy crops for thermal applications, but economics need improvement before it's done on a notable scale.
By Chris Hanson | January 30, 2014

The United Kingdom’s Renewable Heating Incentive, which helps businesses and homeowners cover the cost of installing renewable heating technologies, is one of the vehicles the U.K. Department of Energy and Climate Change uses to help meet its 2020 renewable energy targets. The RHI has been especially effective in spurring interest in small biomass boiler applications—as of November, 78 percent of the applications under the RHI were for small, solid biomass boilers less than 200 kilowatts. While energy crops are eligible boiler fuels under the RHI, it appears as though they are not currently a fuel of choice.   

Utilizing energy crops for heat is not a very common practice in the U.K., says Kevin Lindegaard, founder of Crops for Energy Ltd.  The practice is more common in Ireland, but even there, wood chips are still the most common biomass heating fuel. “It’s something that obviously needs to be bolstered, but both of the two main crops—miscanthus and short-rotation coppice—have slight issues that need inputs and infrastructure support to turn what are difficult fuels into usable and hassle-free [fuels],” Lindegaard says. 

Some farmers raise energy crops for their own purposes as a way to protect themselves from imported oil and biomass costs. 

Those producers are finding it more lucrative to grow and use their own fuel rather than to store, process and transport the biomass to an end customer. In southern England, there are farmers who are digging up their short-rotation willow crops due to the lack of proper facilities and low market prices, Lindegaard says. “With willow in particular, you have one shot every three years to get rid of it. If you decide that next time is going to be better and it’s not, then you have a problem of harvesting it again and still not getting a suitable return. So people are tending toward cutting their losses at the moment,” he adds. 

Although the current situation might seem challenging, Lindegaard is helping develop policy initiatives to improve the economics, infrastructure and feasibility of growing energy crops for heat. In order to reach the bioenergy goals of the European Union, locally-grown energy crops will have to play a role, Lindegaard says. “We can’t import the whole lot from the U.S. or Finland. We need to start thinking about growing some of it on our own doorstep because otherwise we’ll be going from the fossil fuel frying pan into the biomass fryer, and just going import to import,” he adds. 

A few reports suggest that by 2050, the U.K. will need roughly 2 million hectares (5 million acres) of energy crops, but the lack of strategy or policy mechanisms prevent greater development of the market, Lindegaard says. During the 1990s, a large demand for energy crops was negatively affected by business blunders that left farmers searching for markets for their energy crops. “The RHI has been a godsend in a way because it does enable some farmers to use their own [energy crops] and make money,” Lindegaard says. “In certain circumstances, it can be a really good money spinner and turn short-rotation coppice and miscanthus into a bonafide cash crop.”

The RHI hasn't packed a big enough punch for energy crops, however, as evidenced by a grower questionnaire completed by Crops for Energy as part of a project for the Energy Technologies Institute. So far, 45 out of 57 growers believe the RHI is having little to no effect on increasing uptake of energy crops, according to questionnaire results. Although the RHI helps assure imported biomass is from sustainable, international sources, the incentive makes local accreditation a hassle for individual growers. Having a more robust, local infrastructure would allow growers to collectively have their energy crops processed and stored at centralized locations, Lindegaard says. Additionally, collaborating farmers might have more incentive to become qualified under the RHI to sell their fuel to local markets by demonstrating sustainable practices.  “In order to be able to sell your fuel, you have to show it is sustainable and go through a bureaucratic process in order to get accredited, and most farmers are going to think, ‘we’re not going to do that,’ ” Lindegaard explains. “You kind of need that middle company in order to allow people to sell their fuel, get a good price, have it processed and go to the end user.” 

“What we kind of need is for people to start asking the same questions about fuel as they do food,” Lindegaard says. In the past few years, people have been paying premium prices at restaurants and farmers markets for locally grown produce, he explains. “I think that similarly we need to ask the same sort of questions about where our fuel comes from and start thinking about working with the local community.”

When it comes to developing the energy crop market, policy mechanisms are going be some of the most influential drivers, Lindegaard says. “Unfortunately, the majority of farmers aren’t likely to go out and create the market themselves. It needs to be done through policy mechanisms, and there needs to be a pull from the market, not a push from the farmers. That's what, unfortunately,  is missing at the moment.”

Author: Chris Hanson
Staff Writer, Biomass Magazine