The age of renewable energy is upon us. For the sake of the environment, we must transition away from fossil fuels and embrace a range of clean energies. Green gas is integral to this mix, because it can be stored longer than the electricity generated by solar or wind. This flexibility makes it a great backup energy source.
Indeed, the government’s Committee on Climate Change has stated the need for up to 15% of the UK’s energy requirement to come from bioenergy – energy derived from organic matter, like plants, straw, slurry, food waste and even sewage – in order to meet the UK’s 2050 emissions target.
At Future Biogas, we have been striving for a decade to build this cleaner, greener future. Having pioneered the biogas industry in the UK, we offer some of the best technical, agricultural and environmental expertise around. It’s our firm belief that best practice biogas production not only creates a reliable and economically-profitable source of green energy for the National Grid – but also offers a vast range of additional benefits to UK farming, biodiversity and the environment.
In recent times, however, there has been some criticism levelled against our industry. The most common critique is that using prized arable land to grow fuel doesn’t make sense in the UK – a small, densely-populated island that is currently unable to grow enough food for its own people. In reality, such a suggestion is either based on misinformation or construed from evidence linked to bad practice. Our own experience shows that growing feedstocks to make biogas improves food production. Here’s how:
When setting up an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant to make green gas, the first step is to secure the right site. At Future Biogas we work with over 450 farmers, mostly in the east of England. On around twelve thousand hectares of land, they grow the feedstocks – predominantly maize, but also sugar beet, rye, barley and potatoes – for the nine plants we operate.
Before choosing each site, we rigorously researched local farming practices, making sure the locations of our plants had very little in the way of local beef, dairy or sheep farming. In this way, we haven’t impacted livestock farming.
Even better, the arable farmers we work with have found their food production has been enhanced by the introduction of feedstocks onto their land, which is largely down to improved crop rotations.
The planting of feedstock crops has allowed our farmers to extend their crop rotations, thereby boosting the fertility of their soil and their farm’s overall profitability.
To put this in context, all British arable farmers are subject to a greening requirement brought in by the European Common Agricultural Policy in 2015. It means that owners of arable land greater than 30 hectares – who want to keep receiving financial support under the EU Basic Payment Scheme – have to plant three crops in rotation.
Of course, crop rotation is a traditional farming practice, but one that had fallen by the wayside in the 21st century, due to the advent of industrial farming and its preference for monocultures. Crop rotation’s environmental benefits are well-documented, particularly when it comes to soil fertility. They include an increase in soil organic matter, improved soil structure, reduction in soil degradation, improved biodiversity, increased water holding capacity, reduced pests and, ultimately, greater long-term farm viability.
The greening requirement has its drawbacks, however. If farmers do not farm in an area with a suitable soil type, climate or market in which to sell their crops, then their rotational options can be limited. Sometimes this can lead to farmers leaving land fallow rather than planting unprofitable crops. This is where the introduction of feedstocks can prove a boon: offering farmers viable spring cropping alternatives.
We work with numerous farmers who’ve experienced improved yields in crops like cereals, potatoes and sugar beet, as a result of introducing feedstock crops to their farm rotations. Not only does this makes their farm more efficient and profitable, it also helps them meet the EU’s greening requirement.
What’s more, crop rotations are here with us to stay, as environment secretary Michael Gove has committed to them as part of his 25-year Environment Plan post-Brexit.
Critics often cite the example of the German biogas industry as a warning for what could happen here in the UK. Between 2008 and 2012, over-generous German government subsidies resulted in a biogas boom and land grab – as investors and farmers rushed to lease land for feedstock cultivation. In the same period, land rents rose from €250 to €600 per hectare, per year.
The comparison, however, is a false one. For a start, the biogas industry is on a much smaller scale in the UK and the government subsidy system is quite different, so the idea our industry could go down the same route as Germany’s isn’t valid.
In the UK, we have 473 biogas plants, while in Germany there are 8,500. We are currently only using 0.5% of UK’s total arable crop land for biogas feedstock. In Germany the figure is 13%. Moreover, the way our funding works means the same unsustainable boom simply isn’t possible.
Since 2016, UK government funding is only available for AD plants in which 50% of the input comes from specifically-grown crops. The rest has to be made up of biomass waste and slurries. This limits the amount of land that can be used to grow feedstocks and renders comparisons with the German situation irrelevant.
Indeed, the UK biogas industry has learnt from the German experience and understands that the selection of growing of crops for biogas needs as much careful thought, planning and husbandry expertise as cropping for food.
A Wider Agricultural System
Anaerobic digestion is of growing importance within the UK bioenergy sector and can make an important contribution to the UK’s energy and climate change targets. Like any industry, it can be done well or done badly. If done properly, it’s the most financially viable and environmentally sustainable way of creating green gas.
At Future Biogas we are committed to the long-term efficiency and sustainability of biogas production. We see growing crops to make green gas as a diversification of farm businesses – part of a wider agricultural system. The reality is that feedstock isn’t grown instead of food, but alongside it.