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Miscanthus could play a crucial role in mitigating against climate change

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  • 4 min read
Miscanthus is a biomass crop that’s seeing rising demand for UK heat and power generation and its environmental credentials are better than alternative fuels.

Approximately 33 thousand tonnes of miscanthus were used in UK power stations for electricity in 2014/15 which was just under half of all miscanthus produced in England in 2015, and the potential for the crop to be up-scaled is vast, according to Anna Harper, climate scientist, from the University of Exeter.

“Miscanthus could be very important for future energy generation, because it doesn’t have huge carbon costs and it can even provide extensive environmental benefits. It’s grown in the UK, so it doesn’t need to be transported far, which reduces emissions compared to imported biomass,” says Anna.

Expanding the sustainable future of the crop is miscanthus expert Terravesta, a company at the forefront of miscanthus supply chain expertise and research and development. Terravesta works with over 250 growers throughout the UK, facilitating planting, providing agronomic support, securing lucrative markets and offering long term index price linked contracts.

“The national annual crop is currently over 60 thousand tonnes, and there’s an opportunity for this to expand a hundredfold by 2030,” says William Cracroft-Eley, Terravesta chairman.

Miscanthus is more sustainable than wood pellet alternatives – and a recent ‘Chatham House Report’ has claimed that British power stations importing wood pellets from the US are doing more harm than good to the environment .

The report outlines that overall, burning wood for energy is much worse in climate terms than burning coal, but the way emissions are currently counted conceal the damage being done because they don’t take into account the full lifecycle of the tree.

“If you cut down trees in North America and ship them across the North Atlantic, there is a significant CO2 release as the biomass is dried, pelletised, and transported, and this could cancel out the carbon that the trees take in when they are growing,” says Anna.

“Fossil fuels are substantially altering the composition of the atmosphere by adding carbon to it that otherwise would have remained underground. Burning trees or other vegetation releases the carbon stored within the plants into the atmosphere. But that carbon has only been recently removed from the atmosphere – probably in the past few decades at most, so dedicated bioenergy crops are just utilising the carbon already available,” says Anna.

“There’s no silver bullet for reducing climate change, but miscanthus could play a key part in the solution. It’s planted on lower grade, marginal UK farmland so it doesn’t compete with food crops,” concludes Anna.

“There are several environmental benefits of converting 5% of lower grade UK marginal land to miscanthus,” says Willam Cracroft-Eley from Terravesta.

“Taking into account the potential to sequester carbon in soils, the reduced nitrous oxide emissions and the mitigation of fossil fuel use by using miscanthus as a bioenergy feedstock, the carbon intensity is one-thirtieth of that of coal, and one sixteenth of natural gas from the North Sea, and will contribute to supporting the governments’ climate change emissions targets.

“Agriculture is seen as a significant carbon net emitter. With miscanthus, what you have is a proportion of land that’s a net carbon absorber which helps to mitigate against greenhouse gas emitted by the land use sector – which amounts to 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions,” says William.

“The 2014/15 miscanthus volume supplied to power stations was an increase of nearly 50% on the previous year and this is encouraging. At the moment, miscanthus is grown on 0.1% of total marginal arable land area and Terravesta’s mission is to upscale this significantly,” he says.

The company hopes to have a seed based hybrid miscanthus variety ready for commercial deployment within the next two to three years, paving the way to increase the UK cropping area to the potential 350,000 hectares in the future.

“Not only is there a case for planting more for environmental reasons, it helps boost food production on-farm and it makes good business sense.

“It’s a perennial energy crop, harvested every spring and has the potential to yield 15 tonnes per hectare, which gives the farmer a return of over £900 per hectare for mature yield,” adds William.