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UK bioenergy’s landtake eases

The amount of UK land devoted to non-food crops for bioenergy decreased by 12% in 2017/18 relative to 2016/17, according to Defra, easing competition with food crops.

Even so, Defra’s latest report, released on 31 January, reveals that 129,000ha of arable land in the UK were used for bioenergy crops, equivalent to just over 2% of all arable land, the second highest level so far recorded after the peak of 2016. Of this, maize (57,000 ha) and wheat (56,000 ha) dominated, with 7,000 devoted to miscanthus grass, 6,000ha to sugar beet and 3,000 ha to short rotation coppice.

Defra largely attributes the reduced land-take to a substantial drop in the area of arable land under wheat for bioethanol production while that under maize and sugar beet increased.

Biofuels for the UK road transport market, including biodiesel and bioethanol, accounted in turn for 48% of land use under bioenergy, around 51,000ha, down from a peak of 69,000ha in 2016. The report says 217m/l of biofuel for this UK market were produced from UK-grown crops, while more than 5.5m/t oil equivalent were used in generation of electricity and heat.

Almost 80% of plant biomass is consumed for generating electricity, slightly down since 2014, while volumes of biomass used to generate heat have been increasing more rapidly. Significant conversions of power stations to biomass led to a 9% rise in volumes used in power generation in 2017 relative to 2016, continuing a slow upward trend. Co-firing with fossil fuels has continued to fall.

In terms of the crop area used for biofuel, the report reveals a 11% decrease in the area of crops grown for biofuels between 2016/17 and 2017/18, despite translating into "virtually no change in the volume of biofuel produced". It attributes the change in land-take to an increase in sugar beet use (+70%) relative to wheat (-15%) and to higher crop yields in 2017, with a large increase in yields from sugar beet from 71 t/ha in 2016/2017 to 83 t/ha in 2017/2018.

The total volume of UK biofuel use in the UK fell 8% in 2017/18 compared to the previous year. UK-sourced biodiesel consumed by road transport in 2017/18 was down sharply by 17%, due mainly to a reduction in use of tallow and cooking oil, while food waste’s share rose. No UK-produced biodiesel was derived from crop feedstocks in 2017/18, due to a move away from crop-derived biodiesel.

Bioethanol volume remained unchanged at 217m/l, with increased sugar beet use compensated for by a reduction in wheat use. Some 60% of the crop-derived bioethanol for road transport was from imported crops.

In 2016/17, 36% of feedstocks used in anaerobic digestion (AD) for heat, biomethane or biogas production were crop-derived (3.8mt), of which all but 4% was purpose-grown, the remainder crop waste. This level of usage was estimated to need some 75,000 ha of crop area. Non-crop wastes accounted for the remaining 64%. In May 2018, restrictions were introduced on crop-based AD payments under the Renewable Heat Incentive where these accounted for more than 50%, aimed at cutting use of arable land for feedstock and encouraging use of non-crop wastes.

For AD plants under construction in 2016/17, 33% of feedstocks are crop derived, all but 3% purpose-grown, the remainder crop waste. This level of usage is estimated to need some 61,000 ha of cropland.

Under the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), aimed at combatting rising greenhouse gas emissions from transport, suppliers of more than 450,000l/fuel/yr have obligations to substitute part of the fossil fuel with biofuels, doubling to at least 12.4% by 2032. Non-waste feedstocks are considered undesirable as they can put direct and indirect pressure on arable land for food crops. They are being gradually squeezed out of biofuels.

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