UK to plant eucalyptus in order to rise renewable energy share
Britain’s forest cover could double under a plan to map every underused piece of land for potential conversion to plantations to feed wood and crop-burning power stations.
Millions of fast-growing trees, such as eucalyptus and willow, could be planted on moorland, hillsides, former industrial areas and even land owned by conservation bodies such as the National Trust .
The trees would be turned into pellets and used to generate electricity in the rapidly growing number of biomass power stations. These stations are due to play a key role in reducing Britain’s emissions of carbon dioxide because trees absorb it as they grow. The new forests would be cut down and replanted in a continuous cycle.
The Energy Technologies Institute, a partnership between the Government and major energy companies, believes that up to 10 per cent of Britain’s land area, or 2.4 million hectares, could be converted to growing trees and tall grasses for biofuel
Britain is the least-forested country in Europe, with trees covering only 12 per cent of the land compared with 28 per cent in France, 36 per cent in Spain and 74 per cent in Finland.
The institute is conducting a Government-funded study to identify which areas are the most suitable for conversion to plantations. The project is aimed at improving Britain’s energy security and reducing its reliance on imported wood.
Britain already imports more than five times as much wood in all forms, including paper, as it produces. The amount of foreign-grown timber consumed here is due to grow by 150 per cent because of plans for 16 large new biomass plants.
Many of the plants are being built at ports to enable easy access to wood imported from Canada, Brazil, Russia, South Korea and Scandinavia.
A biomass plant being built in Port Talbot, South Wales, will consume three million tonnes of wood per year, the equivalent of a third of Britain’s annual wood harvest of nine million tonnes. The plant will generate only 300 megawatt hours of electricity, or about 0.4 per cent of Britain’s current power-generating capacity.
Drax, operator of the country’s largest coal-fired power station, is planning to build three more 300megawatt biomass plants in Yorkshire.
David Clarke, the institute’s chief executive, said: “We have 2.4 million hectares of under-utilised land that is not suitable for food production. The issue is, can we use that for biomass production?
“We are looking at who owns it, what they do with it today and what would be the impact of turning it into biomass production.”
He said the institute would consider which varieties of trees and grasses would produce the most energy on different types of land. It would also study the impact of planting on uncultivated land, including the amount of carbon which would be released by disturbing the soil.
Mr Clarke said biofuel crops could deliver a net reduction in carbon emissions by being burnt in power stations equipped with carbon capture and storage systems. Ultimately, this system could help lower the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere back to a safe level.
Mr Clarke was speaking in London yesterday at a meeting with John Beddington, the Government’s chief scientific adviser. Mr Beddington welcomed the institute’s work and said Britain needed to remove all carbon emissions from its electricity generation by 2030 in order to meet its target of cutting greenhouse gases by 50 per cent by 2050.
The Forestry Commission began trials last year to measure the yields from eucalyptus planted in six areas. Unlike conifers, which take 40 years or more to produce a crop, eucalyptus can be harvested in as little as five years.
Deepak Rughani, director Biofuelwatch , which campaigns against the adverse impacts of the growing global demand for biofuels, said the converting land to plantations could be damaging to wildlife.
“We are already seeing a 50 per cent fall in our bee and butterfly populations and it could get much worse if we convert 10 per cent of Britain’s land to produce bioenergy. We should be focusing on true renewables such as wind and solar.”