Renew On Line (UK)

   Welcome   Archives   Bulletin         

Network for Alternative Technology and Technology Assessment

Rural Renewables

Most renewable sources are in rural areas, so why can't we use them to underpin failing rural economies? Some farmers and local community based organisations have already taken up the wind farm option, and locally owned wind farms can certainly help feed cash into the local economy. Micro hydro is another option, but that is even more site specific. Some farmers burn straw in special plants or use animal wastes to generate biogas to use on the farm for power. But a more obvious agricultural option is growing energy crops, such as willow, for sale to local or regional power plants for electricity production. That's already happening with the ARBRE wood chip burning plant in Yorkshire. But the idea could spread. So too could the idea of growing crops for conversion into transport fuel

What are the implications?

Energy crops

Over the past few years there has been a debate over whether it was sensible or not to use some agricultural land, especially surplus 'set aside' land, for energy crops, such as oil seed rape and short rotation willow coppices. Surely it made more sense to grow energy crops than to pay farmers for doing nothing, and the use of the fuel produced by energy crops could be greenhouse neutral if the rate of use equalled the rate of replanting- although you also have to remember the energy used in production, processing and distribution of the resultant biofuels.

The most obvious argument against energy cropping is that in a world where starvation is common, it would be immoral not to use land for food growing. However, the reality is more complex. The main reason why there is surplus land is that there is overproduction of food in the West, due to the adoption of highly productive intensive farming methods- basically the replacement of labour by energy, in the form of fertilisers, herbicides and other chemicals, and power for agricultural machines. The EU's Common Agricultural Policy sought to protect farmer profits by limiting output and the easiest way to do that is to limit the amount of land used.

The organic farming lobby argues, reasonably enough, that it would be far better in energy, environmental and food quality terms, to move away from intensive farming- which would require less energy but more land (and more labour) if the same level of output was required. The food quality issue seems clear- organics are better for us and for the environment. But the question remains - would a low intensity, low energy, farming system be better overall in energy terms than a mixed system of highly intensive food farming coupled with energy cropping on the spare land.

But there is also the option of using land to grow transport fuels, like oil seed rape. The usual argument is that the productivity of liquid biofuel production (e.g. 'green diesel' from oil seed rape) is too low and that (quite apart from its other attractions) organic food farming was therefore probably a better bet overall in terms of energy. This contention is controversial- if some of the co-products of biofuel production are also used, then the energy balance, the ratio of energy needed for energy crops production and the energy produced from the crops, looks better for liquid fuels.

Nevertheless, it is fairly widely accepted that the production of liquid biofuels is a less attractive option than short rotation coppicing- the energy balance for the latter is much better, although, we do have to worry about the impact of large energy crop plantations on biodiversity, and the competing claim for land for re-afforrestation. The latter could also make a contribution to reducing carbon dioxide levels, although there are limits to the efficacy of storing carbon in trees- they eventually decay and can burn in forest fires, thus releasing the carbon again.

However, the final assessment will no doubt in the end be based on economics- and will reflect the different levels of subsidy available for these various options and also the value of the final product. In some parts of the EU, green diesel production and/or use is subsidised for environmental reasons ( and, one might add, in some places, to placate farmers). Moreover, fuels for vehicles can usually command higher prices than fuels for power production. That of course opens up the wider issue of what the biofuels are used for. Green diesel may be better than conventional diesel in environmental terms (although this is sometimes disputed), but, in terms of sustainable transport, while there may be some sensible use for it ( for examples buses and inland boating), do we really want to support the use of cars and trucks? Maybe there is not alternative - a green car is batter than no car if there is no other suitable form of transport available.


Wood chip production from short rotation coppice (SRC) on set aside land, used for direct heating or to fuel power plants, can be an attractive option in energy and environmental terms- and, while there may be some niche markets for them, seems to make more sense than producing liquid biofuel . But it is a land using option, and it would be better in food quality terms to use the land to shift back to less intensive food farming. That said, the net difference in energy terms, between a system with just organic farming and one using conventional farming plus the set aside land for energy cropping, may not be very large, especially when you take into account the energy needed to distribute organic food. ( Until organic farming is widespread, for most consumers it will have to be transported over long distances).

In the end, it will no doubt come down to the economics. So far SRC does not look very economically attractive, although things are progressing: the NFFO-3 contracts provided an average subsidised price of 8p/kWh, but that for NFFO-4 was only 5.5p/kWh. However it will have to fall a lot more, or the level of subsidies will have to increase a lot, if farmers are to see SRC as a way to balance their incomes from conventional food production- or to subsidise organic farming. But even so, a bit of SRC could help ensure a more diverse pattern of income- and diversity in land use patterns.

However, the potential for diversification is undermined by the situation 'on the ground'. You would think that farmers would select the best land for the most productive crop, but in practice they usually select for the most subsidised crop. If we want to move to a more sustainable approach, then clearly the ground rules will have to change.

NATTA/Renew Subscription Details

Renew is the bi-monthly 30 plus page newsletter of NATTA, the Network for Alternative Technology and Technology Assessment. NATTA members gets Renew free. NATTA membership cost £18 pa (waged) £12pa (unwaged), £6 pa airmail supplement (Please make cheques payable to 'The Open University', NOT to 'NATTA')

Details from NATTA , c/o EERU,
The Open University,
Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA
Tel: 01908 65 4638 (24 hrs)

The full 32 (plus) page journal can be obtained on subscription
The extracts here only represent about 25% of it.

This material can be freely used as long as it is not for commercial purposes and full credit is given to its source.

The views expressed should not be taken to necessarily reflect the views of all NATTA members, EERU or the Open University.