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Energy in the future: electricity that grows on trees

Friday 25 January 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has long campaigned for rural prosperity alongside proper conservation, discusses the latest rural row which he hopes, but doubts, will be quickly settled

ONE of the regular rockets fired at me by my irate mother when I was a lad, and one which I used many times years later on my own children, was: "This place is like a lighthouse. Do you think electricity grows on trees?"

Why young people are incapable of understanding that a light switch works in two ways I have never understood. In these days of soaring energy costs, it is becoming an ever more important question. But the answer has now reversed: "Yes, power can grow on trees - and might well be doing so in a big way in the next few years."

Suitable for biofuel?
Suitable for biofuel?

Parliament was told this week that, in our efforts to cut carbon emissions to what many people consider to be impossible target levels, we must grow more biofuels: crops that can be converted into petrol and diesel for motor vehicles and others than can help us produce electricity.

And, as with any proposal which these days pits the rural economy against the conservation movement, the great biofuel-v-biomass debate ignited. And make no mistake, it will go on for years.

To explain, biofuels for transport can be made from many different crop plants depending on the local climate: some nations use water hyacinths, others wheat. Biomass, on the other hand, comes mainly from fast-growing timber that can be burned in powers stations adapted to give off very few carbon gasses.

But already the debate has started between various bodies with rural interests, many of them highly regarded in the countryside. Trouble is, on the face of it some of those interests appear to be mutually contradictory.

Farmers and landowners, for obvious reasons, are strongly in favour of biofuel crops which grow well in parts of Yorkshire: sugar beat, oilseed rape and even wheat, although that seems an unlikely candidate as wheat imports from abroad are already drying up as those countries switch to large scale bio-fuel production.

But the widespread use of such crops is opposed by conservation bodies like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which fears that this would create vast acreages of mono-culture crops, exacerbating a trend which in the past 50 years has gone much harm to bird species like skylarks, plovers and - in the Yorkshire Dales - yellow wagtails.

Instead, the RSPB would prefer big scale biomass planting of trees like willows, which can be harvested as fuel in not much more than a decade. More trees would mean more nesting places and more insect life to provide food for birds. In between these two comes landscape protection charities like the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) which issued a statement yesterday (January 23) demanding that any biofuel programme must no lead to the large scale destruction of the countryside (See News).

Farmers and landowners, for obvious reasons, are strongly in favour of biofuel crops which grow well in parts of Yorkshire

Ian Woodhurst, CPRE's senior rural campaigner complained: 'We need to assess how much of our farmland can be used for bioenergy crops and then plan how to grow and process these crops in ways that do not damage the character of our countryside so that our landscapes and wildlife sites don't suffer.

"The Government needs to avoid sacrificing the quality of our countryside and its wildlife just to meet targets to provide biofuel for cars."

Trouble is, with typically British unpreparedness, we have squandered the chance to be in the lead in both technologies - even here in Yorkshire. A willow-growing experiment in biomass production in the East Riding was abandoned some years ago. And sugar beet production - a favourite for biofuel crops in our climate - almost ground to a halt when British Sugar closed it plant near Tadcaster two years ago.

Hey-ho! Here we go again: years of bitterness and in-fighting beckon as oil from the Middle East threatens to be engulfed by war and our natural gas supply from Russia could be cut off overnight on the whim of President Putin or one of his minions. Stop squabbling, children, or those lights could go out forever.

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