East Anglia: CLA regional director on straw-fuelled power plants

TWO planning applications are being made locally for straw fuelled power stations, one at Mendlesham and the other at Snetterton.

We already have two straw burning power stations in the region, at Ely and another in south Lincolnshire.

On the face of it this sounds like a very sensible idea, increasing the use of renewable energy by using a ‘waste’ product from arable farming and thereby creating a new market for arable farmers.

Except that it is not that simple. Straw is essential for livestock producers. Here in Suffolk we have a quarter of the country’s outdoor pig herd and outdoor pigs need straw, lots and lots of straw. In addition there are our grazing livestock, the sheep flocks and beef, and dairy herds. Grazing livestock produce the meat which underwrites the local food economy. They are also the animals which are key to the management of our environmental areas. Livestock create jobs, some 3,500 in Norfolk and Suffolk from the pig industry alone.

But there is another equally important side to this debate: Our soils. Soil needs organic matter to sustain long term fertility. Many arable farmers chop and plough in straw to return organic material along with nutrients such as potash and phosphates, both essential to plant growth, expensive to buy and with supplies under pressure. Our soils are a living organism full of microbes, there is much more to their make up than just the gritty rock particles they originate from. Essential micro bacteria need the organic matter to complete their cycles and ensure fertility.

Straw is no longer the waste product it was perceived to be ten years ago. Once when mixed faming was economically viable there was much more manure around to provide this organic matter but now there are many arable farmers who would not dream of letting the straw off their land because it is essential to the long term health of their soils. Those who do bale and sell straw to livestock farmers tend to do so on an exchange system, ensuring that they receive manure in return.

And we all know we need to grow more food to feed the ever increasing world population.

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There is a third problem; straw supply. The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) census indicates that there is not enough straw in this region to supply all these power stations. Straw is bulky so expensive to haul long distances because it requires lots of fuel. Varieties are being bred with shorter stalks so there is less straw.

But it is easy to see how we reached this conundrum.

The Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has legally binding targets to cut Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. To tick their boxes they want as many straw fed or biomass power stations as possible, after all, reducing GHGs is the right thing to do, the last thing we need is severe climate change along with rising sea levels and all those productive coastal lands disappearing under the sea.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has been told to make sure we produce as much food as sustainably possible to feed increasing population numbers both here and overseas. After all, long term food security is the right thing to work towards, and we all know we need sound healthy soils to grow this food over a prolonged period.

Nationally, there are 16 operational dedicated biomass power stations with a capacity of 305MW requiring 1.6 million tones per annum (mt pa) and a further 40 plants in planning or proposed. These will require a further 35.5mt pa to produce 4,299MW. Not all biomass feed stock is straw. To put that into context in the UK we are now consuming some 1,700 terawatt-hour per year (TWh) of energy per year and rising (1 TWh/year = 114 MW).

Eco2, the company behind the Mendlesham Renewable Energy Plant argues it is creating a use for straw which currently has no market. It says it will be offering ‘lengthy supply contracts with a long lead time and consistent, predictable demand’. Therefore it does not see that the plant will disrupt existing straw supplies or increase prices as it expects the increased demand to be met by increased supply with the market adapting accordingly.

Mendlesham will create 200 jobs whilst under construction and 30 permanent jobs on the site once the plant is operational as well as increasing work for contractors in baling and carting straw. The ash residue from the plant will be sold as a fertilizer.

This debate which is taking place in Suffolk is one that needs to be had nationally. There are no easy answers. What should we do? Use the straw to create renewable energy and help cut GHG emissions or plough in the straw to protect our soils whilst still ensuring there is enough for our livestock farmers so we can all have enough to eat?

What do readers think?