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New research: Some biofuels could benefit wildlife

MiscanthusIncreasing the cultivation of willow and miscanthus grass as biofuel stock wouldn’t come with the wildlife damage often seen with other energy crops, according to UK researchers.

Both short-rotation coppice (SRC) willow and miscanthus grass could help the UK reduce carbon emissions and benefit wildlife, according to scientists from the UK Research Councils’ Rural Economy and Land Use Programme.

The research project — led by an interdisciplinary team from the universities of East Anglia and Exeter, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology — aimed to identify the effects of increasing the amount of land used to grow SRC willow and miscanthus.  Their team’s calculations suggest that planting such biomass crops to generate electricity leads to net savings in greenhouse gases, compared with current emissions.

SRC willow and miscanthus are already grown over about 17,000 hectares in the UK to provide electricity and heat.  Government policies aim to increase that to around one million hectares, with some of the biomass available for processing into transport fuels.  However, some have expressed concerns about those policies’ likely effects on farmland biodiversity, water resources and familiar landscapes, as well as the pressures on land used for growing food crops.

The researchers found that the SRC willow in particular actually had positive effects for butterflies, some invertebrates and most bird species.  Looking at water usage, they found that SRC willow is similar to cereal crops, while miscanthus is more comparable to woodlands.

The team also consulted members of the public about the changes to landscape appearance that would result from growing these novel crops, using virtual-reality computer simulations.  Most people showed little concern about the aesthetic effects of the planting, although some expressed worries about lorry movements and processing units.

“Fields of SRC willow and the exotic grass miscanthus are still quite unfamiliar in the UK countryside and it is important to look at all the implications of increasing the hectarage,” said research team leader Angela Karp of Rothamsted Research. “Our results suggest that there is definite potential for growing more of them, without negative effects, although we do find that sensitive plantation design would be beneficial, both for wildlife and for aesthetic impact.”

Karp added, “One of the outcomes from our project is detailed mapping across England, which identifies areas which could be suitable for growing energy crops.  This shows that we could meet government objectives of growing 350,000 hectares of these for electricity without impacting on food production.  However, to meet an additional 750,000 for transport fuels would increase pressure on available land.”

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