Sunday, 1 November 2015

Food for fuel... anaerobic digestion... and farming in Devon

When the notion of AD or 'anaerobic digestion' comes up, it's normally about burning sewage:
Futures Forum: Good gas, bad gas........ Anaerobic Digestion and Methane from Livestock...

... or domestic waste:
Futures Forum: SVEAG: an anaerobic digestion project

However, systems need to be fed.

There is quite a debate going on in Germany about the production of 'bread for the fuel tank':

Biogas Subsidies in Germany Lead to Modern-Day Land Grab - SPIEGEL ONLINE
Futures Forum: Biofuel: food vs fuel

It is perhaps no wonder that farmers are turning to 'biofuels' or 'biogas':
Futures Forum: What is the price of milk? "It must be a crazy concept to keep borrowing money to produce something that almost all of us use and which is, somewhere along the line, making money for somebody."

The government has been promoting biogas:
Funding scheme aims to boost biogas uptake - Farmers Weekly

And many consider it a very positive contribution to renewable energy:
Growing Energy on the Farm: Biomass and Agriculture | Union of Concerned Scientists

This paper was put together in 2012 by 'Crops for Energy' in Bristol:

A dominant force in the South West is the company 'Greener for Life':
Greener for Life | Devoted to sustainable food and energy production

Recently, there has been some nimbyist response to planning applications for AD plants in the South West:
14/0858/MFUL | Construction of agricultural anaerobic digester plant for production of renewable energy | Enfield Farm Oil Mill Lane Clyst St Mary Exeter EX5 1AF
Anaerobic Digestion Plant atWilland, Devon – PlanningApplication 
Anaerobic digestion bunker Crown Hill Nomansland Greener for Life | Tiverton Mid Devon Gazette
Anaerobic digester the size of 'three Wembley stadiums' deferred by North Devon Council for site visit | North Devon Journal
Decision on biogas and pig farm applications delayed | Cornish Guardian
Residents feel 'lied to' over green digester in Higher Fraddon | Cornish Guardian

But how much of the biogas being produced comes from 'waste'?

Greener for Life state that their 'planned large scale biogas/biomethane plants' ... 'run off food waste'; and that they want to help farmers 'create a new generation of fuels using biomethane from AD plants to power their farm vehicles and inject into the grid':


We want to create a green fuel revolution by designing and building integrated community renewable energy centres. These, together with our planned large scale biogas/biomethane plants (which run off food waste) can reduce communities’ dependence on outside sources for heat, energy and fuel.
Biomethane is a greener transport fuel. It:
  • runs vehicles from fuels derived from waste products
  • reduces road vehicle tail pipe carbon dioxide emissions by up to 15%
  • produces significantly less pollutants (such as nitrogen oxide) than current fossil fuels cuts fuel bills by up to 30%
  • lengthens engine life and means vehicles require less maintenance.
Biomethane is one of the cheapest forms of renewable hydrocarbons for feeding and powering the nation. 98% of the energy from our planned larger biogas plants will be injected into the national gas grid in order to fuel food factories and run transport. We intend to power buses, trawlers and tractors with renewable biomethane to create food, fuel and energy security for the UK.
We also want to make it possible for consumers to access Greener for Life energy that comes directly from GfL farms. We are planning to get GfL dairy farmers to branch out into other food types and create a new generation of fuels using biomethane from AD plants to power their farm vehicles and inject into the grid. This will mean that consumers who are connected to the gas grid will be able fill their car up at home with GfL Fuel.


We’re installing more and more small scale AD on farms and planning to build larger biomethane plants and integrated community renewable energy centres. As it develops, our energy and fuel revolution will bring the possibility of running homes, factories, schools, buses and even cars on local and sustainable biomethane straight from the National Grid to everyone.
At present there are only around 15 compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquified natural gas (LNG) refuelling sites in the UK. However there are about 800 in Germany, illustrating biomethane’s vast potential as a vehicle fuel.
Greener for Life Fuels

How much 'biogas'/'biomethane' comes from crops grown in the UK?

Maize and wheat grain are particularly productive:

Maize silage has been shown to be one of, if not the, best agricultural feedstocks for biogas production.  When mixed with other organic wastes or used alone maize based biogas production has proved to be economic across Europe. 

Biogas | The Maize Growers Association
Feedstocks | Anaerobic Digestion

And how much 'biogas'/'biomethane' comes from crops grown in Devon?

Tiverton family farm scoops top accolade at Devon Farm Business Awards

 By Western Morning News  |  Posted: May 21, 2015
The other key element in their success has been renewable energy. After installing 30kW of roof-mounted solar-panelling on the industrial estate in 2012, they have since branched out into anaerobic digestion, with their own AD plant on the farm, and through growing some 3,000 acres of maize on a contract basis, in partnership with another local farmer, to supply other AD plants in the area.

John and Clare Clapp, who farm cereals, maize and beef on their farm at Halberton near Tiverton, were named Devon Farmer of the Year at the Devon Farm Business Awards | Western Morning News
Devon Farm Business Awards short-list shows how youth is driving progress | Devon County Show

Farm rents rise fastest in South West with anaerobic digestion

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: April 01, 2015

Farm rents in the South West rose faster than most other areas of the UK in the year up to the 2013-14 business year, with some rising by as much as 15 per cent.

Kevin Bateman, the South West's regional chairman of he Tenant Farmers' Association, said the rise in the South West was mostly attributable to anaerobic digestion plants. And, as he reeled off a dozen built or planned in the Somerset /Devon fringe, he agreed that it was putting a squeeze on more traditional aspects of farming.
"The fact is that a 1MW digester needs 1,000 acres of cropping to keep it running. The dairy boys who used to grow maize to feed their animals are finding it harder to afford the land to do that, and then the milk price is down too. And though the beef price is a bit better than it was, they're still being affected."
As well as the income from the maize going to the AD, there are other cash incentives that make the idea even more attractive – and allow more to be paid in rent while maintaining a profit. Added to which is the flexibility of where it can be grown.
"It's not tied to any specific land," said Mr Bateman. "If I wanted to plough the land up and plant 500 acres of maize to go into and AD plant, I could do that anywhere."
Farm rents rise fastest in South West with anaerobic digestion | Western Daily Press

How maize craze threatens future of West Country land

Discussion in 'Agricultural Matters' started by llamedosOct 21, 2015.

Liz Bowles , head of farming at the Soil Association, is warning that runaway maize is threatening South West farmers

In the South West we grow approximately 74,000 hectares of maize each year, more than double that of any other region in the UK.

Most is used for livestock feed but as anaerobic digesters become more common, maize is increasingly grown as a feedstock. The growth in maize production is becoming a serious problem for soils, often causing severe damage to the environment.

Maize production has increased from just 8,000 hectares in England in 1973 to around 183,000 hectares in 2014 with huge implications for our environment.

This is becoming a national scandal, especially when an increasing proportion of maize is being grown for anaerobic digestion (AD) which takes land out of the reach of livestock farmers, as the double subsidy received by AD means that farmers growing maize for this purpose can pay much higher land rentals than for any other usage.

Maize can be responsible for significant environmental damage to soils and affects water quality. It leaves soil exposed for much of the growing season, increasing surface run off, leaching nutrients from soils, and during heavy rain sending water cascading from compacted soils to pour pesticides into waterways and cause widespread flooding.

In the South West we feel the brunt of this crop's impact. In 2013 the South West was the most densely cultivated region for maize, while at the same time soils in the South West are more vulnerable to winter damage due to the amount and intensity of rainfall we receive.

The flooding of the levels is a case in point, and the disastrous effect this quantity of rainfall had on farmers forced many into dire straits. Researchers estimate that during the storms in the winter of 2013/14, every ten-hectare block of damaged land under maize stubble produced the equivalent of 15 Olympic swimming pools (375 million litres) of additional runoff.

It is time for our Government to take notice of the damaging nature of maize when not grown following best practice, and to adopt legislation to outlaw such practices so that maize is only grown following best practice. This means under-sowing maize crops, sowing early maturing varieties, not growing maize on the same field year in year out and not growing maize on unsuitable fields.

Our soils are in crisis and if we do not act soon we may cause permanent harm to our land. The boom in maize cultivation is fuelled by the popularity of its use as a so-called biofuel in anaerobic digesters. As this 'green' energy increases, the threat to our soil will grow.

Biogas produced from maize not only provides no net benefit to the environment, it actually increases environmental degradation and reduces the amount of land available to produce food. Recent research also concluded that 'using agricultural crops for biogas production is not environmentally sustainable, and policy should not encourage this practice'. We are already seeing the vast damage nationwide this crop is causing and without sufficient guidance in place, farmers will have no options in safeguarding their land from environmental damage. Many farmers are literally being paid to cause significant harm to the vital resources we rely on for survival.

Increased maize production drives up farmland rents, as investors rush to lease land for maize cultivation, and benefit from double subsidies. Maize growers are subsidised under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and AD plants using maize receive the Feed-in Tariff and the Renewable Heat Incentive subsidies. In 2015 the total amount that will be paid to farmers growing maize amounts to almost £33 million.

This puts further pressure on our struggling livestock farmers who need to rent pasture for their livestock. In addition, 'renewable' energy subsidies for maize used in AD plants are costing British energy consumers up to £50 million per year.

The Soil Association is calling for the removal of all subsidies available for AD digesters fuelled in whole or partly by maize. We hope that this will reverse the explosion in maize and prevent the UK following Germany's lead into a country where agriculture is set to growing energy, not food. The UK already imports 40 per cent of all food consumed and this is expected to increase. Giving up land which could be producing food threatens our food security and makes us vulnerable to volatile global markets.

It is very possible to grow maize to better standards that reduce the risks to soils and the environment, but we do not currently have a policy in place to encourage this. Some farmers are already using maize to their advantage, but not enough of them.

But we can reverse this trend. Changes to practices in growing maize more sustainably and reducing the impacts to soil and water include planting a winter cover crop or green cover after harvesting so soil is not left bare throughout the winter, and improves the structure and drainage of soil. Use of early maturing varieties means an earlier harvest, which allows time for the planting of winter cover and minimises compaction.

Increasingly farmers in the South West are being helped to develop better practice for maize growing as this will help them keep their soils healthy. However there is still a lot of late harvested maize grown here. Some 75 per cent of late harvested sites (in the South West) showed high or severe levels of soil degradation, leading to enhanced water runoff.

Clearer policy measures for maize growing are needed together with removal of double subsidies for AD feedstock crops, but until these are produced by the Government it is up to farmers to make decisions based on the productivity of their own land in order to maintain soil quality.

How maize craze threatens future of West Country land | The Farming Forum

Last year, George Monbiot in the Guardian wrote a scathing piece:

How a false solution to climate change is damaging the natural world

In growing maize for biogas, the crop that does most damage to the soil is being specifically exempted from the rules

 A harvester collects maize in a field at Severn Trent's crop fed power plant in Stoke Bardolph, near Nottingham, UK, on 27 September, 2010. Severn Trent Plc started generating electricity from the UK's first commercial-scale crop-fed power plant as the utility seeks to lower its carbon emissions by using an emerging form of renewable power. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

In principle it's a brilliant solution. Instead of leaving food waste and sewage and animal manure to decay in the open air, releasing methane which contributes to global warming, you can contain it, use micro-organisms to digest it, and capture the gas.
Biogas from anaerobic digestion could solve several problems at once. As well as a couple of million tonnes of sewage sludge, the UK produces between 16-18m tonnes of food waste, much of which still goes into landfill. Farms in this country generate around 100m tonnes of animal manure and slurry, a major cause of water pollution. It could all be processed in digesters. A tonne of food waste can produce about 300 kilowatt hours of energy: the UK's discarded food, the renewable industry says, could generate enough electricity for 350,000 households. The residue can be used as fertiliser.
It was also a brilliant idea to turn waste chip fat into biodiesel. But the incentives to produce biodiesel, often justified by the claim that they would make use of waste, have created multiple ecological disasters. They have encouraged farmers to feed cars rather than people and financed the conversion of rainforests in Indonesia, Malaysia and West Africa into oil palm plantations, driving orangutans and many other species to the brink of extinction. In most cases, biodiesel, as a result of the changes in land use, has much higher greenhouse gas emissions than the fossil fuel it replaces.

Maize for anaerobic digestion at  Severn Trent's crop fed power plant in Stoke Bardolph
 A tractor loads maize silage into hoppers. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

Biogas is now going the same way. Provide the money to do the right thing and if you're not careful it will be used to do the wrong thing.
Part of the problem is that there's not enough money on offer to make the conversion of waste alone economically viable. That's because the yields of gas are often quite low. For example, slurry from cattle and pigs produces only 15 to 25 cubic metres (m3) of biogas per tonne of material. Purpose-grown crops are much more productive. Grass silage produces 160-200m3 per tonne, while silage made from maize (which in the US is called corn) generates 200-220m3, and potatoes 280-400m3.
Economic modelling commissioned by the government tested eight different mixes with which farmers could feed an anaerobic digester, to try to work out which were profitable. All of them included grass, wheat, maize or potatoes, and in some cases the models specified a higher tonnage of these specially grown crops than the waste the digesters are supposed to process. As maize has both a high yield per hectare and a high yield of biogas per tonne, it has become what the farming press calls the biogas "core crop". There could scarcely be a better formula for subverting everything biogas is supposed to achieve.

Maize for anaerobic digestion at  Severn Trent's crop fed power plant in Stoke Bardolph
 John Jackson, a farm manager, inspects the gas compressor area. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

The first and most obvious problem is that it means taking land out of food production. According to Farmers' Guardian, a biogas plant with a capacity of one megawatt, "requires 20,000-25,000 tonnes [of maize] a year, accounting for 450-500 hectares of land".
Consider, when you read that, that the average capacity of an offshore wind turbine is four megawatts. Four hundred and fifty hectares of land or one concrete pillar in the seabed – can there be any doubt about which is the better option?
And this isn't any old land, but prime arable fields. Another article in the same magazine reveals:
"Maize-growing in the UK is being concentrated into more intense and specialised regions while some growers in marginal areas have opted out of the crop. This trend is being compounded by the rapid growth of maize for biogas production, represented by the high dry matter, later-maturing varieties which are unsuited to marginal sites."
It reports that the area of maize being grown for biogas in the UK has trebled to 15,000 hectares in the past two years alone, and is likely to rise to 25,000 hectares next year. This is an astonishing rate of growth. If, as the National Farmers Union (NFU) advocates, 1,000 medium-sized biogas plants are built by 2020, and maize supplements the slurry and manure they process, that will mean the use of between 100,000 and 125,000 hectares.

Biffa Anaerobic Digestion Recycling Plant
 Biffa's anaerobic digestion plant in Cannock, England. Photograph: Diensen Pamben/Getty Images

So when you hear the NFU insisting that we cannot remove even the most barren land (such as hills which can support only one sheep on every two hectares) from farming for the purpose of rewilding and flood prevention because that might have an impact on our food supply, remember that the same organisation wants 100,000 hectares of the best land in Britain to be taken out of food growing and used instead for gas.
But it gets worse, because maize farming could scarcely be better designed to cause soil erosion, compaction and run-off, which threaten the fertility of the land, the health of our freshwater ecosystems and the homes at risk from flooding.
As the government department responsible for regulating farming points out:

"Soils are most susceptible to erosion when they are left exposed with little or no vegetation cover … maize is susceptible to soil erosion since ground cover is slow to develop after sowing, and the soil surface can be poorly protected until mid-summer."
After harvesting, maize fields tend to be left bare until the following spring, without the dense stubble that helps to protect the soil after other cereal crops have been cut.
paper in the journal Soil Use and Management reports that 75% of the maize fields it sampled in south-western England "were found to have degraded structure generating enhanced surface-water run-off".
That means more flooding, more soil loss, more siltation, more trouble all round.
Maize, which comes from the sub-tropics, requires a great deal of fertiliser and pesticide to grow well in this country, and much of this washes off with the soil, into the rivers and the sea, helping to wipe out many of the animals they harbour.
So you'd expect the government to apply stringent rules to the way maize is grown. But only if you had no idea how the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) really operates. What it has done – astonishingly - is to remove maize from the rules which govern other crops.
I have stated this before, and the NFU claims it isn't true.
So let me direct the NFU to a document which its officers should know like the backs of their hands: the Guide to Cross Compliance in England, 2014. This contains all the rules that farmers must abide by if they are to receive their subsidies. The guide makes just one mention of maize, and it goes as follows:
"Post-harvest management of land. If your land has carried a crop of oil-seeds, grain legumes or cereals (other than maize) which has been harvested by either combine harvester or mower, then: You must meet one of the following conditions on that land …"
In other words the crop that does most damage to the soil is specifically exempted from the rules designed to protect the soil. I have asked Defra six times for an explanation, and it has failed on all of these occasions to provide one. My conclusion, which holds until it deigns to provide an answer, is that maize could not be grown in this country if it were subject the rules that apply to other crops.
If you want to know where we might be heading, take a look at Germany. Two years ago Der Spiegel reported:
"Subsidies for the biogas industry have led to entire regions of the country being covered by the crop … Plans called for transforming Germany into a bio-wonderland by peppering it with numerous small eco-power plants. What resulted was a revolution in the fields, a subsidised gold rush – and an ecological disaster. Corn [maize] is now being grown on 810,000 hectares in Germany."
As a result, "for the first time in 25 years, Germany couldn't produce enough grain to meet its own needs."
On some soils, the German Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union estimates: "growing corn releases 700 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every kilowatt hour of energy it produces. And this happens for years on end. This is comparable to the carbon-released-to-power-produced ratio of some coal-fired power plants."
In other words, it's the biodiesel story, all over again.
Because the anaerobic digestion of waste food and slurry makes sense, I don't want to see a biogas moratorium imposed. But I would like to see a ban on the use of all purpose-grown feedstocks. To make biogas viable, this ban would have to be accompanied by an increase in the subsidies available for converting waste. Yes, that means extra expense, but it's got to be a better deal than trashing the food supply, the soil, the rivers and our living rooms – all in the name of protecting the planet.

How a false solution to climate change is damaging the natural world | George Monbiot | Environment | The Guardian
The Biogas Disaster | George Monbiot 
Ripping Apart the Fabric of the Nation | George Monbiot

With an interesting take from Conservative Home:

Monbiot, as always, comes at the issue from a leftwing and deep green perspective. Furthermore, his antagonists in the agricultural lobby present any effort to enforce sustainable practice as excessive regulation. Thus, as Conservatives, we may be tempted to follow our instincts and side with British farmers.
But let’s not forget that it is taxpayers’ money that’s at stake here – and if it to be taken from them at all, then in should be used in their interests.
Ultimately, it is in all of our interests – environmentalists, taxpayers and farmers alike – to, quite literally, hold on to our country:
“You want to get Britain out of Europe? Well how about ensuring that our soils stop ending up on the coastlines of France and Holland and Germany?” 

George Monbiot says defend British soil and crackdown on subsidy junkies: how’s that for a Conservative agenda? | Conservative Home

With a comment from arch-sceptic Matt Ridley:

Anaerobic digestion: a lucrative way of subsidising farmers (yet again) to grow perfectly good food for burning instead of eating. Contrary to myth, nearly all the energy comes from crops such as maize (once fermented into gas), not from food waste. Expensive.

Renewable energy is not working | Matt Ridley

And to finish, a comment on the government's preference for biogas over solar:

Currently around 18,000 acres of mostly poor quality grazing land is covered by solar PV and sheep continue to graze most of it. Liz Truss announced that the farmers who have solar will no longer receive any SPS subsidy on the land covered by the panels. The subsidy is so meagre it is insignificant compared with the income from the PV installation.

At the same time around 40,000 acres of prime quality arable farm land is out of food production to grow maize just for use in AD plants to produce electricity. The National Farmers Union forecast that by 2020 this figure will increase to over 200,000 acres. 

Meanwhile the farmer growing the maize will still receive the SPS subsidy although the crop grown is not for human consumption but as a biomass feedstock for anaerobic digestion.
DECC obviously know nothing about farming and even less about maize as a feedstock either for cattle or an AD plant.

Defra minister claims solar farms are ‘trashing the countryside’ | Solar Power Portal

Of course, it depends what you mean by 'green':
Green Claims Guidance - February 2011 - www.defra.gov.uk
Biogas - fracking's green sister? | Greenpeace UK

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