Wheat Eater: Giant UK Biofuel Plant Opens

It’s not biofuel from a nonfood crop, the rather elusive holy grail of alternative fuels, but backers of a newly opened plant in U.K. – the biggest in the nation – say it will provide big greenhouse gas benefits producing ethanol from feed wheat.

A joint venture of AB Sugar, BP and DuPont, the new Vivergo plant in Hull will process 1.2 million tons of wheat to produce 110 million gallons of bioethanol a year, the company said, and that fuel “will offer greenhouse gas savings in excess of 50 percent over standard petrol.”

vivergo wheat ethanol

A load of wheat is tipped into the plant (image via Vivergo)

Virvego emphasized that this is feed wheat, not stuff that would go for human consumption. It claimed a couple of other attributes working in its favor, saying “the UK is one of the most efficient agricultural bases in the world, and therefore produces a surplus,” and that nearly half of the wheat that will go into the plant will come out as high-protein livestock feed.

And yet familiar notes of dissent were heard. “This is not a good thing,” Kenneth Richter of Friends of the Earth told The Guardian newspaper. “We haven’t got wheat to burn, and the UK has recently turned from being an exporter of wheat to a net importer. The weather has played a big part, but it shows that we haven’t got spare wheat.”

The plant opening Hull, which was expected years ago, comes as the European Union wrestles with the question of which biofuels sourced from which feedstocks and made through which processes really do provide a GHG benefit.

One key result of a recently released EU study focused on the issue of indirect land use change, perhaps the most controversial aspect of biofuels production, one that can often tip the debate one way or the other. Accounting for ILUC reduces the amount of bioenergy that can be produced, but more significantly it alters the bioenergy mix,” the study said. “In particular most first generation biofuel pathways are excluded as including ILUC renders their GHG balance negative.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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