Burning biomass to generate electricity, love it or hate it, is a renewable energy strategy that is getting a  fair amount of attention. Though not without its challenges, the process presents certain appeal considering it provides an option for converting existing fossil fuel-based energy plants into cleaner energy sources.. The U.K., which is committed to meeting 15 percent of all energy and 30 per cent electricity demand via renewable sources by 2020, seems to think using biomass to generate electricity is important enough that the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) funded a study that looked into the potential of planting short rotation poplar and willow trees around England to be used as energy crops.

The study, which was led by Professor Gail Taylor from the University of Southampton, took into account social, economic and environmental constraints and concluded that, with efficient land use, England could grow enough biomass to generate about 4% of the U.K.’s current electricity demands without impacting food production or comprising environmental sustainability.

UK energy crop
image via University of Southampton

The  University of Southampton research maintains that new technology will allow the use of biofuels made from ‘lignocellulosic’ crops such as willow and poplar as opposed to biofuels made from ‘cellulosic’ crops like wheat and corn. Unlike wheat and corn, willow and poplar trees can be grown on agricultural land that is considered to be poor in quality.

To determine England’s potential for growing such crops, the study developed guidelines stipulating that crops only be planted on land that had no impact on ecosystem services, did not conflict with food production, would return a profit and didn’t displace alternative land uses that offer greater savings.

The study suggests that while over 39% of land in England cannot be used due to agronomic or legislative restrictions, enough poor quality, or “marginal land” exists to support production of 7.5 million tons of biomass-enough to provide 4% of the entire U.K.’s electricity needs and 1% of  its general energy needs.

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