Perennial energy crops could be good for carbon savings and for wildlife

September 16, 2009
Fields of miscanthus in the English landscape

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

Dr Angela Karp at Rothamsted Research led an interdisciplinary team from the universities of and Exeter, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, in a major research project to identify the effects of increasing the amount of land used to grow these new crops.  Their calculations suggest that planting biomass crops to generate electricity does lead to net savings in greenhouse gases, compared with current emissions.

SRC willow and miscanthus are already grown over c17,000 hectares in the UK to provide electricity and heat.  Government policies aim to encourage up to around one million hectares, some of which could also be processed into transport fuels.  But concerns have been raised about the 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. 

Dr Angela Karp said: “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.

“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.

“One of the outcomes from our project is detailed mapping across England, which identifies areas which could be suitable for growing energy .  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.”

Provided by Newcastle University

Explore further: Biofuels: More than just ethanol

Related Stories

Biofuels: More than just ethanol

April 5, 2007

As the United States looks to alternate fuel sources, ethanol has become one of the front runners. Farmers have begun planting corn in the hopes that its potential new use for corn will be a new income source. What many ...

Energy crops take a roasting

May 21, 2008

A process used to roast coffee beans could give Britain's biomass a power boost, increasing the energy content of some of the UK’s leading energy crops by up to 20 per cent.

Pollinator decline not reducing crop yields just yet

November 10, 2008

( -- The well-documented worldwide decline in the number of bees and other pollinators is not, at this stage, limiting global crop yields, according to the results of an international study published in the latest ...

Recommended for you

A better way to read the genome

October 9, 2015

UConn researchers have sequenced the RNA of the most complicated gene known in nature, using a hand-held sequencer no bigger than a cell phone.

Threat posed by 'pollen thief' bees uncovered

October 9, 2015

A new University of Stirling study has uncovered the secrets of 'pollen thief' bees - which take pollen from flowers but fail to act as effective pollinators - and the threat they pose to certain plant species.

Mapping the protein universe

October 9, 2015

To understand how life works, figure out the proteins first. DNA is the architect of life, but proteins are the workhorses. After proteins are built using DNA blueprints, they are constantly at work breaking down and building ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.