Investing in the Bio-economy
Incompetent policy making is wasting taxpayers money, undermining the ability of British engineers and scientists to develop innovative renewable energy solutions.
Chairing a session at ADBA’s Research & Development Forum at Southampton University last month highlighted the extent to which Government policy mistakes are having unintended consequences, undermining British firms in the renewables sector and wasting our taxes.
In a programme that covered topics like the role of bio-refineries, funding innovation, my session focused on R&D for feedstocks for anaerobic digestion (AD). Instead of exploring how feedstocks could be better digested, the entire focus was on growing new crops for digestion.
This illustrates how the AD sector in the UK is being distorted by inept policy making. Not only are developers building plants that are too large, inefficient and constrained by issues like digestate disposal, but too many plants just process crops grown for the digester. This is not economically or environmentally sustainable. No account is taken of the carbon costs of growing these crops.
Our taxpayer funded research institutes are promoting projects looking at novel crops for AD, including high fibre plants like miscanthus or seaweed, plus crops like algae that are expensive to grow in commercial conditions. WHY? When most British AD companies recognise that the best feedstocks for AD are bio-degradable wastes from households, factories and farms.
Politicians and officials in DECC and DEFRA have made decisions in recent years that are limiting the development of the AD sector. Instead of a range of scale and technologies the focus has been on:
plants that are too large and expensive , that are
not working well or rewarding investors as expected,
not particularly efficient or environmentally sensitive,
are not always using the most appropriate feedstocks,
while some of them are not located in the right places.
Digesters should be treating bio-wastes or production residues from retailers, households, catering, plus farms and food and beverage processing sites – on an appropriate scale to minimise disruption to local communities. More renewable energy can be generated on a decentralised basis but this requires a re-think on deployment of AD and support for renewables investment.
Crop material can be used as AD feedstock but not the sole input – as is the case in too many plants. R&D is being driven by misplaced policy objectives. The sustainability of the AD sector is being undermined, playing into the hands of climate change sceptics and misleading the green lobby.
After the General Election we must rethink policy and change the regulatory framework, including:
Smaller plants that service local communities, dealing with bio-wastes where they are produced, not in over-sized merchant plants that are inefficient and uneconomic.
Regulation that promotes sustainable behaviour – such as treating food waste from rural areas in community plants or allowing on-farm AD plants to take local food waste.
Limiting purpose grown crops to a proportion of AD feedstocks (maybe under 30%) if the plants are to qualify for incentive payments funded by the taxpayers or consumers.
The next Government will have a number of pressing priorities but it must put more common sense into sustainability objectives and renewables policy. Ministers should focus on value for money for taxpayers. Not promoting cultivation of crops that are just harvested for AD plants. Crops should be grown for food or as industrial raw materials and the processing residues fed to AD plants.
The AD industry and other biogas stakeholders should look at the wider sustainability of what they do. AD is a key part of the emerging bio-economy and can contribute to more effective closed loop infrastructure as part of the circular economy.
The bio-economy involves the invention, development, production and use of biological products and processes, including production of crop based feedstocks for industrial processes or generation of renewable energy.
The circular economy is a generic term for ‘restorative’ industrial activity – where material flows include bio-feedstocks, the use of which protects the environment and helps decouple growth from over use of natural resources.
Those of us who are active in the bio-economy must put pressure on politicians to make decisions that encourage companies that are boosting green growth, creating green jobs and green export opportunities. Ministers should bring together entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists and policy makers in a cross government bio-economy action group.
The new Government should start with an independent review of the bio-economy. An individual the heart of Government must take a lead in developing and coordinating policy relating to the wider circular economy – to avoid further policy mistakes.