United Utilities funds energy crop project
United Utilities has partnered with Cheshire farmers to grow biomass crops in its groundwater safeguard zones, as a way of reducing nitrates leaching into groundwater.
The water firm is running a trial on 10 hectares of catchment land, but grants will be offered to any eligible farmer who is interested in growing a hybrid variety of Miscanthus, also known as Chinese silver grass.
United Utilities is funding 70% of the start-up costs, including purchase and planting, and will be monitoring the impact of the crop on nitrate leaching with porous pots. Nitrogen can leach into groundwater when it rains and adversely affect the raw water quality in the underground aquifers.
United Utilities catchment advisor Veronika Moore said: “Miscanthus doesn’t require fertiliser during its lifetime (just a small amount to help aid establishment), because it retains a large proportion of the nutrients in the rhizomes rather than in the biomass. Therefore, nitrogen and nutrient requirements are very low.”
The market for biomass crops – crops which are grown specifically to be harvested and burnt in power stations, combined heat and power (CHP) units or heating systems – is increasing. This is in response to several power and heat projects being developed across the UK which use biomass, including Miscanthus.
Miscanthus species are woody, perennial, rhizomatous grasses, originating from Asia, which have the potential to give very high yields (14 oven dry tonnes per hectare per year) under UK conditions. Miscanthus can be used to produce heat, CHP or electric power on a range of scales from large power stations, requiring hundreds of thousands of tonnes of biomass annually, to small-scale systems (on-farm or single building) requiring just a few dozen tonnes during winter months.
As well as energy, Miscanthus is also used as high value equine bedding and sustainable composite materials for markets such as the production of biodegradable plastics and fibres for car parts.
Moore added: “Miscanthus is planted in spring and, once planted, can remain in the ground for ten to fifteen years. First year growth is insufficient to be economically worth harvesting. New shoots emerge around March each year, growing rapidly in June/July, producing bamboo-like canes. The Miscanthus dies back in the autumn.
“The leaves fall off, providing nutrients for the soil and suppressing weed growth the following year, and the canes are harvested in early spring. This growth pattern is repeated every year for the lifetime of the crop, and the annual harvest gives an annual income to the farmer.”
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