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12 Jul 2013 00:00
Arguments over whether biofuels are a sustainable use of crops have raged for the past decade
Vivergo's plant at Saltend in the Humber estuary, opened with a £350-million investment, will take in 1.1-million tonnes a year of wheat that would otherwise be used for animal feed and produce an estimated 420-million litres a year of ethanol, which will be mixed with petrol and used in vehicles.
A by-product of the process is high-protein feed for livestock, with about 500 000 tonnes expected a year.
Vivergo said the construction and implementation of the plant had already created or had helped to support more than 1 000 jobs, and there will be 80 full-time staff at the site.
Renewable energy experts and farming representatives hailed the new plant, but there are also concerns over the greenhouse savings from biofuels, and the potential for food price rises as crops are diverted to produce ethanol.
Kenneth Richter of Friends of the Earth said: "This is not a good thing. 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 in this, but it shows that we haven't got spare wheat."
An example of commitment
Clare Wenner, head of renewable transport at the Renewable Energy Association, said: "Biofuels developed here in the UK are among the most sustainable in the world in terms of greenhouse gas savings.
This is a fantastic example for the industry, not just for the commitment to producing sustainable fuel and food, but [also] the commitment to developing skills and a manufacturing base in the UK."
The National Farmers' Union (NFU) said the plant would provide wheat farmers with more certainty in terms of a local market for their products, and would allow livestock farmers to buy locally produced high-protein feed, cutting imports of soy from the United States.
Brett Askew, an NFU board member, said: "It's a boost to farmers to hear that Vivergo will be maximising their potential capacity in the run-up to harvest.
High petrol prices and the more favourable tax regime for biofuels should help to create a market for the Vivergo bioethanol, but biofuel producers investing heavily on the expectation of a boom have experienced problems in the past.
Ensus, owner of the UK's previous biggest biofuels plant on Teesside, which has been running since 2010, had to take its operations offline in April because of high feed-stock cost.
The company said the workforce was still being paid, but it could not say when production would resume.
Arguments over whether biofuels are a sustainable use of crops have raged for the past decade as first the US then other countries sought to use maize, wheat, sugar cane and other crops to make an alternative to oil for use in vehicles.
The concerns are not only over the impact on food prices, but also on the level of greenhouse gas saving from biofuels.
In theory, because crops take up carbon dioxide from the air, burning them for fuel should be carbon neutral, and represent a net carbon saving because it displaces fossil fuels.
But if the crops are grown in areas of high conservation value, and their production results in the cutting down of forests or in bringing pristine land under agricultural production, this could swing the balance the other way and result in a net increase in greenhouse gases.
These issues are complex, and both supporters and opponents of biofuels can cite numerous academic studies on each side. Last week, the European Environment Agency warned the current mix of crops used for energy is "not favourable to the environment".
In the European Union, the issue is particularly important in light of the bloc's commitment to generate a proportion of its transport fuels from renewable sources.
This week, a European Parliament committee is scheduled to vote on how far to cap biofuels from crops in order to prevent inadvertent emissions from "indirect land use change".
The Renewable Energy Association says the science is still too uncertain to take such factors into account, but green campaigners say they must be put in place to avoid problems from imports of biofuels in the future. — © Guardian News & Media 2013
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