Power plant: oilseed rape grown for electricity

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The Independent Online

Wind power, wave power, solar power ... and now, oilseed rape power. Britain's first electricity generating station powered by the yellow crop is to be built on a Yorkshire farm.

Wind power, wave power, solar power ... and now, oilseed rape power. Britain's first electricity generating station powered by the yellow crop is to be built on a Yorkshire farm.

It will mark a significant step forward in the development of electricity from biomass, or plant material.

The man behind it, Clifford Spencer, has led the way in Britain in the production of non-food crops: next year his company will grow 70,000 acres of plants for use in industry rather than food.

A third-generation farmer, Mr Spencer, 51, sees this as the future of British agriculture, if it is to get back to growing things that markets really want, rather than things that Brussels subsidies encourage.

His oilseed rape power station is a natural extension of his non-food crop business, which over the past decade has profitably grown thousands of acres of several plants not usually associated with the British countryside.

These include: crambe, a type of cabbage used in the production of lubricants; borage, used in cosmetics; and non-narcotic hemp, used for oils and fibres.

For his biomass power scheme he has gone into partnership with the giant Anglo-Swiss agribusiness Syngenta, which is providing a specially developed high-yielding rape variety which will be grown by Mr Spencer and more than 100 local farmers under contract.

Between them they will grow 1,400 tons of rape and send the seeds to a plant about to be built on Mr Spencer's Springdale farm near Driffield, which will burn the rape oil. By this time next year they hope to have an electricity output of 1 megawatt, enough to power 1,000 homes. Mr Spencer will run his farm on it and the surplus will be sold on to the national grid.

"Agriculture needs to get back to being market-led, and producing for real markets," said Mr Spencer, who began to diversify from traditional crops in the 1990s when he feared commodity prices might fall - as indeed they did.

His new generating station is significant also as a potentially important contribution to the fight against climate change.

Biomass is a renewable energy technology like wind, wave and solar, able to provide electricity without adding to the growing load of carbon dioxide (CO 2) in the atmosphere, which is causing global warming.

Biomass is carbon neutral because, although it emits CO2 when it is burnt, the plants providing the fuel absorb a similar amount of CO2 while they are growing. Advantages over the other renewables include the fact that it is not intermittent in production (the wind drops; the sun goes in).

But it has not been widely used so far because it can be expensive and the economics are uncertain.

If Mr Spencer's plant succeeds, it will give biomass a shot in the arm.

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