Perennial energy crops : implications and potential
Policy interest in perennial energy crops such as short rotation coppice (SRC) willow and Miscanthus grass is firmly established in Europe, and the UK government has strongly supported the use of biomass crops as a source of electricity, heat and even transport fuel. The UK Biomass Strategy envisages a major expansion in both the supply and use of biomass, which is seen as playing a central role in meeting the EU target for renewable energy. There are various drivers of this policy interest, notably the potential of biomass as a low carbon energy source in response to the challenge of climate change, the need to improve energy security and the desire to strengthen rural economic development in the context of agricultural decline. From a land-use perspective, the prospect of diverting a significant proportion of farmland principally from food production to energy production would represent the most fundamental change in land-use since the decline of horses as the primary source of power in agriculture, and a significant source of power for general transport, during the first half of the twentieth century.
This chapter considers the range of potential impacts of increasing rural land-use under perennial energy crops, drawing on environmental, social and economic research to provide a broad-based assessment. The use of farmland for perennial energy crop production on the scale envisaged will have potentially far-reaching implications for biodiversity, hydrology, landscape and the rural economy. This chapter not only explores the research evidence for the nature and scale of these effects, but does so in the context of the use of Sustainability Appraisal (SA) as a tool for land-use planning. In particular, this review will identify the scientific tools which should underpin the conduct of Environmental Impact Assessments (EAIs), Strategic Environmental Assessments (SEAs) or SAs where strategic decisions on the planting of such crops have to be made.