A new biofuels plant that has opened today near Hull will be the UK’s biggest buyer of wheat, and the biggest supplier of animal feed.
Vivergo’s plant at Saltend in the Humber estuary, opened with £350m investment, will take in 1.1m tonnes annually of wheat that would otherwise be used for animal feed and produce an estimated 420m litres a year of ethanol, to be mixed with petrol and used in vehicles. A byproduct 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 helped support more than 1,000 jobs in the area, and there will be 80 full-time employees 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, but it shows that we haven’t got spare wheat.”
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 the commitment to developing skills and a manufacturing base in the UK.”
The National Farmers’ Union said the plant would not only provide wheat farmers with more certainty in terms of a local market for their products, but would allow livestock farmers to buy locally produced high-protein feed, cutting the imports of soy from the US. 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. The industry’s troubles have been well documented over the past year and the latest noises emerging from Brussels on Common Agricultural Policy reform have done little to lighten the mood.”
High petrol prices and the more favourable tax regime for biofuels should help to create a market for the Vivergo bioethanol, but biofuels producers investing heavily on the expectation of a boom have experienced problems in the UK in the past. Ensus, owner of the UK’s previous biggest biofuels plant on Teesside, running since 2010, has had to take its operations offline since April owing to high feed stock cost. The company said the workforce was still being paid but 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 have 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 on the level of greenhouse gas saving from biofuels. In theory, because crops take up carbon dioxide from the air as they grow, 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 forest 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 are “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 Thursday, a European Parliament committee will vote on how far to cap biofuels from crops in order to prevent inadvertent emissions from “indirect land use change”.
The REA 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.