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Biomass Task Force

Volume 449: debated on Thursday 20 July 2006

8. What actions fall to be taken by his Department in the implementation of the Government’s response to the recommendations of the Biomass Task Force. (86603)

The Department, in close liaison with the Department of Trade and Industry, is actively engaged in driving forward the implementation of all the actions in the Government’s response to the Biomass Task Force report.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but are the Government seriously committed? What serious capital grant is available for the biomass supply chain, whether from crops, trees or waste?

Yes, the Government are seriously committed to increasing biomass production. Our biomass capital grant scheme is allocating between £10 million and £15 million over the next couple of years; £66 million has been allocated to develop markets in biomass combined heat and power electricity generation and £80 million is available for microgeneration, which will include biomass technologies. There is a range of projects that we believe can come on stream. We would like to see the prediction in Ben Gill’s report that biomass could actually meet 6 per cent. of heat and electricity generation by 2020 fulfilled.

Biomass has greater potential to replace fossil fuels than biofuels, in the short term at least, yet it attracts little attention and less publicity. Have the Government made an assessment of the establishment grants paid to farmers and landowners to plant biomass, such as short-term coppice crops and miscanthus? Although I understood that the bio-energy infrastructure scheme was taking no further applications, the Government have stated that they might take a further round of applications. Will the Minister make a statement about that?

I have already outlined a number of schemes that the Government are introducing to help to encourage the growth of the biomass sector. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the importance of biofuels, too. We need an increase on the current generating figures of 1 per cent. of heat and 1.85 per cent. of electricity from biomass sources, and we can achieve that by helping to stimulate the market through Government measures.

As for the grant schemes for the growing of, for instance, miscanthus and short rotation coppice, they have been part of the rural development programme. We are negotiating and agreeing with the Commission a new rural development programme and we want to see encouragement for biomass as part of that programme.

Following on from the earlier question, are the Government now looking more favourably at wood coppice rather than miscanthus? Is that the Government’s policy? There are some fears among growers that that is the way that the Government are going.

As a Government, we do not particularly take a view on whether miscanthus or short-rotation coppice or other biomass sources—for instance, woodchip—are favoured. We have a regime in place that will encourage the further development and growth of the biomass sector in the future. We believe that there is a lot more that the Government can do to encourage and stimulate the growth of renewables in this country and that renewables must be a vital part of our future energy mix.

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the work of Ben Gill, who is a constituent of mine in the Vale of York? Will he recognise that that work must now progress with some urgency, given that the British Sugar factory in York is due to close next year? The issue is not just about willow coppice—as the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said—but about exploring ways of turning sugar beet into bioethanol. That work must now proceed with some urgency.

I certainly pay tribute to the work of Sir Ben Gill. I had the pleasure of taking part in a meeting at the Royal show, which Ben chaired. In his typical, robust manner, he explained the importance of biomass to the future of agriculture across the United Kingdom. There are strong opportunities for the farming community to do more in the biomass sector. The hon. Lady mentioned sugar beet. She will probably be aware of a current project in Norfolk that is looking to grow sugar beet to produce bioethanol. That should come on stream in the near future. With the renewable transport fuels obligation coming into force from 2008 to 2010, there will be big opportunities for growers to contract supply to people who will generate biofuels.

I agree with the Minister’s comment that there is a lot more that the Government can do in this area. On reflection, is not the Minister slightly embarrassed that the energy review made only the briefest mention in passing of small and medium-scale biomass and bioenergy generation, despite increasingly clear evidence that that smaller-scale generation offers a more efficient, economical, decentralised and secure renewable source? It has huge potential, as the Biomass Task Force rightly identified. Is it not true that in the area of biocrops and bio-energy, even the United States under George Bush is doing more on the ground than this Government?

If the hon. Gentleman looks in detail at the energy review, he will see that biomass features in the section on renewables and the section on transport. I repeat that the Government are taking forward a wide programme of action when it comes to biomass. We have identified some 65 actions that we need to take as a Government in response to Sir Ben Gill’s report. We are getting on with it. We believe that the biomass market is growing and we have in place a package of measures to ensure that we help to stimulate further that demand.