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Volume 451: debated on Thursday 2 November 2006

4. What steps his Department is taking to encourage the growth of crops for biomass; and if he will make a statement. (98803)

Farmers growing energy crops are currently able to receive support of €45 per hectare through the EU energy aid scheme. We intend to provide support for energy crops under the new rural development programme, and we are discussing that with the Commission.

Given the constraints of land resources in this country, what plans does the Minister have to increase the yield of home-grown energy crops to meet the 5 per cent. target of the renewable transport fuel obligation without resorting to uneconomic imports?

The hon. Lady is right to point to the potential of energy crops, both for biomass and biofuels, as highlighted by the Select Committee report into bioenergy, which the Government welcome. Clearly it is important that we stimulate growth in biofuels and biomass. We estimate that, by 2020, 6 per cent. of electricity could be generated from renewable sources, principally biomass. It is, however, important that farmers make commercial decisions on which crops to grow; they do so now and I am sure that they will continue to do so.

Although biomass and crops such as miscanthus are to be welcomed as contributions to our energy solutions, does my hon. Friend agree that, in view of this week’s Stern report on climate change, we need a radical reappraisal of the role of agriculture in an holistic sense? Is it not about time that we had a champion in each sector leading the climate change revolution that this country needs?

We in DEFRA are paying close attention to what we call one-planet farming, because it is clear that we need to move towards that type of farming. We also need to examine both agriculture’s role in food production and its carbon footprint. We believe that there is significant potential in biomass and biofuels and that there are new and different futures for the agriculture industry. We are working closely with the National Farmers Union and other representative bodies to discuss different ways forward for agriculture.

I am delighted to hear the Minister say that he welcomes the Select Committee’s report on bioenergy. He will recall with great clarity the section that identified the technique to produce green aviation fuel. Given that the United States is testing a B-52 bomber that uses cleanaviation fuel and that Richard Branson has promised £1.6 billion of his own money to develop green aviation fuels, what are the Government doing to pursue that laudable objective?

I said that I welcomed the report, not that I agreed with everything in it. The right hon. Gentleman has raised the subject of green aviation fuels on several occasions and the Government are looking into it. I believe that there is potential in that area and, through the Energy Technologies Institute, which is being funded to the tune of £1 billion, we are keen to explore the commercial potential of some of those technologies, which offer a low-carbon way forward.

The Minister will be aware that the Tees valley is the site of the UK’s largest biomass-fed power station, Wilton 10, which is under construction at a cost of £60 million to£70 million and which is due to start energy production in 2007. Contracts have been signed with the Forestry Commission and local farmers to supply large volumes of wood to Wilton 10. The industry in my area has huge potential in terms of innovation, enterprise and employment, but it is recognised that further public sector investment—

Order. The way it is done is that the hon. Gentleman asks a question. However, I think that the Minister could manage an answer.

My hon. Friend is right to point to the growth of that important industry. We want continued strong growth in biomass and bioenergy. The renewable transport fuel obligation will help in that respect. Through the renewables obligation, we are aiming to get 20 per cent. of our energy from renewable sources by 2020. Biomass and bioenergy will play an important part in that, but we need more projects of the type that my hon. Friend describes.

Given the need not to rely on fossil fuels, does the Minister share my concern that the possible decision on the protected wharf, Peruvian wharf, may have an impact on our means of transport?

I am not sure of the details of that subject. Perhaps it would be better if I wrote to the hon. Lady with a considered view.

I am sure that the whole House supports the green principles of biomass, but biomass crops have to be transported to biomass plants, usually by lorry. Does the Department recommend a maximum distance that should be set for the transportation of biomass crops to the plants?

We do not have a recommended maximum distance, but my hon. Friend is right to highlight the issue, which applies also to food-miles. We need to look at the impact of transportation costs and the carbon impact of transportation as part of an overall approach. It is clearly best if local growers are producing their crops close to biomass power plants, and we want to encourage that.