Maize grown for AD plants increase by 55% in a year

Figures just release by Defra (see here) show that the area of land in England used to grow maize for use in Anaerobic Digestion plants to produce electricity rose to 52,280 ha – a 55% increase on 2105.

29% of all maize grown in England now is for AD plants. This accounts for 1% of all arable land in England.


As I, and many others, have repeatedly said maize can be implicated with increased flood risk (see here and  here for my collection of blogs on the topic).  Maize is harvested late in the year and the heavily compacted soils are left bare all winter. During periods of high rainfall these soils do not absorb the water to any great extent – instead the water rushes off the fields, particularly when they are on slopes and quickly overwhelms stream and river systems. When this happens extensive soil erosion can also occur.

Here is an example of the phenomenon from Herefordshire  last month following Storm Angus as reported by the Environment Agency

Prior to its abolition earlier this summer, following Theresa May’s appointment as Prime Minister, the Department for Energy and Climate Change had issued a consultation paper which included two options to reduce the incentives for farmers to grow maize for AD – see here.

I haven’t heard the outcome of that consultation and I’m not sure which government Department is now responsible for it – Defra maybe? Does anyone else know?

The 55% increase in maize grown for AD announced today would not have been influenced by the DECC consultation as the seeds would have been already sown. It would however be helpful if an announcement is made soon as it would potentially influence sowing intentions next spring and I don’t think anyone (other than the maize farmers concerned) want to see a further increase in the area of maize grown in England with its attendant increased flood risk and heightened soil erosion potential.


UK maize stats and the implications

I have been taking a further look at the maize statistics published by DEFRA in December 2015 – see here for the full dataset.

Maize date UK 2010-13
In the three years up to 2013 the amount of maize grown in England increased by just over 36,000 ha – a 24% increase since 2010. This data only goes up to 2013 and it is anecdotally clear to me that since 2013  growth has continued. I would suspect that as of today around 200,000 hectares of land is being cultivated for maize in the UK.

Maize top 10 counties
Devon, Somerset and Dorset are the top three counties in England when it comes to maize cultivation

Maize - largest increase
Dorset, Shropshire and Somerset saw the biggest rises in maize cultivation between 2010 and 2013

Much of the maize grown in England is used as winter feed for cattle but I suspect (although the DEFRA data doesn’t specify) that the majority of the growth is being used to fuel anaerobic digester biogas plants.

That is a lot of land no longer growing food and a lot more land likely to produce rapid run-off during heavy rain.

The growth of maize cultivation seems to inextricably linked to the development and creation of new biogas plants. The industry is heavily subsidised via the tax payer from ‘Feed in Tariff’ (FIT) and ‘Rewewable Heat Incentive’ (RHI) payments which is why we are seeing so much growth in maize production. It would appear that the Government might be aware of this now and are proposing to undertake a review of the RHI scheme.

I’m not sure of the details or the economics of all of this but it would appear to have rattled the proponents of Combined Heat and Power plants as these written parliamentary questions from the Devon MP Neil Parish  (who also chair of the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee) perhaps shows.

Biofuels: Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme
To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, what support her Department plans to provide to ensure that proposed biomass combined heat and power schemes are not affected by changes to the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.
To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, what criteria her Department plans to use to determine which biomass combined heat and power schemes receive support under the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.
To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, when her Department plans to publish the terms of reference for its Renewable Heat Incentive consultation.
Here is the answer from Andrea Leadsom MP who is the Minister of State for Energy at the Department of Energy and Climate Change

To be eligible for Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) support, all biomass combined heat and power (CHP) must be certified by the Combined Heat and Power Quality Assurance (CHPQA) scheme, and must demonstrate that they have a valid CHPQA certificate. Any installation claiming the CHP Renewable Obligation Certificate uplift will not be eligible for receiving support under the RHI scheme.

We intend to reform the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) to improve value for money and reduce costs; improve cost control and budget management; and ensure the scheme focuses more on our long-term needs, while contributing to both our carbon and renewable energy targets. We plan to consult on the changes shortly. Therefore, I am unable to make specific commitments as to the future shape of the scheme at this point.

This exchange relates to CHP plants which burn wood and not AD plants using maize but nevertheless the RHI scheme is to be reviewed and this might make it less attractive to build new AD plants……