Select Committee on Science and Technology First Report




Lord Birdwood
Baroness Hogg (Chairman)
Lord Middleton
Lord Marlesford
Lord Nathan
Lord Rea
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
Lord Williamson of Horton

Dr John Slater, Specialist Adviser
Dr David Cope, POST

The Committee was welcomed by Dr Kevin Bond, Chief Executive, Yorkshire Water, who provided background on the ARBRE biomass (short-rotation coppice, SRC) project.

In 1994 the project obtained a NFFO contract and a grant from the EU's THERMIE programme. Technical design and planning approval commenced and was completed early in 1997. Following discussions with several banks, it was found to be difficult to provide non-recourse finance for the project. Yorkshire Water had hoped to finance it "off budget", i.e. as a separate project. Although the technology was straightforward and the individual elements were well understood, the banks were reluctant to become involved, primarily due to perceived risk in fuel supplies. Faced with this difficulty Yorkshire Water incorporated the project into its balance sheet as an internally supported project. Contracts were then signed allowing the site construction and fuel supplies to proceed.

As an aside, Dr Bond observed that assistance under the NFFO requires that a specific site be identified with deadlines placed on completion in advance of projects being started. A more flexible system based on providing capacity was needed for projects where broad objectives were set, e.g. so many megawatts to be produced from biomass. This would allow the sites to be determined later.

Dr Bond said the individual elements of the technology were well understood; it was simply a matter of sorting out the logistics of the fuel supply. Fuel transport costs led to the constraint that the coppice fuel be typically within a radius of 40 miles of the generating plant.

Doug Everard, the MD of ARBRE Energy Limited, gave a detailed presentation on the project. Yorkshire Water, as an environmental services company, will generate a third of its power from renewable sources, which include wind, landfill gas, waste to energy and ARBRE. Wind energy and biomass were the two systems they had examined in detail for future development and the company plans to develop around 350 MW of biomass projects. The first, the ARBRE biomass project, was a 10 MW unit with a capital investment of approximately £25 million. The technology to generate renewable electricity was clear: the challenge was to make the economics work.

In addition to growing willow for fuel from short-rotation coppice - which took four years from planting to first harvest, and several years to establish agreement with the necessary number of farmers - they were using forestry residue. They were building a rail link to transport this from forests, including Thetford and Keilder.

The generation cost from the NFFO contract was set at 8p per unit. This was three times that for gas but they expected improvements to bring the biomass fuel, construction and operation costs down to produce electricity at around 5-6p per unit in the next 6-7 years: there would still be a price premium for the product. However, Government policy measures in supporting energy crops would have a significant effect on reducing biomass fuel prices, leading in turn to lower energy prices.

Keith Pitcher, Director, provided more detail on SRC. The plot sizes are small, often below 10ha, but ARBRE planned to set a minimum size of 10ha in future contracts. It costs about £2,250 to establish a coppice, a significant element of which is the cost of the fencing to keep rabbits out and the supply of willow cuttings; transportation of the finished product is also significant. Larger coppices will result in lower establishment costs.

The difficulty with the EU subsidy regimes is that there is no long-term support for energy crops. Set-aside payments are only available on certain land and were subject to uncertainty, especially over the longer term. For a long-term crop which requires significant initial investment in fencing and which requires specialist machinery for planting and harvesting etc., this uncertainty is a major difficulty.

During discussion, the point was made that if the objective was to encourage the use of renewables, some mechanism had to be found to incorporate environmental costs into the price of electricity. The need for a specific policy for energy crops was also emphasised. Whilst ARBRE staff recognised the advantages of an annual crop, for example miscanthus, at present combustion technology was more suited to crops which left minimum residue, ash etc. Willow had a distinct advantage in this respect as well as being suited to local growing conditions. However, other crops including miscanthus would make a valuable contribution to fuel supplies for projects being developed in the United Kingdom.

The Committee was shown around the approximately 2ha coppice on land owned by Askham Bryan Agricultural College, near York. This was in its second year. Cuttings are planted using specially designed machinery in a cleared field free of all perennial weeds. At the end of the first year, the willow is cut back to ground level, then allowed to grow for 3 further years before it is harvested. It is then harvested on a 3 year cycle. Willow is tolerant of a broad range of conditions although it needs a slightly alkaline soil. A mix of willow varieties is planted to improve disease resistance. An incidental difficulty is that, at present, there is only one supplier of cuttings in the United Kingdom. Many parts of the process are below the critical size necessary to create competition within the industry and hence reduce costs.

When harvested, the crop is approximately 6m high. Harvested on a 3 year cycle the yield is approximately 9-12 oven-dried tons per hectare per year at first harvest, rising to 12-15 oven-dried tonnes per hectare per year in subsequent harvests.

The Committee visited the generating site under construction at Eggborough, near Selby. The site's layout and steel erection is almost complete but no equipment is installed. ARBRE hope construction will be complete "by Christmas" (1999). The process is to convert the wood chips to gas which will be used in a combined cycle plant comprising a gas turbine and steam turbine to maximise efficiency.

The incoming wood chips, after screening and drying, are gasified at around 850°C under controlled conditions to provide primarily carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane. After cleaning the gas is compressed and injected into the gas turbine and combusted at high temperature. The output is then passed to a steam boiler to drive a steam turbine. The total output of the plant is made up of approximately 4MW from the gas turbine and 6MW from the steam turbine. Nearly 20 per cent of the power generated is used on site, including gas compression and site services, leaving 8MW to be exported to the local grid. Waste heat from the boiler is used to dry the wood chips.

During our final discussions Dr Bond emphasised that, as an environmental services organisation, Yorkshire Water had a mixed energy policy which encouraged energy efficiency and renewables. The company concentrates on onshore wind energy and biomass and plans to develop future projects as part of the Government's plans for expanding this energy sector. Yorkshire Water already achieves the equivalent of around 35 per cent of its own energy needs from renewables and is at the leading edge of its chosen technologies.

A major difficulty at present was not the technologies themselves but the wood fuel supply chain: all the elements necessary to sustain a new industry require to be put in place. Financing the biomass sector was difficult as the banks were not used to a supply chain which involved many small farmers. They were looking for a large public entity to guarantee loans, but by its very nature this was a local industry and cost reduction would flow from competition between small innovative companies, not big ones such as Yorkshire Water. Dr Bond advocated a levy on conventional power generation to support all elements of the renewable energy sector. If CO2 targets were to be met then all renewable technologies, including wind, waste and biomass, would be needed.


Members present:

Lord Birdwood
Baroness Hogg (Chairman)
Earl of Selborne
Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior
Lord Walton of Detchant
Lord Williamson of Horton

UKREP: Mr Robert Lowson, Minister (Agriculture)

The Minister provided an overview of EU agricultural policy with particular reference to non-food crops (NFC). He described an overall change in support policy from commodity pricing to area payments with more emphasis on regulatory matters. Support was within an overall financial envelope which essentially restricted new initiatives until 2006 at the earliest. There were unlikely to be any great changes in the support regime until after the WTO meeting in 2003, and then changes were more likely to be evolutionary than revolutionary. The Minister described the Commission as "talking a good game"; both the Energy and Environment Directorates had many aspirations, but if they needed money from Directorate-General VI (Agriculture) nothing was likely to come of them.

The intent of Agenda 2000 was to bring cereal prices closer to the world level and hence end the set-aside mechanism. As most interest in NFC was in growing them on set-aside land, this interest had waned, but as set aside was to remain there was now renewed interest in NFC.

Some Member States had initiatives to encourage the use of sustainable energy; for example Austria was keen to promote bio-diesel and exempted it from tax to enable it to compete with regular hydrocarbons for fuel supply. However, the majority of Member States saw NFC, particularly bio-mass, as simply a mechanism for providing jobs for farmers (except for tobacco which was a ?1 billion "social policy"). Politically, the Council had an interest in renewables in general, and the United Kingdom had specifically promoted their use in electricity generation. The European Parliament had put considerable pressure on the Commission to support the development of renewables.

Fischler Cabinet: Mr John Benstead-Smith

Mr John Benstead-Smith responded to a question on whether the uncertainty over many support mechanisms, notably set-aside, and the high level of intervention in agriculture created uncertainty and stifled innovation. Were they mechanisms which inhibited farmers trying new products? He said that many Member States had different views on set-aside. For some it was simply a question of what the land could be used for, for example, growing energy crops. For others, the significance of renewable energy was such that they supported tax exemption for renewable sources and needed land to produce bio-mass. But as tax matters need unanimity, the mechanism of set-aside could meet both objectives. However, this meant that NFC were dependent on set aside policy which was determined by other demands.

Mr Benstead-Smith observed that a policy based on area payments allowed market conditions to predominate but that some Member States were nervous of significant changes in market management. There could be two reasons for a policy of interference in the market, one driven by environmental logic and the other by a "dynamic logic", i.e. to pump-prime or support a project during the initial phases of a new activity. Member States were clearly divided about intervention in the energy market based on environmental grounds.

Mr Benstead-Smith tended to the conclusion that if greater certainty was needed it could best be achieved by each Member State basing its policy on voluntary set-aside. This would enable each Member State to tailor its renewable policy to suit its domestic needs.

Directorate-General Agriculture: Mr Lars Christian Hoelgaard

Mr Hoelgaard is responsible for the organisation of markets in crop products. He disputed the suggestion that there was discrimination against NFC. The objective of Directorate-General Agriculture was to support agricultural policy, that is the production of food. If set aside land was used for other purposes it was a side effect of that market mechanism. If there were any specific aid for NFC it would be likely to fall foul of the Blair House Agreement.

As a general rule, set aside will be around 10%; certainly it will be at a positive rate. The production of energy crops or bio-fuels was not economic unless there were other public policy objectives which could provide a fiscal incentive, for example, as part of CO2 reduction measures. Forestry was a matter for national policy: the rural development policy allowed investment in new forestry which could cover the planting of short-rotation coppice. But the production of bio-fuels must rely on Member States paying fiscal incentives for environmental or other policy reasons for it to be economic.

There were certain areas, for example bio-degradable oils for chain saws, which would have their own market, but these were relatively small. Fibre crops (flax, hemp, cotton) were economically sustainable, and short-fibre flax and hemp were being used in the paper industry and for car interiors. Here, as in other areas, the Germans were in the lead in developing the industry.

The sugar market was delicately balanced. There were different arrangements for "A", "B" and "C" sugar. If "A" sugar was priced at 100, "B" was priced at 65 and "C" 15 which was the world market price. The effect of allowing set aside to be used for growing sugar or fodder beet would be to increase production of "C" sugar. This would be undesirable.

Mr Hoelgard acknowledged that basing the definition of "non-arable land" on 1992 data and excluding it from set aside arrangements had the effect of excluding it from use for NFC. But he emphasised again that the purpose of set-aside was as a supply management tool for cereals. The uncertainty that resulted from changes to set aside arrangements could be overcome if NFC were restricted to voluntary set-aside. If Member States wanted to produce NFC they should not look to make it part of the agricultural policy and attempt to base it on a side effect of the cereals market management programme; they should look to rural development programmes which were decided at Member State level.

Renewable energy had progressed and there was a policy that the current level of 6% of energy from renewables on average throughout the Community should be extended to 12% by 2010. Mr Hoelgard observed that only Britain and Sweden had any significant interest in short-rotation coppice: Austria was keen on bio-gas and Germany favoured using maize for energy. German industry had also done a lot of work on using NFC in consumer products, such as washing powders and cosmetics.

The Commission's position was quite simply that there was a policy for agriculture, there were no excess funds and it was not Directorate-General VI's remit to deal with CO2 effects. Any balance between environment, energy and agricultural matters was dealt with under the co-ordinating mechanisms of the Secretary General. It was not for Directorate-General VI to act independently.

Directorate-General Energy: Mr Emmanuel Xenakis

Mr Xenakis described the Commission Communication of 1997 and the subsequent White Paper which was, he said, welcomed by the Council. The objective was to double the contribution of renewables from 6% to 12% in 2010. He observed that 6% was an average throughout the Community: the United Kingdom has at present 1% electricity from renewables. The objectives were three-fold: to meet the Kyoto targets for CO2; to develop some energy independence; and to create jobs. Bio-mass was the most important renewable and the Commission had developed plans to encourage increased use including a campaign with an official logo.

Although bio-mass was most promising, one could not generalise throughout the Community: different products suited different countries. For example, in the United Kingdom poplar and willow were important, in Greece sweet sorgum, in Finland forestry residue, and in Austria and France liquid bio-fuel from beet or cereals.

As set-aside looked likely to remain at at least 10% this should be a source of great encouragement for producers of bio-mass. Member States could support 50% of the cost of starting bio-mass crops but it was unlikely that there would be any assistance for growing such crops outside the set-aside area. Similarly, assistance for maintenance or loss of revenue from planting bio-mass crops was unlikely as it would create difficulties for those growing timber for paper production.

Directorate-General Energy: Mr Jean Francois Marchipont

Mr Marchipont is the Chief Adviser responsible for NFC. He deals with research related to energy, which in practice means the technologies for energy production, not for the bio-mass input. The Parliament has asked that 60% of the energy research budget be devoted to renewables and that of this, 75% go to demonstration projects. The bulk of the bio-mass work was demonstration projects; the problem was logistics, the collection and distribution of the bio-mass material, suggesting that bio-mass for electricity would only work at a local level. The Framework IV programme concentrated on the production of electricity but Framework V had a wider remit, allowing other uses such as transport to be included.

Of the renewable sources of energy production, wind turbines provide electricity at a cost closest to being competitive with conventional (fossil fuel) power stations. If the costs to the environment of CO2 emissions were included in the price of conventional power, the competitive position of all renewables would improve.

Mr Marchipont said that Directorate-General XII's work started after the collection of the bio-mass product. Crop research was the responsibility of Directorate-General VI. Leaders in bio-mass research within the Community were probably Germany, France and the United Kingdom.

12/13 JULY 1999


Members present:
Lord Birdwood
Baroness Hogg (Chairman)
Lord Middleton
Lord Rea
Lord Williamson of Horton

Dr John Slater (Specialist Adviser)

The Committee was welcomed by Professor Peter Stanley, Chief Executive, who provided a brief over-view of the work of the new laboratory and set the context for the work on non-food crops (NFC). This work is undertaken in a relatively small group of the Agriculture and Environment Division and is headed by Mr Melvyn Askew.

The task of the group was to identify what industry needed, how agricultural products might meet this need and what would be their environmental impact. Very frequently industry did not know what it needed and hence it was difficult to operate a demand led programme. The Committee was then shown NFC under three broad headings: oils; fibres; and speciality products.


The Committee was shown a wide range of products which are produced from oil seeds. We looked only briefly at the high erucic oil products as we would be visiting the main producer, Croda, the following day. Some high quality German linoleum produced from linseed oil was on display. Detergent was produced from the seed of hemp, more widely known for its fibre products. A wide range of other products, biodegradable cleaning solvents from rape, surface coatings from calendula, lubricants from sunflower oil, and many applications of waxes and polishes, showed the range of products available from oil seed. Of particular interest in this and the other exhibits was the large number of products from Germany.


Again the leading position of the Germany industry was demonstrated. Mercedes use hemp fibres to replace glass fibre for vehicle panelling. We were shown an experimental parcel shelf produced for Ford but, because of difficulties in meeting the Ford impact resistance test, it had yet to be put into production. A wide range of paper and fabric products was derived from hemp, from cigarette papers to thick absorbent matting.

In Germany the need for biodegradability, the health problems of working with glass fibre and the lighter weight of the fibre-based product were responsible for the increased use of hemp and flax.

Speciality products

An eclectic mix of plants produced a wide range of products, from woad for printing to aromatic plants for pest protection, while evening primrose and others provided extracts for the cosmetics industry. Mr Askew observed that the pharmaceutical industry frequently identified the active ingredient in any plant used as a medicine and synthesised the product.

Miss Sarah Hugo described the IENICA database (Interactive European Network for Industrial Crops and their Applications). This is a database giving applications for non-food crops. The information is plant based and enables the user to identify quickly the potential of any particular plant. The project is financed by the Research Directorate of the European Commission and run by the CSL. There is clearly some overlap with ACTIN database but the latter is different in that it identifies commercial opportunities and, for that reason, is a closed user group database. The analogous databases in other European countries, for example Germany, are open systems. As part of IENICA, CSL is preparing a report on the status of each industrial crop in each EU Member State, indicating markets, barriers and opportunities, for publication in early 2000.

Tour of glasshouses and trial fields

The Committee visited the hemp growing programme under glass. Transgenic hemp is modified so that the gene which governs the production of the psychotropic chemical THC can be switched off. This would produce a plant with zero THC, more acceptable to regulators.

The demonstration fields showed the wide range of crops grown including miscanthus and willow used as energy crops. We were told that when the energy crops were scaled up to industrial sized plantations their susceptibility to pest attack increased.

Concluding discussions

During our discussions Mr Askew was asked to identify the key inhibiting factors to the adoption of NFC. Amongst the leading factors he put a weakness in marketing of the products, a general reluctance to make any change unless it was absolutely necessary, and a general scepticism from industry of academic research. He felt that in Germany, where the use of non-food crops was much more advanced, and in Netherlands and France, industry and academia were working much more closely together. There seemed less inertia and a greater willingness to take risks. But above all in Germany there was legislation which encouraged recycling and the use of biodegradable products.


The Committee was welcomed by Dr Ken Dixon, Chairman of Council. The overall work of the Biology Department was described by Professor Alistair Fitter, Head of Department. He pointed out the research credentials of the University (RAE 93% at Grade 4 or higher, with the Biology Department awarded a "5"). It was a highly integrated department spanning from molecular to community biology. The funding was in excess of £20 million.

Professor Bowles described the cold stress project, undertaken as a strategic alliance with Unilever. This involved identifying plant genes encoding proteins that could bind to and prevent the growth of ice crystals. The work had discovered such an "antifreeze" protein in carrot and had confirmed the identity of its gene, by cloning it and expressing it in a model plant. Plant antifreeze proteins could have applications in frozen foods or could be used to protect against ice-damage in storage of organs for transplantation.

Three other projects were described in detail: (1) a remediation project for "brownfield" sites, when plants could be used to remove pollutants from the soil; (2) a project investigating genes that control the development of plants, in particular the extent of shoot and root branching; and (3) a project to identify the genes encoding protein glues, in particular those glues produced by marine mussels which have the ability to stick under water.

In a more general round-table discussion on the application of "functional genomics", i.e. characterising the function of genes identified in the many genome sequencing programmes world-wide, the discussion turned towards public attitudes to GM products. The staff of the plant laboratory recognised the current difficulties in perception of the relative risks and benefits of GM technology, but emphasised that it was now an essential research tool to understand living organisms. The application of the technology to crop plants was an important advance and with increasing sophistication, transgenic solutions for crop improvement and protection, as well as the use of plants as factories to manufacture non-food industrial products, could be designed to minimise the risk to the environment and the consumer.


Members present:

Baroness Hogg (Chairman)
Lord Middleton
Lord Rea

The Sub-Committee was met at Croda Universal by the Managing Director Keith Gregersen, and Mike Coverdale, Managing Director of John L Seatons and Co. Both companies are owned by the holding company Croda International and produce oleochemical products for industry. The Croda Universal site produces amides of fatty acids from high erucic acid rape seed oil (HERO) and tallow; Seatons produce refined linseed oil and its derivatives, mainly for use in surface coatings.

Croda International had a turnover of £355M in 1998; its oleochemicals sector (based almost entirely on animal and vegetable oils) accounts for 66 % of the turnover and 80 % of the profits. 68 % of the oleochemicals work is conducted in the United Kingdom.

Erucamide (the amide from erucic acid) is the main product of the Croda plant. It is used as a slip agent in plastics manufacture and injection moulding. Croda have about 40 % of the world erucamide market and all of their erucamide production takes place at their Hull site using United Kingdom HERO (approximately 2000 tonnes each month). Problems of changing subsidy levels and competition with other countries (notably in North America and China) were discussed. The situation is complicated by the fact that HERO is banned for food use in the EU (but is used extensively for cooking in the Far East); however it remains eligible for both set-aside and main oil seeds regime area payment subsidies in the European Union.

Following the introduction, we were shown the research laboratories on site by Dr Adam Maltby. The effects of adding even very small amounts of erucamide (as little as one part in one thousand) as a slip agent in various plastics were demonstrated. Its applications in plastic bags, bottle tops, syringes and injection-moulded plastics (where the erucamide acts like greasing a cake tin) were discussed. Dr Paul Wainwright then demonstrated Croda's facilities for testing the amide components of various plastics. The ability to offer technical support to Croda's customers was repeatedly emphasised as a major factor in maintaining Croda's dominant market share. Other research facilities were demonstrated where work is conducted on new processing techniques (a recent example had halved the batch time for making erucamide on site - effectively doubling the plant capacity) and on developing new products that build on Croda's experience of amides and plastics additives.

We were taken on a tour of the plant to show the stages of processing HERO into erucamide:

  • Splitting, where the raw oil (as triglycerides) is reacted with water at high temperature to split the individual fatty acids from the glycerine (the latter being purified and sold separately).

  • Fractionation, where the fatty acids are separated into an erucic acid stream and "rape top" fatty acids (essentially a waste product from this process, but with some value as a feedstock for other chemical processes). Croda have recently installed a new computer-controlled fractionating plant (at a cost of £4.5m) that provides very high purity erucic acid for amidation.

  • Amidation, where the erucic acid is reacted with ammonia to give erucamide.

  • Finishing, where the erucamide is formed into granules for sale.   

Dave Parker, Operations Director of Croda Universal, presented us with more detail of the entire process, including the source of raw materials, in which farmers are contracted through John K Kings seed company to produce the volumes of HERO that the Croda project required. He also discussed Seatons' work with linseed oil and their worries that CAP reform might bring an end to linseed growing in the United Kingdom.

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