Concerns raised over proposals to reduce Feed-in Tariffs for anaerobic digesters

An East Anglia biogas plant.

An East Anglia biogas plant. - Credit: Archant

Government proposals to restrict subsidy support for anaerobic digestion (AD) could damage the prospect of future farm biogas developments, warned rural business leaders.

The growing AD sector has seen many plants built across East Anglia in recent years to turn feed crops into energy, supported by the Feed-in Tariff (FiT), an incentive scheme to promote the uptake of new technologies, funded through levies on consumer energy bills.

But as the scheme's uptake has been higher than expected, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has proposed a series of changes from January 2017, to reduce the impact on bill-payers.

They include ending FiT support for new AD plants over 500kW, and reducing tariffs for new AD plants under 500kW by nearly a third.

'Yet again, this government seems determined to throttle the life out of the emerging renewable energy market,' said Dr Jonathan Scurlock, chief adviser on renewable energy for the National Farmers' Union.

'After slashing support for the growing solar and biomass industries, this seems like the unkindest cut of all. The multiple environmental and soil management benefits from widespread deployment of on-farm AD will be lost, including the huge potential for avoiding farmyard methane emissions from manure and slurry – a bit of an own-goal for DECC, given that this is a powerful greenhouse gas.'

Ben Underwood, eastern regional director for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said the proposals were potentially bad news for farmers seeking to diversify and find environmentally-friendly ways to manage farm waste.

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'On-farm AD can deliver multiple environmental benefits as well as new sources of income to the agricultural sector and much-needed clean, base load electricity,' he said. 'These proposals could spell the end of any future biogas development on farms and be a lost opportunity for rural businesses.'

In its consultation document, DECC says the aim is to put the subsidy scheme for AD plants on a 'sustainable footing'. It says: 'Government is committed to moving to a low-carbon economy and meeting its carbon reduction and renewable energy targets.

'Alongside other measures, the Feed-in Tariffs (FITs) scheme has been part of our progress against these objectives. The scheme is funded through levies placed on consumer energy bills.

'In order to restrict the impact on (consumer energy) bills, government set a limit on the annual low-carbon energy subsidy expenditure which could be collected from consumers.

'Deployment under the FITs scheme has exceeded expectations. While this shows the success of the scheme in attracting investment in small-scale renewable electricity deployment, this has come at a cost to the bill payer, with the scheme projecting to spend beyond its initial projections.'

The six-week consultation will close on July 7.

Action call on soil health

A cross-party group of MPs has called for an urgent rethink on the subsidy regime which encourages the growth of maize for anaerobic digestion.

The Environmental Audit Committee published a report which warns that neglecting the health of the nation's soil could lead to reduced food security, increased greenhouse gas emissions and greater flood risk.

One of the report's recommendations says: 'Maize production can damage soil health when managed incorrectly, and incentives for anaerobic digestion should be structured to reflect this. The double subsidy for maize produced for anaerobic digestion is counter-productive and has contributed to the increase in land used for maize production. This subsidy regime represents a clear case in which better joined-up thinking across government is required in order to ensure that soils are managed sustainably.

'Renewable energy subsidies for anaerobic digestion should be restructured to avoid harmful unintended consequences. Revisions should either exclude maize from the subsidy altogether or impose strict conditions on subsidised maize production to avoid practices in high-risk locations which lead to soil damage.'

A Defra spokesman said: 'The health of our soils is vital to the food we eat, the air we breathe and to our precious habitats – and our 25-year plan for action on the environment will set out a comprehensive, long-term vision to protect and enhance our natural environment for generations to come.

'We are protecting our soils through frontline schemes such as Environmental and Countryside Stewardship and providing support for farmers and land mangers through our Farming Advice and Catchment Sensitive Farming Services.'

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