Rural Energy team member wins national award
When a member of the Rural Energy team recently announced they had won a national award, the extent of her involvement in understanding biomass before even joining the company became clear. In this blog we review why her thesis has been judged as the best in the country by the Royal British Geographical Society, in the Energy Geographies Working Group category, who said “it showed vast originality and academic excellence”…
Who are you?
Leah Radford, Graduate Intern at Rural Energy.
Where and what did you study?
I studied Bachelor of Science Geography at Lancaster University and obtained a first degree classification with honours.
What was your thesis paper about?
For my thesis I assessed the future of perennial energy crops, specifically miscanthus and short rotation coppice, as a biomass fuel, using Melton Borough, Leicestershire as a case study.
To do this, I evaluated the suitability of fields in the borough using a Geographical Information System (GIS) assessment tool and attempted to understand the drivers and barriers to perennial energy uptake by interviewing 10 local farmers. I then combined the farmers’ attitudes and opinions with the GIS report.
Using these fields of data, I mapped the number of constraints which included: urban areas, water courses, field area, slope, natural habitats, designated areas, environmental stewardship agreements, cultural heritage and existing crops.
What influenced you to write your thesis about the future of biomass fuels?
I had heard about and read numerous reports throughout the course of my studies that the UK is not self-sufficient in terms of biomass fuels. They stated that biomass fuels were being imported in vast quantities, contradicting the net carbon neutral status of these resources. This spurred me on to investigate whether the UK has the potential to be self sufficient and gave me a solid foundation to base my dissertation on.
Upon initial investigation, I found that DEFRA were stating that around 350,000 hectares (1,351 square miles) of perennial energy crops could be successfully grown in the UK, without effecting existing food production, on arable land set aside. In reality, however, their own ‘Energy Crops’ scheme had only planted approximately 10,500ha to date of writing my thesis and numerous other schemes had failed. This made me want to understand why these crops were not being planted by farmers in the area when DEFRA had been advocating the importance of them.
What type of research / testing did you have to do?
I applied a new, unique methodology by which I conducted 10 in depth interviews with local farmers and used high resolution suitability mapping through GIS. Here is a page from my thesis that should help show the resulting information in pictorial format …
Can you summarise some of the outcomes from your research?
The GIS aspect of my investigation showed that, on a district and community scale, perennial energy crops could realistically and largely contribute to energy demands of rural communities within Melton Borough.
However, the qualitative enquiries revealed deeper and more complex issues surrounding a farmer’s decision to grow perennial energy crops that were not solely influenced by land constraints.
Some of the drivers and barriers to growing these crops appeared more specific to certain types of farming.
Arable farmers, for instance, were influenced by the perception of risk. This group viewed perennial energy crops as a greater risk to conventional food crops due to variability in returns, a constricted market and the inability to revert back to conventional food crops if they were to grow short rotation coppice (SRC) due to damage to field drains.
Dairy farmers, on the other hand, were influenced by management issues. This section of the demographic saw no place for perennial energy crops in their business. All land was deemed as necessary to maximise dairy production and that it would be impractical to access marginal land in winter months when crops would need harvesting. However, dairy farmers have the most marginal land available for perennial energy crops if they were to take areas of permanent pasture out of dairy production, thus crucial for the future of perennial energy crops.
So what conclusions did you draw?
As only arable farmers have been targeted in the past, it is vital that future research be conducted with dairy farmers. However, in my opinion from the data collected, they should be targeted with the idea as a marginal venture rather than a primary enterprise. Also, a market should be generated at a community scale with numerous local producers, perhaps acting as a co-operative.
How might this affect Rural Energy as a business moving forward?
The results of my thesis imply that, if embraced by the community and well managed, Melton Borough could benefit from implementing a perennial energy crop programme and expanding biomass heating throughout the area using locally grown fuel. It could make the borough self-sustaining in time, if suitable technologies are installed in the area.
Rural Energy could benefit from not only the possibility of having more wood fuel available locally for its own biomass boiler testing, but also as a business further develop the growing biomass industry, particularly within the local community.
I personally hope to build on my research and perhaps make Rural Energy a fuel trader or supplier on the Biomass Supplier List (BSL) rolling out in 2015.
How are you finding the transition from studying to working at Rural Energy?
I am thoroughly enjoying the whole experience. The team at Rural Energy are really supportive and always more than happy to help me if I have any queries. It is great to learn more about biomass in an applied setting, and the Herz renewable heating technology products specifically, rather than the broad topics discussed in university lectures.
What aspect(s) of your job at Rural Energy do you find most enjoyable / most influenced by your thesis / most challenging?
The technical side of each biomass project is the most enjoyable for me because it’s challenging and involves a great deal of problem solving; stimulating the brain cells. I find it really interesting and challenging trying to, for example, retrofit a biomass fuel store and boiler into a pre-existing building plant room. I also like taking a blank canvass and seeing all the components, such as building works, electrics and plumbing, come together into a complete system.
It has been great to be involved in the prestigious Buckinghamshire County Council framework project, during which I have been able to see the biomass Heat Pods evolve from timber framed boxes to complete and fully operational biomass heating solutions.
How have you celebrated your amazing accolade?
I have a box of chocolates ready to share with the office when this story goes live!
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