Cacti Excellent Source of Biomass for Drax


Do please remember that I posed a possible solution which did not envisage or advocate forest removal or much woody biomass for Drax being sourced in the UK. They need millions of tonnes per year.
A few years ago I was in a group opposing a biomass proposal which would have clear felled much of the beautiful pine woods behind the dunes at Newborough Beach at the southern tip of Anglesey – on amenity grounds (my local FOE group were split on the scheme – partly as the CCW said it would increase dune area). Any sustainable (inc amenity) indigenous biomass production eg coppicing etc would presumably best be used locally in community scale biomass schemes (eg CHP at school or on farm heating some of the village community around) in my view.
If biomass is to deliver at serious scale (eg well in excess of the 4 % by 2050 of global energy the the WNA ‘forecast’ for nuclear) then the UK / EU has to import stuff from countries with much larger land areas and with rural populations happy to have some employment and export income. Also, in my view, sustainable biomass is planted, gown and harvested within a few years at most, ie not clear-felling decades-old forests.
So solutions – scale – first check out a Peters projection map of the world – the Mercator projection has blinded us since childhood.
To avoid the ‘fuel versus fuel’ arguments one surely has to look to the Earth’s drylands (semi-arid, arid and even desertifying zones – vast areas). What’s the most suited plants to grow there – hmm staring you in the face – ‘weeds’ called cacti. Those Earthly inhabitants are shouting ‘been there, done that and still thriving on little water thanks very much’.
Better still, the growth and biomass yield rate of some species is 50 dry tonnes per hectare per year. Not 5, 15 but 50 – and much more under ideal growing conditions (active irrigation, biochar). Lets stick with 50 t/Ha/y for some initial considerations. Well, that’s two to three times more than UK forest chopping / coppicing  / energy crops…. Surely that sounds like a possible solution. Perhaps other plants/trees might also thrive well (eg eucalyptus, whatever) – would help vary the vistas and biodiversity at least.
Staying with cacti for a moment – could a substantive trade materialise…
There are ex-cacti (agave etc) plantations producing tequilla and fibres in Mexico whose industry partially collapsed due to the introduction of synthetic fibres (and perhaps less tequilla drinking). Is the Mexican economy and the rural economy within it so economically successeful that it would reject such possible export trade. Personally I don’t think so and neither do some Mexicans promoting the idea. Might other arid zone countries also consider growing such biomass if there was a demand – hmm UK importing biogenic-LNG from Commonwealth countries rather than Russian fossil gas (well Norwegian gas mainly – but Germany may need some more of that).
Such a solution would leave the much-needed trees and forests of tiny UK to grow  – for amenity, flood defence, soil-carbon and some for building / woodworking industries and local CHP.
Neil Crumpton

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