Potential Nordic bioenergy production

As energy prices around the globe rise countries are beginning to seriously contemplate new energy sources. One of these sources is biomass from agricultural products which has rapidly flourished thanks, among other things, to the successful introduction of bioethanol and biodiesel in the fuel market. However, bioenergy production from arable land is also very controversial as it is often blamed for worsening the problems associated with the global food supply. With the hope of reducing the competition for land today's decision makers are turning their attention to the option of cultivating energy crops in abandoned agricultural land or ´fallow' land.

In the Nordic countries, most of the arable land is located in Denmark, Southern Sweden and mid- and south-west Finland. According to EUROSTAT more than 756,792 ha of fallow land exist in the Nordic countries, primarily situated in Sweden (335,764ha) followed by Denmark (212,949ha), Finland (195,329ha) and Norway (12,750ha). Notwithstanding a level of uncertainty about how much fallow land is actually available, it is generally believed that these areas could actually be substantially larger.

Perhaps the most limiting factor, in respect of the use of fallow land for energy cropping, is as with any other agricultural crop, the particular crop's dependency on favourable soil, climate and geophysical conditions as well as easy accessibility to enable the use of heavy machinery and transport during harvesting. It remains unclear however just how much of this fallow land actually boasts these optimal conditions for energy cropping. Assessments made thus far suggest that the majority of these areas are unsuitable particularly for the cultivation of traditional food crops used for bioenergy production.

The cultivation of perennial crops such as willow, hemp, reed canary grass and hybrid aspen, characterized by the need for several years' growth before harvesting, appears to be suitable for fallow land in the Nordic countries. This is so because, compared to traditional food crops, they can be cultivated in less favourable conditions while demanding lees soil preparation and monitoring.
From an environmental point of view, the cultivation of perennial crops is also a better option since they require less use of fertilizers and pesticides. Because the vegetation is retained over several seasons between harvests, perennial crops also reduce the risk of water and wind erosion and increase biodiversity in cultivated farmland. Another environmental benefit obtained from some perennial crops, like willow for instance, is that they can be used for both soil remediation and the purification of municipal wastewater.

Perhaps one of the most central arguments in favour of the cultivation of perennial crops for energy purposes is the fact that the amount of net-energy obtained, per hectare of cultivated farmland, is significantly higher than that obtained from traditional food crops.

One disadvantage with perennial crop cultivation is the risk of causing important changes in the landscape, especially in areas of high cultural value.

This occurs because, aesthetically, perennial crop fields look very similar to wheat and rapeseed fields. Further-more, in areas of high natural value the cultivation of perennial crops may imply both the homogenization of the vegetation and an increased environmental load.

One solution to these problems is to diversify the cultivation structure by combining several energy crops or by combining them with the native flora. However, these solutions could also lead to conflicts between business and landscape conservation interests since homogeneous cultivation practices are, in general, more profitable and therefore often preferred by farmers. This conflict can become more severe in areas of high touristic value, where the alteration of the landscape could have a negative impact on the attractiveness of these areas to tourists or second-home owners.
The use of fallow land for biomass production may have positive socio-economic effects on, among other things, labour market expansion and the prevention of out-migration in rural and remote regions where agricultural and industrial activities have been margi-nalized.

Most of the job opportunities will not however be the direct result of farming activities, but will instead come from activities related to the transformation and conversion of biomass into various biofuels, heat and electricity as well as the related infrastructure development including biorefineries and district heating plants. Only a reduced seasonal labour force will be required in connection with the actual cultivation of perennial crops due, among other things, to the fact that perennial crops take several years to conclude their harvesting cycle and require little tending or husbandry.

The overall debate on the use of fallow land for bioenergy production is still ongoing, but it is already possible to recognize clear economic, social and environmental benefits resulting from this activity. On the other hand, this option must be evaluated against the possibility of using the fallow land areas for other purposes, not least for food production. Notwithstanding this, the extension, sensibility, and natural value of fallow land areas has to be further evaluated in order to guarantee their sustainable use.

Figure 1 Potential bioenergy production areas for annual energy crop farming.

Figure 1 Potential bioenergy production areas for annual energy crop farming.

Figure 2 Potential bioenergy production areas in the Nordic countries- forest, grassland and arable land.

Figure 2 Potential bioenergy production areas in the Nordic countries- forest, grassland and arable land.

Patrick Galera Lindblom

Research Fellow