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rural living: Rob goes green for a better life; An increasing number of farmers are now looking to the energy market. Rural Affairs Reporter Sarah Probert meets one man who could help the Government tackle its most challenging task yet - climate change.

Byline: Sarah Probert

It's all a bit of an experiment for Rob Ainsworth.

An army of tractors trundle across the fields of his farm in Eccleshall, Staffordshire, carrying the green waste collected from homes across the county.

In his fields, where cattle would once graze, are clusters of unusual crops.

But the tall straw-like mis-canthus grass will not be ending up in our food. Instead, it will be used to power a revolution in renewable energy.

Mr Ainsworth is one of a growing number of farmers who are turning to energy crops to make some profits after years of working long days for little or no return.

In 12 months time this crop, also known as elephant grass, will be sent to a nearby power plant and used to power and heat several thousand homes.

He is also planning a small power plant of his own at the farm, which would serve the electricity needs of the local area.

So far, a co-operative of 170 farmers from Staffordshire and Shropshire are growing miscanthus as part of the Eccleshall Biomass Energy Project, which has received funding from the Government and Advantage West Midlands.

Ministers hope this plant will become one of a growing number and contribute to renewable energy targets set to reduce damaging greenhouse gas emissions.

The project will see the creation of a steam-turbine generator on an industrial site in Eccleshall, which will supply electricity to 2,000 homes. The new plant will contribute 16,000 mega watts of renewable energy and use 22,000 tonnes of fuel a year. The plant will save one tonne per hour of carbon dioxide which would be created generating electricity from fossil fuels.

Mr Ainsworth, aged 46, gave up dairy farming to diversify into renewable energy and said the dramatic change was a gamble, but one he hopes will be more profitable than his dairy herd.

"We sold the dairy farm four years ago because we were unhappy with the way it was going, especially the financial side of it and the labour side of it, the quality of life.

"I was sceptical at first. It's something new, but what else do we do? We don't really see a great future in mainstream farming. It is just one of those crops that was being pushed at the time when we were looking for something to do."

Mr Ainsworth also takes in the county's green waste and turns it into compost for farms, garden centres and landscap-ers. Meantime, giant bales of miscanthus are stored away, ready for when the Eccleshall plant opens.

"There are a lot of questions still to be answered and we are just learning more as we go along. I honestly feel there are huge opportunities for farmers to get into the energy market, not just this, but biodiesel and ethanol."

However, while this may be an ideal diversification for some farmers, it is not going to work for everyone, he said.

"Part of the requirements for contract is that you have to be within 25 miles of the plant, otherwise it is not viable."

Access to a decent road network is also vital, he said.

But before mass diversification takes place, the Government needs to offer more support.

"We need the infrastructure, we need the plants and some financial support to put them in place," he said.

Environment Minister Ian Pearson visited the farm last week to look at the biomass project.

Mr Pearson said the Government was keen to tap into the renewable market and had a package of support in place to encourage farmers to diversify.

He added: "Biomass is a fledgling industry, and here in Staffordshire there is a great project starting to get off the ground. There is also great potential for biofuels by growing oil seed rape, sugar beet and recycling waste oils."

Renewable fuels

Crops for heat and power, either used directly or converted into gas or oil:

Forestry residues - miscanthus, reed canary grass, willow, poplar and straw.

Crops for transport fuels, either as a substitute fuel or as an additive to fossil fuels.

Cereals - eg, wheat, oilseed rape, sugarbeet.

The Government launched an action plan last month to unlock the potential for renewable energy in biomass.

The plan outlines how energy from crops, trees and waste can make a strong contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sets out 12 key ways to make this happen. These measures include:

A capital grant scheme for biomass boilers

The establishment of a new Biomass Energy Centre to provide expert information and advice

Further grant support for biomass supply chains and a commitment to consider using biomass heating in Government buildings.

The report, launched by Ministers from Defra and the DTI, forms the Government's response to the Biomass Task Force, which made a package of recommendations in October.

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Picture, TREVOR ROBERTS' Rob Ainsworth turning to renewable energy after spending years working for little or no return
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 16, 2006
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