Straw: From solid fuel to sustainable biofuels

06.09.2013, News

A commercial production of advanced bioethanol in Denmark demands a stable and sufficient supply of straw and this is what the new member of BioRefining Alliance, Danske Halmleverandører & Danske Maskinstationer and Entreprenører (Danish Straw Suppliers & Danish Contractors and Entrepeneurs) can deliver. But if we shall keep existing logistics and jobs in straw production we need clear political support, Chairman of Danske Halmleverandører, Hans Stougaard says.


Chairman of Danske Halmleverandører (Danish Straw Suppliers), Hans Stougaard. Photographer: Julie Søgaard.

In a few years Danish farmers will no longer deliver straw to Danish coal power plants. The coal power plants will be transformed into biomass plants, but they will be using wood pellets  - not straw.

Additionally, the government has announced a new supply security tax on biomass, which will increase cost on straw for ordinary heating.

So if the 1.5 mio. tonnes Danish straw surplus should not just get plowed into the fields, it is necessary to start the industry, that will use the straw as feedstock in the future: the producers of advanced biofuels and biobased high-value products such as chemicals and ingredients.

The chairman of Danske Halmleverandører and spokes person for Danske Maskinstationer og Entreprenører, Hans Stougaard, has high expectations regarding projects like Maabjerg Energy Concept (MEC), which will need around 300,000 tonnes straw per year.

With no political initiatives logistics and jobs will be lost

But before MEC and similar projects can become a reality a sufficient demand for advanced bioethanol is needed. EU is in a process of changing directives in advantage of advanced biofuels by setting targets for advanced biofuels in gasoline and diesel.   

 - But we know how long the usual EU time frame is. Additionally, we don't even know the outcome. So, at this point we can only tell our members to sell their machines and to fire their employees. Unfortunately, Hans Stougaard says. 

Due to the fact that the same machines and employees are needed when the straw hopefully in a few years will be used as feedstock in biorefineries such as MEC, it is necessary to make sure that the straw will be bought by someone else in the mean time. Otherwise, logistics have to be established all over again when MEC is ready.

 - Some power plants have already stopped using straw which is equivalent to 20 percent of the straw we are able to deliver today. This means that 20 percent of our machines and employees are already redundant. That is why it looks bad from our point of view because the Danish politicians won't give us a clear message regarding an advanced biorefinery, Hans Stougaard says and continues:    

- Not only the farmer but also the machine dealer, tire dealer etc. will be affected. It will spread like rings in the water. So the politicians can not expect everything to be ready the day they decide to go for this, he says.

That is why the straw business needs a binding commitment from the politicians. 

 - Even if the farmer decides to wait for this commitment and keep his machines, at some point the bank will 'help' him sell them, Hans Stougaard says.

Why don't the farmers just plow the straw?

This can lead to Danish farmers either temporarly or even permanent have to plow the 1.5 mio. tonnes annual straw surplus if Denmark doesn't create growth and jobs within advanced bioeconomy.   

Even though you risk losing an important income, won't it at least be an advantage for the soil to plow the straw?

 - I am still waiting for the 'slide' that tells me, that it is an advantage to plow more straw than we do today. Already, we are leaving a lot of straw on the field. Additionally, we use cover crops, which increase soil quality and reduce nitrogen emissions from the field. Finally, the farmer makes sure that he has a proper crop rotation to maintain the soil quality. In my 47 years as a farmer I have removed straw from my fields and there is nothing wrong with my crops, Hans Stougaard says.

If you look at a map of Denmark showing the ratio between clays and carbon in the soil - the so called Dexter index - there are areas in Denmark where the carbon level is low. Will these areas not benefit from plowing more straw? 

 - Every single farmer will always be in a situation where he evaluates his field and he is probably the best to do that. There can be a field of which he doens't want to remove straw and he decides to plant grass seeds on. No farmer wants to 'starve' his field. It is probably what is most dearest to him after his wife and kids, Hans Stougaard says.

With BioRefining Alliance we can get further down this track

With that in mind Danish famers will be able to deliver 1.5 mio. tonnes straw to a hopefully coming industrial production of advanced bioethanol and high value products. Their wish to be a part of a future advanced bioeconomy in Denmark is the reason why Danske Halmleverandører & Danske Maskinstationer og Entreprenører became a member of BioRefining Alliance.

 - I know Director Anne Grete Holmsgaard from her time in the Danish Parliament, and I find her very skilled and visionary. We regard our membership as an opportunity to go further down the track BioRefining Alliance is founded to promote. Additionally, Anne Grete Holmsgaard is also working hard on getting an answer regarding MEC. We are rather new in this area and we regard the alliance as an important partner we can learn from. Also, you say what you mean and we can discuss relevant issues with you, Hans Stougaard says.