Ecotricity’s ‘green gas mill’ at Sparsholt College in Hampshire will break down grass from nearby fields in an anaerobic digester. Photograph: Courtesy of Ecotricity
The grass is always greener than the gas on the other side, according to a British businessman who claims grasslands could provide enough gas to heat all of the UK’s homes.
Dale Vince, the chairman of renewable energy company Ecotricity, is investing £10m in the first of a generation of what he calls ‘green gas mills’ that he says could compete against gas from fracking.
The company said its Hampshire plant at Sparsholt College, which has planning permission and is slated to be operational in 2018, will take grass harvested from nearby fields and break it down in an anaerobic digester.
Grass at the plant would be turned into biomethane within 45 days and then injected into the national network, providing the heating needs of more than 4,000 homes.
A report by Ecotricity on Thursday said there are around 6m hectares of suitable grassland in the UK, not including arable land for crops. It argued this would be enough to match the amount of gas the National Grid forecasts homes will consume by 2035, but doing so would require the building of around 5,000 mills akin to the Hampshire one.
Vince admitted that getting to that point would be a huge challenge, given no other country had done it before and it was a new approach in the UK.
“It would be a massive undertaking but it would be permanent. Grass keeps growing, it doesn’t run out, unlike gas from fracking. Most of the value would be in the hands of farmers who, post-Brexit, may be in need of it,” he told the Guardian.
Grass at the plant would be turned into biomethane within 45 days. Photograph: Herbert Stolz/Courtesy of Ecotricity
The company is planning four other mills in addition to the one at Sparsholt College – in Somerset, Cambridgeshire, Shropshire, Wiltshire. Ecotricity is lobbying the government to secure subsidies for the plants, via the renewable heat incentive, which currently excludes support for grass.
Vince said the environmental impact of cutting grass would be benign and would not harm farmers or hay harvesting. “It’s massively beneficial [environmentally] because the grassland gets managed and becomes wildlife habitat while the grass is growing, and we crop it at the right time of year,” he said.
The company said a small amount of the gas produced would be stored at its plant, to act as a buffer, with most continuously pumped into the UK gas transmission network. Most of the UK’s gas today comes from the North Sea, Norway and Qatar.
An industry source said that, in theory, biomethane could be injected into the network, provided it was of the same standard and quality as natural gas.