30/01/2014
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Nature reserves - the UK's newest power stations

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Conservationists are working with the Government to investigate how to create energy from nature reserves. Wetlands are home to a broad range of species from Bitterns and swans to Water Voles and dragonflies, and managing them for wildlife results in large amounts of waste organic material. However, a new project is looking at how the latest technology can be used to turn reeds and rushes cut from these areas into heat and electricity.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change is funding a competition that is being trialled on nature reserves across the UK, and which is starting to show signs of success. RSPB staff are seeing cut material that would previously have gone to waste being used to produce energy. Natural England, Somerset Wildlife Trust and The Broads Authority are also partners in the project.

This week the RSPB will be showing how far the project has come with a demonstration at its Ham Wall National Nature Reserve in the Avalon Marshes of Somerset. The event will show reeds being cut using a mechanical cutter — one of only two in the UK — and then turned into briquettes that can be burned in a boiler or log burner. The reeds will also be added to an anaerobic digestion machine producing methane that can be converted into both heat and electricity. There will be similar demonstrations at RSPB Minsmere (Suffolk) in February and RSPB Insh Marshes (Highland).

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One of the specialised reed cutters used by the RSPB (Photo: www.rspb-images.org).

Energy and Climate Change Minister Greg Barker said: "Bioenergy is an important part of the UK energy mix which has the potential to reduce UK energy system costs by £42bn by 2050. We are committed to helping small businesses to develop and grow and this is exactly the kind of innovative project I want to see."

Sally Mills, project manager, said: "Nature reserves are carefully managed to create the ideal habitat for wildlife, and part of this involves cutting back reeds and rushes. Wetland birds and insects need to have a patchwork of habitats, from reeds to shallow pools and short grass, in order to nest and feed. Across the UK, conservation organizations produce thousands of tonnes of waste plant matter. In the past disposing of this waste has been a real issue — often we are forced to simply burn it on bonfires. But the Department for Energy and Climate Change want to find new ways to produce energy without releasing unnecessary carbon into the atmosphere and asked us to investigate how we can turn the waste vegetation off our reserves into heat and electricity. Using some pretty impressive technology, including mechanical cutters, briquette makers, boilers, biochar kilns and anaerobic digesters, the project is producing some amazing results. We have shown that we can take cleared wetland vegetation and use it to heat nearby buildings and produce electricity which can be fed into the National Grid."

In the past the difficulty of disposing of organic waste from wetland habitats has made conservation efforts difficult, and sometimes impossible. As well as the need to find new ways to produce renewable energy this led DECC to launch the 'Wetland Biomass to Bioenergy' competition. As part of the competition, entrants were challenged to design and deliver the complete process from wetland harvest through to the creation of bioenergy. The whole project is worth £2m and will continue until March 2015. The partners behind the project believe it could benefit a range of landowners, farmers and conservationists who manage land for wildlife. Ben Le Bas, Senior Advisor at Natural England for National Nature Reserves, said: "We are delighted to help host such an innovative and ground-breaking project which demonstrates the benefits of partnership working for the economy and the environment."

Written by: RSPB