Wednesday, 21 March 2007


Within the next few years Ireland could be dense with the dancing fronds of elephant grass, a crop with a serious chance of replacing coal and oil in electricity generation in much the same way that coppiced willow is being used as a biomass fuel.

Trials have shown that the plant flourishes on most arable land and the Irish climate is perfect for growing healthy crops. The plant requires no fertilizer and up to yet, suffers no pests or diseases. The elephant grass produces huge volumes of material that can be harvested using existing technology and burned in power stations. When harvested the stalks can be burned in conventional power stations.

The elephant grass (Latin name Miscanthus giganteus) can grow up to twelve feet tall. Each spring the grass grows up a new set of shoots, and during the autumn those shoots move the nutrients that they need to grow back into the root system. The farmer then harvests it, which means there is no need for nitrogen and other fertilizer to be added. This factor makes it a very efficient crop, especially as the plant shouldn’t need to be re-stocked once it is established. The advantage with biomass crops is that they do not add to carbon dioxide emissions. As they grow they absorb carbon dioxide, and when they are burned they release it again, so they are “carbon-neutral”. Ireland is in a good position to capitalise on the new crop. It has a lot of farmland and a small population. It is claimed that if 10% of land were used to plant up the crop, Ireland could produce about 30% of its power needs. This would help the country get a secure renewable energy supply to run alongside its potential for wind power and solar power.

In England there are plans to construct power stations purely to burn the elephant grass. In Eccleshall, Staffordshire there is a power station that is burning the crop from about 900 hectares that is already planted. There is a similar scheme in Selby, Yorkshire that is hoping to plant up 10,000 acres. These schemes might be available in Ireland and farmers could be eligible for a one off set up grant and then annual subsidies much in the same way that the land is put aside for forestry. There are of course potential problems; firstly there is the suggestion that mass planting could mar the landscape. Secondly, when rapeseed was introduced in large areas the seed spread everywhere, -fears are that the elephant grass could escape the confines of its growing space and take over the hedgerows. The plant is widely used as a large ornamental specimen in gardening and as yet I haven’t heard of one example where the plant has spread uncontrollably as it increases in size mainly by its roots and not from seed. Teagasc believe it’s only a few years before we grow it commercially here. So we will know soon enough.


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