Bioenergy touted as low-carbon ‘game-changer’ for UK’s future energy system

Bioenergy is one of the most scalable, cost-effective and flexible sources of renewable energy, according to the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI), who have released more than 100 documents including data sets and project reports from its bioenergy programme.

The ETI is a public-private partnership between global energy and engineering companies – BP, Caterpillar, EDF, Rolls-Royce and Shell – and the UK government.

Its research, focussed on accelerating the use of bioenergy in the UK, shows that bioenergy has the potential to help secure UK energy supplies, mitigate climate change, and create significant green growth opportunities without constricting food production.

Bioenergy has the capability to meet around 10% of future UK energy needs and deliver net negative CO2 emissions of around 55 million tonnes per year in the 2050s, if used in combination with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). This could offset the need for more expensive interventions in sectors like aviation, transport and shipping.

ETI research suggests that to increase the supply of UK-grown biomass, there is a need to make more productive use of arable land in the UK. By planting around 1.4 Mha (about 7.5% of the total agricultural area of the UK) of second generation non-food bioenergy crops by the 2050s, bioenergy would make a significant contribution to delivering a cost-effective low carbon energy system for the country and create new jobs in the UK farming and forestry sectors.

First-generation crops, feedstocks that can also be consumed as food, currently dominate the UK energy crops sector.

The planting, in tandem with existing crops, of second-generation crops, such as miscanthus, Short Rotation Coppice willow and Short Rotation Forestry, will provide an opportunity to support the growth of sustainable biomass and deliver genuine emissions reductions.

However, in order to deliver the projected energy demand, the country will need to generate three times more bioenergy compared to today, according to the ETI.

The organisation stated: “This means the UK bioenergy sector needs a long-term vision and a greater understanding of how UK grown biomass can be deployed at scale. In the more immediate term there is the potential to restructure agricultural support to encourage growth of the biomass sector post-Brexit as use of second-generation crops can improve overall land productivity and create new jobs in the UK farming and forestry sectors.”

Domestic biomass production

Geraint Evans, ETI programme manager, said: “Biomass is already one of the largest and most versatile sources of renewable energy in the UK. To keep the UK on the trajectory for scaling up domestic biomass production into the 2050s, there should be a steady increase in the planting of second generation bioenergy crops on marginal arable land or appropriate grassland in the UK by about 30,000 hectares per year.

“Steadily increasing the planting of bioenergy crops in the UK would allow the sector to ‘learn by doing’ and develop best practices. This approach will also help the sector to monitor and manage impacts on other markets and the wider environment more effectively.

“But as we increase the size of the bioenergy sector, we will find that we are not able to rely on one type of biomass alone so the capability to be feedstock flexible will always be important in the UK.

 “We also need to understand that as we move towards our future low-carbon energy system, the most effective use of biomass may change. This does not mean bioenergy plays only a ‘transitional’ role in meeting our targets; rather that we will see the most valuable role for bioenergy reallocated, as the wider energy system decarbonises.”

During 2017, the ETI is releasing technical data and reports from projects delivered across its technology programmes over the last ten years. 

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