Bioenergy is one of the largest providers of renewable energy in the UK and is the only renewable source able to produce heat, power as well as liquid and gaseous fuels.
Planting second generation non-food bioenergy crops would significantly contribute to a cost-effective low carbon energy system in the UK.
Planting second generation crops would also provide an opportunity to support existing and create new jobs in the UK farming and forestry sectors, post Brexit.
Bioenergy is one of the most scalable, cost-effective and flexible sources of renewable energy, according to the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) who today have released over 100 documents including data sets and project reports from its Bioenergy programme.
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 per cent 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. 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.
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 10 years.
On 22 November, the ETI will be looking forward to the future of energy crop use at its 10 Years of Innovation conference and exhibition. The ETI will join project partners the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, SynTech and Imperial College, on stage to debate the ETI’s research programme into bioenergy technology. Interested participants can register here.