The UK could generate almost half its energy needs by 2050 from UK biomass sources, including household rubbish, agricultural residues and home-grown biofuels. Unless we plan and invest for this, we will waste a great opportunity, argues Andrew Welfle.

As much as 44% of our total energy requirement could be met by the potential abundance of biomass resources in the UK. Yet these resources are under-utilised, largely ignored by politicians and overlooked even by the bioenergy sector itself.

And as a result, the UK’s bioenergy sector is moving in a direction where the biomass resources it will need will have to be imported from abroad.

The UK is committed to legally binding renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction targets, with energy from biomass anticipated to make major contributions to these. Like other European Union governments, the UK must limit greenhouse gas emissions and comply with renewable energy targets set by the 1998 Kyoto Protocol and the 2006 and 2008 EU renewable energy requirements.

In addition, the UK is legally bound by the 2008 Climate Change Act to achieve a benchmark 35% reduction by 2020 below 1990 levels and a mandatory 80% cut by 2050. This all underpins the overall aim of encouraging a transition towards a low carbon UK economy via ever stricter emissions targets.

Biomass is assumed by many countries to be a fundamental part of their national energy strategies. This makes it essential that each country makes an objective assessment of its biomass resource availability. Most EU member states’ energy strategies assume the use of non-EU sourced biomass to meet their forecast use, which is likely to lead to increased demand, and therefore increased competition, for globally traded biomass in the future. There are also concerns about the sustainability of these biomass resources.

The UK Government also has strong ambitions for bioenergy to play a large role in the UK meeting its renewable energy and carbon reduction targets. But uncertainty about the availability of biomass sourced domestically means that it is likely to be dependent on imported biomass resources.

A Biomass Resource Model was developed to assess the availability of different types of biomass in the UK. This model evaluated the supply chain variables and other factors likely to influence the availability of UK biomass resources. Factors taken into account include the impact of climate change, the evolution of food production systems, land use characteristics and the competing markets for different biomass resources.

But policy considerations will also play an important role in the development of the bioenergy sector and the availability of biomass resources for use to generate energy in the UK. Four different scenarios were considered that gave prominence to alternative policy priorities.

This research considered four potential policy priorities that could be adopted in the UK. The priorities the team analysed included an economic focus, investigating how the future UK bioenergy sector may look if economic growth was the prime focus; a conservation focused policy priority, where the conservation of resources is the key future aim; an energy focused priority, where the UK pushes towards achieving the maximum practical levels of bioenergy generated from its resources; and a food focused priority, where the potential future of the country’s bioenergy sector is orientated towards the UK increasing its food security.

There has been wide discussion about some of the potential barriers to the development of the biomass sector. The primary barrier has been assumed to be competition for land that may otherwise be used to grow food.  Another barrier has been the assumption that biomass will have to be imported to the UK if we want to use increased levels of bioenergy.

However, the research found the UK could produce large levels of energy from biomass without importing resources, or negatively impacting the UK’s ability to feed itself. The model found that indigenous biomass resources and energy crops could service up to 44% of UK energy demand by 2050 without affecting food systems.

Residues from agriculture, forestry and industry provide the most robust resource, potentially providing up to 6.5% of primary energy demand by 2050. Waste resources are found to potentially provide up to 15.4%. Energy crops grown specifically for use as biomass could meet up to 22% of demand. According to these projections, the UK will have significant indigenous biomass resources to make large contributions towards the UK meeting its renewable energy and greenhouse gas reduction targets.

However, the dominant biomass resource opportunities identified are not consistent with current UK bioenergy strategies, risking a deficit in domestically supplied biomass despite an abundance of resources. Biomass is a flexible energy option that can be used to produce heat and electricity – and which can even be converted to transport fuels. Different types of biomass resource are best suited for different purposes.

The best option for the UK is to make the most of its biomass resources through bio-refineries producing high value bio-products for dedicated purposes, with all remaining suitable resources used for heat generation.

But it is very unlikely that optimum use will be made of biomass without more attention being paid by government and industry to the opportunities presented by biomass and for them both to plan for the use of biomass and to invest in the development of the sector.