COVID-19: rethinking bioenergy and the UK bioeconomy

Andrew Welfle, Research Fellow at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change, suggests that with investment in infrastructure, bioenergy can lead a green recovery from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What if we could make an environmentally friendly and sustainable version of a fossil fuel? What if it could decarbonise our energy sector and provide fuel for transport, heat, and power? Biomass promises to do just this.

Made from the waste we throw away at home, or from crops grown specifically for this purpose, biomass would produce bioenergy with lower carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels, helping the UK to become more energy self-sufficient and meet international climate change targets.

With bold investment in infrastructure, bioenergy can lead a green recovery from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Recorded in August 2020

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Lecture transcript

Hello, my name is Andrew Welfle and I'm a research fellow at The University of Manchester and I'm based within the Tyndall Centre for climate change research. Within the Tyndall Centre at Manchester, we have lots of research that focuses on the adaptation, the prevention and the mitigation of risks associated with climate change and increments in atmospheric carbon emissions.

Within the Tyndall Centre, my research focuses on biomass and bio energy. Bioenergy being the generation of energy for biomass materials, biomass also being known as organic materials which are all around us. They may be materials that we throw away at home, thrown away by restaurants or supermarkets, they can be crop materials produced by our farms and agriculture, they are maybe energy crops – things growing specifically for the bioenergy sector, such as palm oil soya, or in the UK, miscanthus or poplar.

The interesting part about the research area of bioenergy that I'm interested in is how to generate low carbon emissions and how it may be used as mechanism to replace fossil fuels such as coal. If I provide an example - here is a piece of coal. Coal is essentially organic materials that have been underground for many thousands of years.

At the subject of heat and pressure, the organic material has been compressed into hard carbon organic material. If I was to burn this coal outside now, we would produce some heat and we'd also produce lots of C02 emissions which would contribute to the global atmospheric emissions.

The problem with coal is that it takes many thousands of years to produce, so once this coal has been burnt, it can't really be replaced on a good time frame. In contrast, here I have some biomass.

Biomass material is essentially the same same material as within coal but minus the many thousands of years underground with heat and pressure. The interesting bit with biomass is that I can still go outside and burn this. I'll produce some energy and I'll also produce C02 which will contribute to atmospheric emissions, but the good thing is that as long as this biomass continues to grow, as long as it's produced sustainably, there will be a constant uptake of C02 back from the atmosphere.

So, any emissions generated as they burn it will be in balance with those taken up from the atmosphere as the biomass continues to grow. Our research shows that Manchester, if we do life cycle assessments, that we can produce bio energy with lower carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels and therefore they provide a viable option for replacing fossil fuels going forward into the future.

For example, we've done some work looking at heat by energy where you produce heat in the UK from different sources of UK biomass, for example wastes, for example straw, for example energy crops, and we could produce heat with lower GHG intensities compared to natural gas and many other fossil fuels.

So, bio-energy could be a viable option to decarbonise the heat sector as just one example. Bioenergy is a really interesting area to work in because it's very closely linked to the bioeconomy. Biomass materials may be turned into transport fuels, they may be turned into fuels for heat, fuels for power.

They also produce a wide range of base chemicals that are crucial to developing the UK bioeconomy. The bioenergy and the bioeconomy are crucial for the UK's plans going forward as they are key to the climate change debates and key mechanisms to decarbonise.

They also produce many, many jobs and can be key sources of funding, producing billions and billions of pounds for the UK going forward into the future. Moving on to the COVID-19 question. COVID-19 represents a very interesting question and a research theme, if nothing else for our community, because COVID-19 has given time to re-think.

With many of the research areas focused on bioenergy and climate change generally, there needs to be changes. Changes of actions, changes of opinions. Basically, change needs to happen if we are going to go forward and meet our climate change targets and at the buzz word of the minute with COVID-19 is going be green recovery.

How are we going to bounce back from this COVID-19 crisis and with things like energy, how are we going to have a green recovery and use renewable energy technologies as the platform to produce our energy in the future? So, COVID-19 has provided this opportunity to re-think, has provided an opportunity to think about alternative methods.

For example, for producing our chemicals, alternative methods to producing our energy.

Bioenergy is one of the many renewable energy technologies that could be at the heart of that green recovery. Bioenergy is also interesting as compared to some of the other renewable technologies. It can be used as a dispatchable rate. For example, we can use it to produce base load energy where other renewables could complement it during peak times, for example fossil fuels could be replaced by bioenergies to provide a base load of energy.

Energy from wind and PV and other sources could be used then to cater for the peaks of energy in our day-to-day lives. COVID-19 is really interesting as well as a research question because it also provides opportunities to re-think the infrastructure requirements.

If bioenergy and the bioeconomy are going to flourish, we're going to need some infrastructure decisions. We're going to need sustainable supply chains, we're going to need large plants whether that's biorefineries to produce chemicals or large plants to produce bioenergy itself, or bioenergy with carbon capture and storage specs is also known.

So COVID-190 has given an opportunity to re-think about these infrastructure questions. How can we go forward and produce the infrastructure required to stimulate the bioeconomy and generate more bioenergy?

Another crucial question in my area of research is supply chains. To generate energy by energy and to generate chemicals, you need a sustainable supply of resources. In the UK, we are blessed with certain resources - maybe not with extensive resources required to balance all our demands. So, we'll currently require lots of resources imported from abroad.

With many issues with COVID-19 have been questions about supply and how secure is our supply in the future? For example, if there was limitations of what resources could and couldn't be transported around the world.

COVID-19 has provided a great opportunity to look inward with ourselves and look how secure are our supply chains, about biomass resources at home we could make better use of to produce our own energy sources to become self-sufficient, to use our chemicals to produce our energy.

So, COVID-19 has provided a great opportunity to look at the security of our supply chains. Bioenergy, a bioeconomy, are therefore great options to stimulate this bio-green recovery and we think they should be really considered, bumped up the agenda, as opportunities that could be pursued by the UK to decarbonise, produce jobs, to stimulate the bioeconomy and to generally produce a greener, better UK.

We have much research going on at The University of Manchester and within the Tyndall Centre specifically, where I focus on many of the themes I've discussed today. Please go to our website to see our ongoing projects and we're always happy to engage and collaborate.

We look forward to getting in touch with you.

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