Growing a sustainable, low-carbon UK bioenergy sector

Research conducted at Manchester provided the scientific foundations to grow a sustainable bioenergy sector and underpin the UK’s Bioenergy Strategy.

Bioenergy has become the largest renewable energy technology in the UK, contributing to more than 30% renewable electricity, 80% renewable heat and 5% total transport energy.

The UK government has strong ambitions to increase bioenergy as part of its industrial strategy and climate change commitments.

Researchers at The University of Manchester, led by Dr Andrew Welfle, delivered the robust, science-evidenced support the government needed to grow a sustainable bioenergy sector by delivering on the four pillars outlined below.

Establishing bioenergy research themes

Manchester hosted the Supergen Bioenergy Hub, the UK’s bioenergy research programme and network that brings together academia, industry, government and societal stakeholders to develop sustainable bioenergy systems. Through the network, Manchester experts influenced the UK’s Bioenergy Strategy by establishing a research framework focused on three objectives: promoting bioenergy; promoting biomass resources; and promoting the best uses for biomass.

Unique analysis tools to pinpoint opportunities

Dr Welfle developed the Biomass Resource Model tool that evaluates the availability of biomass by considering land systems, industries and supply chains within a chosen geography. The tool enabled the identification of the leading biomass resources that could be sustainably mobilised in the UK to reduce reliance on imported biomass and highlight low-carbon fuel options for the UK’s heat, power and transport sectors.

Increasing greenhouse gas performance

Manchester researchers pioneered methods of applying life cycle assessment (LCA) analysis, including how best to use LCA to validate bioenergy projects compared to fossil fuel energy systems. The investigation revealed that the greenhouse gas (GHG) performance of the UK’s current
strategy based on wood pellets imported from North America delivered up to 80% less GHGs than fossil fuels.

By analysing each step of the process life cycles, researchers identified practices that should be avoided to ensure reductions in GHG emissions when replacing fossil fuel systems.

Working collaboratively with government

Dr Welfle completed a knowledge exchange secondment to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), contributing analyses that allowed the formulation of clear recommendations, including:

  • The majority of the 2,000 UK bioheat scenarios analysed ‘demonstrated significant potential GHG savings far below the UK’s benchmark for sustainable generation and compared to that of fossil fuel generation’.
  • Food and agricultural wastes that have no other uses ‘present potentially significant opportunities for generating low/ net zero carbon energy’. Use of waste resource for energy may also provide mechanisms to decarbonise multiple UK emission inventories well beyond energy.

The impact of scientific evidence to drive change

Manchester researchers worked closely with UK government departments and advisory organisations during the eight-year project to provide the scientific research to develop the UK bioenergy strategy.

During his secondment to DECC, Welfle also influenced the refocusing of the UK’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) to prioritise heat bioenergy generated from waste materials. This resulted in a more than 80% increase in bioheat generation from these fuels.

The impact of Manchester's research has helped secure an additional £110 million from HM Treasury to extend the UK’s Renewable Heat Incentive scheme and develop future renewable heat support.