Innovating to solve the net zero puzzle

The Supergen Bioenergy Hub recently collaborated with the Carbon Recycling Network, the Biomass Biorefinery Network, and the High Value Biorenewables Network (three of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (BBSRC NIBB)) to submit a joint response to a Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Call for Evidence on The Role of Biomass in Achieving Net Zero.

The responses to the Call for Evidence will inform the development of the new UK biomass strategy, which is due to be published in 2022. This is the third in our ‘Biomass for net zero?’ blog series exploring some of the key points from our evidence submission. As we get closer to COP26, the series will also highlight some of the challenges that need to be addressed in order to realise the potential of biomass systems to support the transition to net zero.

Authored by Katie Chong, Supergen Bioenergy Hub

Innovation and people lie at the very core of achieving net zero, and there are still many challenges to overcome. A huge amount of research and innovation is still needed, even though we are on a very short timeline to try and fix our climate problems. There is no single solution for global decarbonisation due to the huge variety of potential feedstocks and technologies and the unique requirements of different communities. It is clear that the way forward will involve a combination of innovative technologies to achieve the greatest carbon savings. Climate change is a giant puzzle that we can only solve by putting all the solution pieces together, decarbonising piece by piece.

The utilisation of biomass feedstocks for energy (bioenergy) or products will be a piece of this puzzle, but even within this area, the way forward will involve a combination of different, innovative technologies. Fantastic work has already been done; for example, we now have a much better understanding of key biomass conversion technologies such as those based on thermochemical (pyrolysis, gasification) and biological (anaerobic digestion, fermentation). However, as we move towards a net zero world, research innovation is needed to improve existing technologies and create new ones. We need biomass technologies with improved performance that are more cost- and energy-efficient and more flexible in terms of feedstocks. Making biomass utilisation economic will, in many cases, require a biorefinery approach (where multiple products are created from one feedstock to extract maximum value) and delivering such systems requires novel and innovative approaches. We need to improve the way different biomass technologies work together and couple this with carbon capture, storage and utilisation to deliver even more effective GHG removal. To achieve net zero will not be possible without carbon capture, so the development and integration of bioenergy processes is essential.

However, successful innovation is needed to address these challenges; such technologies will only impact our net-zero transition if they go beyond lab-scale experiments and are used and deployed at scale. Such upscaling is necessary across the whole biomass supply chain, from feedstock supply to the technologies for treating and utilising biomass. But the transition to the large scale needed for deployment isn’t always simple. For example, there may be good knowledge of a technology’s performance under laboratory conditions and with ideal feedstocks. Yet, understanding how this varies with real feedstocks, larger volumes, and integration with other technologies is often poor. When technologies are scaled up, this can lead to significant performance issues and commercial failure. The UK would greatly benefit from more open access scale-up facilities to help speed up and de-risk the move to demonstration scale. Alongside this, it is vital that policy relating to biomass feedstocks and their role in achieving net zero is consistent across government departments and sectors and that there is policy certainty in the medium to long term. Scale-up and deployment of biomass technologies requires investment, and changing policy and support often deters investors.

Innovation is required through continued multidisciplinary research and strong engagement with industry and policy stakeholders, all of which lies at the core of the Supergen Bioenergy Hub and the BBSRC Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy. We will all continue this work and keep adding solution pieces to the huge climate change puzzle!

A question of sustainability

The Supergen Bioenergy Hub recently collaborated with the Carbon Recycling Network, the Biomass Biorefinery Network, and the High Value Biorenewables Network (three of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (BBSRC NIBB)) to submit a joint response to a Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Call for Evidence on The Role of Biomass in Achieving Net Zero.

The responses to the Call for Evidence will inform the development of the new UK biomass strategy, which is due to be published in 2022. This is the third in our ‘Biomass for net zero?’ blog series exploring some of the key points from our evidence submission. As we get closer to COP26, the series will also highlight some of the challenges that need to be addressed in order to realise the potential of biomass systems to support the transition to net zero.

Authored by Patricia Thornley, Supergen Bioenergy Hub

Sustainable is a word we hear a lot nowadays. Politicians tell us they are looking for sustainable solutions, scientists claim to be developing sustainable visions of the future, non-governmental organisations criticise the lack of sustainability, and every large company seems to have someone focused on corporate or social sustainability. So what does sustainability actually mean? And are the various initiatives as sustainable as they could be, or is all that glitters not quite as green as it looks?

Sustainability is a deceptively simple concept: to provide for our own needs while not impacting on the ability of future generations to provide for theirs. But defining what is needed to make that happen is actually much harder than it looks. We live on a finite earth: one planet with a certain amount of resources (land, ocean, minerals, etc). There is no (proven) way to go beyond our planetary boundary and so these limited resources have to support our livelihoods, and that of our children, and our children’s children, etc. That open-ended, forward-looking metric is not one with which we are used to dealing. Environmental regulations often focus on rates of flow (such as limiting emissions from a power plant, levels of discharge from a fish farm, or disposal of waste to land). But that doesn’t really capture the essence of sustainability; it is more about the extent to which our natural resources are depleted. When thinking sustainably we need to think about the overall available reserves, not the rates of flow that are much easier to measure and control. Whether it is the remaining quantity of rare earth metals we can access for manufacturing batteries, or the atmosphere that can only accept a certain amount of greenhouse gases, the important thing is not the rate at which we deplete or pollute but the net state of our planetary assets.

Although we often think of this as an ‘environmental’ issue, sustainability is actually a much broader concept than that. It is about our environment (the carefully balanced ecosystem on which we depend) but we live in a global society that is interconnected in many ways and so sustainability also has a social dimension (which incorporates education, employment and health) as well as an economic one. Most human behaviour and transactions are mediated by financial mechanisms and so we cannot ignore the fiscal structures we have established, which means that sustainable development must also be economically sustainable. Achieving this may well require policy interventions or subsidies to correct existing economic frameworks that fail to value the environmental impacts.

As soon as we introduce more than one objective things become complicated because we now have a multi-variable, non-linear problem. For example, changing a system to maximise greenhouse gas reductions may result in increased ocean acidification or soil carbon depletion. It is therefore imperative that sustainability assessments take a holistic approach that recognises the multiple impacts of energy and production systems and their associated trade-offs. Put simply, you can’t have your cake and eat it. If you engineer a system change that improves one thing (such as greenhouse gas emissions) it is almost inevitable that other things will have changed as well, and so it is important that sustainability assessments and regulatory frameworks are flexible enough to take account of these trade-offs, recognising the dynamic costs and benefits across multiple indicators.

One of the things that therefore annoys me most when it comes to sustainability is being asked: “Is that sustainable?” My answer is almost invariably: “It depends.” It depends on your objective, your perspective and what you deem to be acceptable limits. Legislation often paints a picture of qualifying and non-qualifying systems, implying that one is sustainable and the other not. In reality there is no hard and fast cut-off point. There may be tipping points within the global environmental system, but that doesn’t automatically translate back to a convenient limit we can set to ensure that we remain ‘sustainable’. In other words, sustainability is not black and white, but shades of grey. It is almost always possible to be more sustainable against a particular metric, but bear in mind that by so doing you may make other things worse. The ideal would be to maximise our performance against a range of environmental, social and economic indicators – but even the relative importance of these is subjective.

So I feel the best solution we have is to set frameworks that focus on the key metrics that are most significant for our identified needs, but monitor others as well. Then we should reward performance on a continuum that encourages continuous improvement. We need to move away from setting minimum performance levels and arbitrary thresholds, which simply risk a dash to mediocrity. Above all I think we need transparency around these reporting systems, where fiscal rewards for sustainable energy solutions are set to encourage maximum greenhouse gas reductions, while also monitoring and recording other impacts.

Nowhere is this need more evident than for bioenergy systems. The wood pellets that power our homes could have been harvested unsustainably in countries with weak governance and monitoring regimes, or be well-documented and evidenced in accordance with carefully monitored harvesting standards. The fuel in our tank may have originated from harmful wastes that would otherwise be discharged to sewers, or may have incurred land-use change and biodiversity impacts in ecologically sensitive regions of the world. The gas we burn could have been produced sustainably from agricultural residues, or may be the result of land/farm consolidation and lost livelihoods. It is impossible to determine the sustainability from the product itself and so there is a huge need for transparency to build trust and confidence in technologies that have the potential to deliver so many sustainable environmental benefits.

Please send queries to Dr Joanna Sparks, Biomass Policy Fellow via j.sparks@aston.ac.uk.

The unique benefits of bioenergy and bioproducts on the path to net zero

The Supergen Bioenergy Hub recently collaborated with the Carbon Recycling Network, the Biomass Biorefinery Network, and the High Value Biorenewables Network (three of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (BBSRC NIBB)) to submit a joint response to a Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Call for Evidence on The Role of Biomass in Achieving Net Zero.

The responses to the Call for Evidence will inform the development of the new UK biomass strategy, which is due to be published in 2022. This is the second in our ‘Biomass for net zero?’ blog series exploring some of the key points from our evidence submission. As we get closer to COP26, the series will also highlight some of the challenges that need to be addressed in order to realise the potential of biomass systems to support the transition to net zero.

Authored by Adrian Higson, NNFCC

To address climate change, we must break the constant flow of fossil carbon from geological deposits into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, we have a developed a powerful economic and social dependence on the use of fossil fuels as energy carriers (for heating, cooking, electricity generation and transport), and as a source of carbon for making chemicals and materials. The petrochemical industry transforms fossil fuels into thousands of everyday products used by industry and taken for granted by consumers, from fertilisers to plastics. Fortunately, many of the resources and technologies required to break this dependence already exist. The challenge we face is not a lack of options, but making the right decision on how to use these resources to best effect.

When it comes to energy sources, we have a whole range of non-fossil fuel options: solar, wind, nuclear and biomass can all offer a source of electricity that can provide the power for heat and some forms of transport without reliance on fossil fuels. However, biomass is alone in its ability to act as an energy carrier, as a non-fossil source of carbon, and as a route to capture atmospheric carbon thereby providing the opportunity for negative carbon emissions. When thinking of how biomass can be best used to meet our net zero aspirations, we need to consider what other decarbonisation options are available. It’s also important to consider how the whole life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of biomass use compare with alternative options such as wind, solar or the continued use of fossil feedstocks. This should include the unique potential of biomass systems to deliver the negative emissions that are needed to achieve overall net zero emissions across the economy. This happens when the carbon that was originally sequestered from the atmosphere during the growth of the biomass source is sequestered for a long period of time, either through the use of carbon capture technology or through the formation of long-lasting carbon-based products, such as building materials.

Unlike energy applications, the production of carbon-based chemicals and materials cannot be ‘decarbonised’. These products – which we use on a daily basis, such as food and drink packaging – result in the release of carbon dioxide at the end of life (when they decay or are incinerated in energy-from-waste facilities). According to the Center for International Environmental Law, the annual emissions from plastic production and incineration could grow to over 2.75 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2050 [1] – that’s the equivalent of 598,069,760 passenger vehicles driven for one year or the annual energy use of 331,163,757 homes [2]. The transition to a circular economy, increasing product recycling rates and implementing efficient production routes are all critical to addressing these issues. However, materials cannot be recycled indefinitely and a source of renewable carbon such as biomass will be required to manufacture products.

Luckily the chemical industry has a long history of using biomass to produce chemicals and materials. In fact, material production using vegetable oils and animal fats, along with the pulp industry, actually predates our use of petrochemicals. Consumer demand and innovative technologies are now creating new economic opportunities with cleaning and personal care ingredients. While materials – such as polyethylene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), commonly used in packaging, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), commonly used for plastic piping – derived from biomass are all commercially available now. These bio-based products can offer significant GHG emission savings over their fossil counterparts and, given that they’re relatively new, they may offer further savings as processes and supply chains develop. Some bio-based products actually offer opportunities for long-term carbon sequestration or storage, as carbon that was originally sequestered from the atmosphere during the growth of the biomass source remains trapped for the product lifetime. Bio-based products that have long lifetimes, such as durable construction products, can act as long-term carbon sinks.

In order to achieve net zero, we must look at biomass with a whole-systems approach. A biomass strategy should be based on a long-term vision of how to minimise GHG emissions across all sectors of the economy using all available options. Biomass should be directed (where technically, geographically and environmentally appropriate) to those applications where decarbonisation options are limited or non-existent, where the alternative approach is particularly GHG intensive, and where there are opportunities for carbon storage and negative emissions. In the drive towards net zero we should not lose sight of the economic opportunities provided through the use of biomass as a feedstock for chemicals and materials production. New chemistry and biotechnologies provide the opportunity to produce innovative and environmentally friendly products, in turn creating jobs and stimulating economic growth.

Our submission to the BEIS Call for Evidence contains a more detailed discussion of how biomass can and should be used to decarbonise various sectors, and how we should determine which uses are prioritised.  

Please send queries to Dr Joanna Sparks, Biomass Policy Fellow via j.sparks@aston.ac.uk.

 

References

[1] Center for International Environmental Law (2019) ‘Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet’
Available from: https://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Plastic-and-Climate-FINAL-2019.pdf 

[2] United States Environmental Protection Agency Greenhouse Gas Equivalences Calculator
Available from: https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator

Challenges for delivering sustainable domestic supply of biomass to support net zero

The Supergen Bioenergy Hub recently collaborated with the Carbon Recycling Network, the Biomass Biorefinery Network, and the High Value Biorenewables Network (three of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Networks in Industrial Biotechnology and Bioenergy (BBSRC NIBB)) to submit a joint response to a Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Call for Evidence on The Role of Biomass in Achieving Net Zero.

The responses to the Call for Evidence will inform the development of the new UK Biomass strategy, which is due to be published in 2022. This is the first in our “Biomass for net zero?” blog series exploring some of the key points from our evidence submission. As we get closer to COP26, the series will also highlight some of the challenges that need to be addressed in order to realise the potential of biomass systems to support the transition to net zero. 


Authored by Rebecca Rowe (UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) and Iain Donnison (Aberystwyth University)

The Climate Change Committee and others have highlighted the need for increased utilisation of biomass to support the UK and wider global transition to net zero [1], not least due to the potential of biomass to support greenhouse gas removal through the use of biomass with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), or in green manufacturing to make long lived products. Whilst increased utilisation of biological waste streams is key, waste alone will not to be sufficient to support the transition to net zero and the utilisation of other biomass resources including non-food biomass crops will be an important part of the transition to net zero [1,2].

There is an urgent need for positive action to support and expand non-food biomass crop production in the UK over the next few years, and because of this the UK government has taken steps with funding for biomass crop innovation and demonstration projects [3]. If we are to “kick start” large scale biomass crop expansion for the benefit of rural economies and to help the UK achieve its target of being net zero by 2050, we will need to convert the outcome of these projects and ongoing work of industry and researchers working on biomass supply into clear effective action.  This is a big challenge for everyone involved in the biomass value chain.

Increased production of non-food biomass crops should also be done sustainably, protecting if not enhancing natural resources such as soil and biodiversity, and taking into consideration the economic and social impacts (including impacts on food production). The impacts of biomass production are linked to how and where it is produced. For example, in locations where cultivation is likely to minimise soil loss from arable farming into rivers, the introduction of non-food crops can help to mitigate flooding.

Research by Supergen and others has shown that done well, increasing domestic production of non-food biomass crops could result in multiple benefits for the UK, but achieving this will only be possible with guidance informed by trial sites and modelling [4]. Economics will to a large extent dictate which crops are favoured, but policy can be used to influence this and to guide the development of the new energy landscape in the most sustainable way. This could include payments to landowners, by the government or even private companies, for the delivery of environmental benefits, (e.g. increased soil carbon or biodiversity). Such payments would require robust verification but they could help shape the most sustainable energy landscape.

Regardless of if payments are used, to guide the development of sustainable biomass supply the impacts of planting biomass crops need to be understood at field scale and modelled to the landscape, regional and national levels. This is a grand but not unsurmountable challenge, especially for the UK where there is already substantial data, including high resolution land use maps and the outcomes of research on biomass crop cultivation (i.e. how much yield is possible where and with which environmental benefits). Work to address this challenge is underway [5], driven by an overarching need to help ensure maximum greenhouse gas emission reductions whilst also incorporating wider environmental and societal considerations.

The research community, scientists, policymakers, landowners, and other stakeholders will need to work together to achieve real world positive outcomes and ensure that research and modelling provides the evidence base needed to support decision making and policy formation. This type of engagement is a core part of the work carried out within the Supergen Bioenergy Hub.

Our submission to the BEIS Call for Evidence considers the challenges associated with scaling up sustainable production of biomass from non-food crops in more detail, and also looks more broadly at the challenges associated with increasing our supply of biomass, from resources such waste or algae, and also the potential for (and potential impacts of) importing biomass.


Please send queries to Dr. Joanna Sparks, Biomass Policy Fellow via j.sparks@aston.ac.uk.


References

[1] Committee on Climate Change. (2019). “Net Zero The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming,” [Online]. Available from: <https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/net-zero-the-uks-contribution-to-stopping-global-warming/>.

[2] A. Welfle, P. Gilbert, and P. Thornley. (2014). “Securing a bioenergy future without imports,” Energy Policy, vol. 68, pp. 1–14, May 2014, doi: 10.1016/J.ENPOL.2013.11.079.

[3] UKRI. (2021). “UK invests over £30m in large scale greenhouse gas removal” [Online]. Available from: <https://www.ukri.org/news/uk-invests-over-30m-in-large-scale-greenhouse-gas-removal/>.

[4] C. Donnison, R. A. Holland, A. Hastings, L.-M. Armstrong, F. Eigenbrod, and G. Taylor. (2020). “Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS): Finding the win–wins for energy, negative emissions and ecosystem services—size matters,” GCB Bioenergy, vol. 12, no. 8, pp. 586–604, Aug. 2020, doi: 10.1111/GCBB.12695.

[5] Welfle, A., Holland, R.A., Donnison, I., Thornley, P. (2020). “UK Biomass Availability Modelling Scoping Report” – Supergen Bioenergy Hub Report No. 02/2020 [Online]. Available from: https://www.supergen-bioenergy.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Supergen-Bioenergy-HubUK-Biomass-Availability-Modelling-Scoping-Report-Published-Final.pdf