Stakeholders perceptions of biogas and land use in the UK

Anaerobic digestion is of growing importance within the UK bioenergy sector and can make an important contribution to the UK’s energy and climate change targets. With the growth of the sector, discussions about competing land uses are likely to increase and regarding this, the awareness and perception of the different stakeholders will play an important role. The UK has 18.5 million hectares of agricultural land, about 4.7 million of which are used for arable crops, mainly barley, wheat and maize to some extent (183,000 ha). Currently 27,800 ha of arable land are used for dedicated energy crops for biogas production, which is only 0.5% of UK’s total arable crop land.

A survey conducted by researchers at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research of the University of Manchester, has examined the stakeholder perceptions of anaerobic digestion and land use in the UK. The methodology used for the survey, involved direct interviews and a scoping workshop with different stakeholders among biogas operators, feedstock suppliers, developers, trade organizations and environmental NGOs. The analysis of the stakeholders’ positions revealed that there are different drivers for the various stakeholders: besides producing renewable energy, the interest in on-farm anaerobic digestion is related to a series of drivers and benefits for farmers and plant operators, including waste management and the diversification of farm business activities.

Policy uncertainties and relationships between different supply chain actors are the main challenges faced by the AD sector in the UK. The progressive reduction of support measures for renewable energy has generated insecurity during the planning phase and led to delays in investments.Trust between the partners along the supply chain was also seen as another main challenge,especially in terms of ensuring a stable and reliable supply of feedstock by farmers to biogas plants on one hand, as well as guaranteeing a fair price and acceptance of the delivered feedstock by plant operators to suppliers on the other hand.

Perception of land use for on-farm biogas differs between the stakeholder groups but is never seen as a single or major concern.The public perception of using land for energy crops for biogas production is mixed and in some cases it is influenced by negative past experiences with crops grown for 1st generation transport fuels. Public concern this is more about landscape transformation, increased traffic, odor and direct local environmental impacts, whereas land use is not a main argument against on-farm biogas. For many agricultural biogas operators in the UK, AD plants are considered as part of a wider agricultural system and  growing dedicated energy crops is seen as feasible when they fit or improve the existing farming system.The perception of AD and the choice of land use from farmers is based mainly on economic and management trade-offs. Both biogas plant operators and operators and feedstock farmers who integrate energy crops into the existing crop rotations, recognize that the production of energy crops is a benefit for their agricultural system.

Overall, the results of the survey suggest that the risk of a massive shift in agricultural practices for growing dedicated energy crops is limited in the UK. Nonetheless, land use related issues must be considered since the demand for feedstock is drastically increasing with the rapid growth of the sector. Therefore, the UK’s biogas  industry needs a clear vision of its future role in the bioenergy and farming sector. While the biogas sector is still advancing in the UK, there is a good chance to improve public understanding of anaerobic digestion and land use through early communication and transparency during the planning phase.

Ths posts is based on the paper by Roder M. et. al. “Stakeholders perceptions of land use for anaerobic digestion in the UK“, presented at the 23rd European Biomass Conference and Exhibition.

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