New £3.28m project to examine sustainability of bioenergy crops within the UK

The University of Aberdeen is part of a seven-member consortium project led by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) to study the impact of bioenergy crop land-use changes on soil carbon stocks and greenhouse gas emissions.

The £3.28m Ecosystem Land Use Modelling & Soil Carbon GHG Flux Trial (ELUM) is commissioned and funded by the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI).

The end result of ELUM will be a framework for predicting the sustainability of bioenergy deployment across the UK. Many of the outcomes will be applicable at an international level.

This ETI project is co-ordinated by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology under Dr Niall McNamara working with his deputy, Dr Jon Finch. Partners include the University of Aberdeen, Aberystwyth University, Forest Research, t the University of Edinburgh, the University of Southampton and the University of York.

Dr McNamara said, “The environmental sustainability of bioenergy crops is receiving wide-spread attention, scientifically, politically and in the media. A key emerging issue is the lack of underpinning data with respect to soil carbon conservation and the associated greenhouse gas balance. The ELUM project will generate robust experimental evidence in these areas. This evidence, in combination with our new modelling initiatives, will help predict the most sustainable pathways for bioenergy use in the UK.”

The ELUM project will develop a model to quantitatively assess changes in levels of carbon, nitrogen and water in soil, combined with the greenhouse gas (GHG) flux which results from the conversion of land to bioenergy crop production.  Categorisation and mapping of this data will allow recommendations on the most environmentally efficient agricultural and crop management techniques for bioenergy crop scenarios.

This project is unique in combining a large number of field studies (ca. 100) with state-of-the-art process models, to facilitate the mapping of the UK bioenergy carbon opportunity up to 2050. All data and models that will be produced will eventually be made freely available to researchers and the wider community. Also, the process models will be derived into user friendly meta-models for direct use by policymakers, land planners, and industry.

Professor Pete Smith, Royal Society-Wolfson Professor of Soils & Global Change at the University of Aberdeen, is leading the modelling work for the project.  He said: “I am very excited about the ELUM project. We need to be creative in meeting our tough greenhouse gas emission reduction targets and in ensuring energy security for the UK in a changing world. Bioenergy may well form an important part of our energy future, and it is essential that we quantify the likely impact of bioenergy on greenhouse gas emissions, so that we can establish best practice to get the best out of the opportunities that bioenergy offers. The University of Aberdeen is leading the modelling component of this project, so we will be scoping out how to optimise bioenergy for the future.”

Consortium partner Professor Gail Taylor at the University of Southampton said: “We are delighted to be playing a key role in helping to create a cost effective and sustainable energy system for the UK. Our work will address the current uncertainties measuring how these energy crops take up carbon dioxide, how much of that is locked up in crop and soil, and how much is released back to the environment. We have very little idea on how these new second generation crops impact on the net balance of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases and they could be a significant improvement compared to land use for other purposes, including arable and grassland crops.”

Dr Mike Perks of Forest Research said “This is timely research to which Forest Research is delighted to contribute scientific expertise. The programme is ambitious and directed at an area of specific concern for land managers today.  The project dovetails with Forestry Commission objectives for woodland expansion and energy forestry and will utilise trials from across the UK.”

The ELUM project is one of three new bioenergy projects recently announced by ETI, valued at £4.57 million. The ETI is a public private partnership tasked with developing “mass scale” technologies that will help the UK meet its 2020 and 2050 energy targets. These three new projects bring together leading capabilities in the UK and from Europe in agro economics and crop modelling; technology assessment and development, as well as advanced economic and technology modelling.

These three new projects bring together leading capabilities in the UK and from Europe in agro economics and crop modelling; technology assessment and development, as well as advanced economic and technology modelling.