Latest Blog Posts from Bioenergy

Dr Lynsey Melville, Birmingham City University

The Nature of Knowledge in the Bioenergy Sector

Bioenergy offers great potential to displace fossil derived energy and move the UK towards meeting its carbon reduction targets. Recent studies have shown that the UK could meet 44% of its energy through biomass sources without having to depend upon foreign imports (Welfle et al., 2014). While there is steady progress towards implementation of waste conversion technologies there is still an order of magnitude difference in the scale of activity in the UK compared to other parts of Europe. To encourage investment in bioenergy projects we need to better understand the development lifecycle and the costs and risks associated with each stage. This in turn requires access to reliable and reproducible data from across the bioenergy value chain (and in particular from current demonstration scale or full scale projects).

BioenNW, through its transnational cooperation, is attempting to address this challenge by capturing and sharing data and knowledge from across the North West Europe region and integrating it into a series of innovative decision support tools.

Knowledge based engineering techniques have traditionally been used in more established industries such as automotive and aerospace where ‘knowledge’ about processes and technologies is generally explicit and easily stored as facts and rules. Applying these techniques to a less mature domain such as bioenergy has proved extremely challenging. This is in part because the nature of knowledge surrounding bioenergy varies across disciplines and regions. It is also challenging because the success of bioenergy projects generally (and the efficiency of any one particular project) can be highly dependent upon technology type and efficiency, application and consistency of biomass feedstock.

Our aim has been to produce a series of tools that will be operable by individuals with varying levels of background understanding. These tools should enable end users to better navigate around aspects such as availability of local resources, economics and project development planning as well as relevant legislative and regulatory requirements.

Knowledge engineers capture explicit (known and easily described) and tacit (know-how and less easily described) knowledge from experts in the field. This knowledge is then made available and accessible to those who need it via online tools and applications. These tools aim to make the process of developing project plans, for example, more comprehensible and therefore potentially less time consuming. However, in order to build tools that will integrate different types of information from a variety of disciplines and regions requires the development of a ‘common’ vocabulary about bioenergy. This enables the information to be read and understood by not only humans, but also machines and in turn allows the machines to recognise logical relationships and make suggestions to support decision making in the real world. Whilst in theory this sounds like a straightforward exercise, it quickly became apparent from our partner meetings that the way in which we talk about and understand bioenergy processes and practices is still far from what could be described as ‘common’. While our understanding of the term ‘anaerobic digestion’ in the UK does not differ greatly from those in Germany, France, Belgium or the Netherlands, we have found that the way in which we describe biomass types, sources, processes and how we measure various inputs and outputs, can vary dramatically.

Having common terminologies allows us to interpret and analyse information in a consistent way across the regions. This is important when looking at resource availability. Security and variability of supply is commonly identified as one of the barriers to investment in bioenergy projects. With a rapidly expanding bio-economy and potential future competition for bio-resources, it is important to know what biomass is available and where, how best to manage and mobilise it and also, where possible, integrate existing supply chains to get the best added value. In addition, it is important to understand the impact that climate change and increasing demand for bio resources will have on land use as well water use. In order to do this geo-spatial data has been collected that allows us to represent this type of information visually as a map. Once again this has not been an easy task. While data pertaining to energy crops and agricultural residues in regions is relatively rich there is far less granularity in the data coming from food wastes and municipal sludges and residues for example. Regions such as the West Midlands in the UK have the opportunity to integrate bioenergy projects in locations that will capitalise on local waste resources as well as provide heat and power for local users. In order to do this however we need a clearer picture of the nature of waste in the region. While some of this data is available in the public domain, better stakeholder engagement through mechanisms such as the Business Support Centres (BSC’s) will enable us to capture better quality information and in turn facilitate more effective supply chain integration.

Although we work very closely with bioenergy stakeholders in order to capture and validate their expert knowledge, bioenergy is still a developing field and its knowledge is constantly evolving. Therefore it is important that we design the decision support tools to be flexible and adaptive, so that tools can make use of any new knowledge that comes out of future research. Moreover, to make these tools a success, the issues such as intellectual property of stakeholders that shared their knowledge, provenance of data, and maintenance of the tools will need to be addressed. In collaboration with our partners, we will be working towards to achieve that. Watch this space!

Words by Dr Lynsey Melville, Director of the Centre for Low Carbon Research
Birmingham City University, UK