Law firm SGH Martinea recently hosted a conference in Birmingham focused on the future of bioenergy.

Energy supply companies, biomass developers, rural landowners, design consultants, investment houses, academic researchers and community campaigners all attended and joined in an energetic half day debate.

Bioenergy (anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis and gasification) is versatile, smart and generally benign in its social and environmental impacts. For these reasons, it enjoys substantial political support in the UK.

However, planning and quantifying bioenergy’s contribution to our future energy mix poses some fundamental questions about the way in which our industry is structured, and the way in which we do business.

Event host, Paul Mountain, a partner in SGH Martineau’s construction team, commented, “Viability of bioenergy depends on reliable technology, secure feedstocks, available land and customers who can pay for the heat and power – as speaker John Leeson of SLR Consulting eloquently explained.

“The first of these is a given – the technologies are tried and tested, and improvements are being made all the time. This is thanks to technology companies such as EcoGenR8, whose Andrea Gysin gave us a vivid account of current developments in the use of sewage sludge, and research institutes like Harper Adams University College, whose research scientist Leticia Chico-Santamarta also presented at the event, and Aston University’s European Bioenergy Research Institute.

“The second and the third conditions are problematic. Land supply is difficult, because local authorities worry about nimbyism and the perceived need to get full commercial value for their assets upfront. Securing feedstocks is difficult because of overly restrictive approaches to the legal definition of waste, and because significant quantities of municipal waste are already tied up in long term PFI contracts.

“But these are not insoluble problems, and the answers lie in more resource mapping – understanding the potential of a city or a region to accept and exploit bioenergy assets; more industrial symbiosis – business brokerage which matches supply with demand; and more collaboration – more cooperative business models, including community interest companies.”

Speaker Peter Jones OBE, who was a director of Biffa Waste Services until 2008 and is now a well known commentator and advisor to a variety of public and private sector bodies, added, “To get more investment into the sector, we need more integrated energy supply and distribution systems with low carbon footprints. We need a government policy which is well thought out, which is consistent, and which meets the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s economy. And we need society at large to buy into it – we need to influence people’s attitudes, opinions and beliefs. If we can get it right, the rewards will be huge, incalculable – the sky’s the limit.

“And although we need to speed up, things are going in the right direction. Even with the system as it currently stands, there are opportunities out there, including in rural economies, which offer solutions from the bottom up. By ensuring the three demands of reliable technology, secure feedstocks and available land are met, significant achievements can be made at a grass roots level. The question we need to answer is how does this integrate with top level activity?”