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Path-dependent UK Bioenergy

Levidow, L.   Papaioannou, T   Borda-Rodriguez, A.

Science as Culture   22 (2) 213-221

December 2012   (Published Online May 2013)


The rise of renewable energy has generated tensions over its means and ends. Civil society groups have been promoting decentralisation of energy production, greater community control over resources and equitable access (Abramsky, 2010). Renewable energy has been seen as a special opportunity due its spatially distrib- uted sources, for example, wind, sun, biomass, etc.

In response to such proposals, energy decentralisation has been linked with renewable energy sources by some governments and local authorities, especially in Scandinavia (e.g. van der Vleuten and Raven, 2006). A similar vision also has appeared in many UK policy documents on decarbonisation over the past decade. Together these policies aim to enhance community involvement and GHG savings through renewable energy, including bioenergy (Levidow and Papaioannou, 2012).

As a form of renewable energy, bioenergy has been defined broadly according to its various biomass sources, for example, crops or food waste—as distinct from fossilised organic matter. Bioenergy production largely depends on traditional processes and/or biomass imports from sources which have been criticised as environmentally unsustainable. Excessive increases in biomass imports ‘could have counterproductive sustainability impacts in the absence of compensating technology developments or identification of additional resources’, according to
an expert study (Thornley et al., 2009, p. 5623). Accommodating such concerns, the UK government emphasises the need for technoscientific innovation to ensure expansion of ‘sustainable bioenergy’ (e.g. HMG, 2011, p. 70).

Focusing on the UK government’s innovation priorities, this paper addresses the following questions: How do UK policy incentives shape future bioenergy? How do priorities link innovation, infrastructures and knowledge? Here we argue that UK support measures generally promote bioenergy innovation as input-substitutes to supply centralised infrastructures for current consumption patterns. These priorities arise partly from the UK state’s relatively weak capacity to implement energy innovation, which remains dependent on large private-sector companies. Dominant pathways involve several epistemic assumptions, for example, that cost-effective GHG reductions correspond to inherent efficiencies of large-scale systems; that national economic benefits correspond to large companies selling novel technology or licensing patents abroad; and that mere input-substitution for fossil fuels is politically more reliable. Such pathways and support measures complement current infrastructures, thereby minimising extra infrastructural costs and limiting options for further GHG savings.

Before taking up the case of UK bioenergy innovation, let us first consider analytical perspectives on energy path dependence in general and then move onto the UK energy context and potential alternative pathways.