Public opinion and local support may very well be the linchpins that determine the future of bioenergy in the United States.
The Southeastern U.S. is poised to become a major producer of bioenergy, and a wide range of bioenergy technologies are now in various stages of development in the region.
Will residents support the new ventures? Who will grow the biomass? Will those in established industries fight against it? These are but a few of the critical questions that citizens, policymakers and investors must answer if bioenergy is to become a viable alternative to fossil fuels.
Now, researchers from the University of Georgia and the U.S. Forest Service are conducting studies in locations throughout the biomass-rich Southeast to find answers to these questions and more. They hope their unique method of investigation, using a mix of complementary ethnographic methods, will provide a detailed understanding of public opinion about bioenergy while also providing policymakers and business owners with the information they need to make sustainable energy production thrive in their communities.
"We're planning to work on the ground throughout the Southeast," said Sarah Hitchner, a co-investigator and post-doctoral research associate at UGA's Center for Integrative Conservation Research.
"A lot of people talk about biofuels as being an obvious win-win, but it's more complicated than that."
Beginning in Soperton, Ga.— formerly home to Range Fuels and now the Freedom Pines Biorefinery owned by LanzaTech — and then moving on to other areas in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina, the researchers will participate in the daily activities of community members and conduct in-depth interviews with a variety of stakeholders, such as landowners, industry representatives, potential employees and county commissioners.
"A big part of this kind of research is to listen to as many perspectives as possible," said Peter Brosius, professor of anthropology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, director of the Center for Integrative Conservation Research and co-investigator in the study. "From there you begin to see patterns emerge."
This approach, which allows researchers to develop familiarity and rapport with community members over an extended period of time, gives them a more detailed understanding of the various points of view that might not be fully captured by other less comprehensive research methods such as phone interviews or mail-in surveys, Brosius said.
"Researchers across the world have been developing technologies for the conversion of biomass resources into energy and fuels, but we don't have a very good understanding of the effects that a large-scale biomass energy industry may have on the communities involved," said Ryan Adolphson, director of public service and outreach in the College of Engineering and associate director of the Bioenergy Systems Research Institute.
Adolphson works with Georgia companies and state and federal policymakers on bioenergy industry development.
Assist industry development
"This study will make great strides toward helping us understand those effects and assist in the development of a more effective biomass energy industry," Adolphson said.
Supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which funds research projects on sustainable bioenergy through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, this integrative research aims to explain not only whether people support or oppose bioenergy development, but also what led them to form their opinions and what policies, institutions and events may have influenced their decisions.
"USDA and President Obama are committed to producing clean energy right here at home, to not only break our dependence on foreign oil, but also boost rural economies," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "These projects will give us the scientific information needed to support biofuel production and create co-products that will enhance the overall value of a bio-based economy.
“Today, with a strong and diversified U.S. agricultural sector, the American automobile industry has a greater incentive for expanding use of bio-based products while supporting good-paying jobs here in the United States."
The researchers stress that as alternative fuel and sustainable industry grow, it will become increasingly important for potential companies to identify and understand the social and economic factors working for and against new ventures.
"This research has the potential to inform the policy process, but we are also pioneering a new method that is applicable to other sustainability issues," Brosius said.
"There is a lot of activity right now in bioenergy with different plants being opened and a lot of proposed plants using a combination of private investment and government incentives to get started," said John Schelhas, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service and project co-investigator.
"We're looking at specific sites where bioenergy development is taking place, and we're interested in talking with community members and landowners who have various degrees of investment and interest in bioenergy."
Ultimately, the researchers hope that this project will not only yield important information about the future of bioenergy in the South but also serve as a springboard for future research designed to examine the social complexities of bioenergy development by investigating diverse perspectives and interests within the communities in which these new and proposed facilities are embedded.
"It's essential to understand the way people perceive, understand and talk about biofuels as bioenergy industries develop in this region," Schelhas said. "And it seems like we will be able to provide more clarity about that."