The Winkleigh case study of a relatively large-scale, technologically advanced bioelectricity plant contrasted with our findings on public perceptions of 2030 bioenergy scenarios for the Yorkshire and Humber region of the UK. Use of the Yorkshire and Humber region’s wood resource for small and medium-sized CHP and heat plants was found to be much more attractive than the use of the same resource for large or small electric power plants. Key reasons for this, mentioned by stakeholders and in two focus groups held with about 25 informed members of the public involved in considering energy options for their villages, included the higher energetic efficiency of CHP and heat relative to electricity, and perceptions of better performance in terms of local employment, local environmental impact and associated social benefits (Upham et al, 2007).
The focus groups with the public were held in March 2006, both involving local people who attended a monthly Energy Group. These groups were two of several funded and convened under the project dCARB-uk, a partnership project led by the Sustainable Development Commission, which worked with communities in Yorkshire towns and villages to develop long-term carbon reduction plans, as well as initiating specific carbon reduction projects. The focus groups were in villages not connected to a gas main, located within the North York Moors National Park. The stimulus materials used consisted of question prompts on bioenergy, graphical information on regional bioenergy scenarios and bioenergy crops and infrastructure, shown as photomontages in the locality (Upham and Shackley 2005; Upham et al, 2007).
Ownership and place attachment were again prominent themes: participants were primarily (though not solely) focused on supplying the energy requirements of their localities. Their main concern was not, therefore, the energy needs of the nation as a whole, or indeed of the Yorkshire and the Humber region, although most members of the groups did hold opinions regarding how best to meet the energy needs at these higher scales. Participants emphasized their preference for forms of bioenergy that would enhance their locality: they were concerned about biodiversity, landscape and visual impact, the local (rural) economy, and energy security, particularly in relation to their locality. There was disapproval of electrical transmission losses due to efficiency losses and a distrust of lengthy biomass transportation. Both groups were strongly in favour of biomass CHP in principle, but anticipated significant problems in practice (in particular the costs and other problems associated with installing pipelines in rural villages).
Despite the local focus of the groups, most participants also expressed a high degree of respect for national and global environmental integrity: climate change and other adverse environmental change were important to many participants. Generally, without further information, participants felt unable to commit themselves on the merits of displacing food crops for energy crops, but the carbon balance of bioenergy systems was both a familiar and important issue for many, and sometimes an issue of contention – that is, some participants expressed strong doubts that the full picture is captured by bioenergy life cycle analyses.
Moreover, the groups and their individual members were struggling to identify the best energy technologies for their individual and community situations. Despite a government subsidy, the capital investment required by individuals installing microgeneration technologies remains substantial relative to most UK household incomes and, in general, requires particular circumstances (e. g. boiler renewal or roof replacement) to be seen as financially justifiable. Similarly, individuals had to undertake considerable research in order to estimate payback periods for different technologies. The uncertainties were also high: for bioenergy, the logistics of securing a fuel supply can be complicated. More generally, some participants were also concerned that a change in government energy policy (e. g. heavily towards nuclear or stronger subsidies for renewables) could render their investment obsolete or unwarranted.