Barriers to Bioenergy?

Local Level Perspectives

Schelhas considered two aspects of the way people think when interviewing stakeholders: mental models, which describe the individual thinking process, and cultural models, which describe shared thoughts and values. Photo by John Schelhas, USFS.

At the national level, bioenergy is seen as a crucial component of a secure and renewable energy plan. Many people view southern forests as prime resources to support the hopeful bioenergy industry.

But how is the national agenda for bioenergy received by communities in the South?

“We are interested in understanding how the national discourse around bioenergy translates to the local one,” says USDA Forest Service research forester John Schelhas. “Do they reflect one another? Because if not, there could be serious barriers to a successful bioenergy market.”

Schelhas used the concept of an “imaginary,” derived from the field of cultural anthropology, to study the attitudes of local communities toward bioenergy. An imaginary is a communally held understanding of a topic with certain assumptions about what actions will be taken to turn those beliefs into a reality.

The national imaginary surrounding bioenergy is motivated by three primary beliefs:

  • Energy security: increased bioenergy production would decrease national reliance on foreign energy sources
  • Rural development: the bioenergy industry would create jobs and boost the economies of rural communities
  • Climate change: bioenergy is a sustainable and renewable energy resource that could replace a percentage of more finite and ecologically destructive sources of energy such as fossil fuels

Listen to a brief audio clip by author John Schelhas describing this publication. • Text Transcript

Yet with so many players in the bioenergy story – the energy industry, forest industry, landowners, community leaders, community members, state and federal representatives – it was clear to Schelhas that the local perception of bioenergy would be more complex than one single and coherent imaginary.

From 2011 to 2014, Schelhas and University of Georgia collaborators Sarah Hitchner and J. Peter Brosius interviewed stakeholders in three southern communities, each with a bioenergy plant at a different lifecycle stage. The researchers analyzed the interviews for indicators of how people think and talk about bioenergy. It was an effort to understand the origins of people’s opinions and the diversity of opinions within these communities.

They published their results in the journal Energy Research and Social Science.

When Schelhas started researching bioenergy, biomass-based liquid fuels seemed to hold great promise. However, it is a difficult and expensive business, and by the end of the research period, the two liquid fuel plants included in his study had shut down. Wood-pellet plants have maintained more success. Photo by John Schelhas, USFS.

“Positive messaging surrounding energy security and rural development carried through from the national to this local imaginary,” says Schelhas.

However, many interviewees cited perceived racial and wealth-based hiring discrimination along with unfulfilled promises to buy waste wood as signals of their skepticism regarding economic prospects. Messaging related to climate change did not reverberate at the local level.

“There were fascinating differences in perspectives, as well. The bioenergy industry proponents thought their views were shared by people living in forest dependent communities, yet their understanding of forests often did not resonate with those people who lived near and relied on forests all their lives,” elaborates Schelhas.

“The national imaginary was not actively countered on the local scale. There was no broad coalition against it. However, it had become diluted and lost the ability to motivate change,” concludes Schelhas.

This conclusion highlights a flaw in the reliance on top-down narratives to motivate policy decisions. Failing to address local perspectives and a diversity of opinions could limit the success of new technological plans.

Though bioenergy is promoted nationally as a burgeoning energy source and opportunity for rural development, many foresters reported that they were unlikely to grow wood specifically for bioenergy. Rather, they were primarily interested in selling their waste wood to the industry. Photo by John Schelhas, USFS.

“It is hard for local people to have input into national imaginaries, but that makes it even more important to listen to them. They are the ones who ultimately shoulder the success of a national initiative,” says Schelhas.

“It seems that the industry has become more transparent over time,” adds Schelhas. “They have begun to take other perspectives into account and are working to address longstanding criticisms.”

Schelhas’ research model extends beyond bioenergy. It is crucial for land managers, both public and private, to consider the implications of their messaging.

“Just because you say something doesn’t mean that people hear it or listen. You need to understand how your message is interpreted, reshaped, and countered. How are people motivated by what you say? How are they responding?”

Read the full text of the article here.

For more information, email John Schelhas at

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.