The future social implications of seaweed cultivation for bioenergy production

  • Julie Rostan

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by UHI)


Macroalgae or seaweed cultivation is a promising growing industry in Northern Europe due to the large range of products that can be derived from the seaweed biomass. One of these uses is the production of bioenergy, which could provide many advantages in the current context of decarbonisation. However, bioenergy from seaweed still raises uncertainties concerning economic feasibility and social implications. Like most industries, seaweed cultivation for bioenergy is likely to be subjected to scrutiny for potential social and environmental impacts. Communities of place and interests, as well as the public, are empowered to communicate their expectations and influence industrial activities by granting or withholding their social license to operate (SLO). For new industries like seaweed cultivation for bioenergy, it is crucial to understand how to reach SLO from the early stages of development. This thesis aims to investigate factors that may influence the future SLO for seaweed cultivation for bioenergy prior to commercial development.
The first part of this research uses a survey approach to investigate perceptions of seaweed cultivation and seaweed bioenergy in potential future local communities in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The second part of the research investigates potential futures for the industry in Scotland, from the perspective of the seaweed and energy sectors through qualitative scenarios. The third part of this research investigates the potential for SLO of seaweed bioenergy as an end-product in comparison to other seaweed products such as food and higher-value products.
For such a new and prospective industry, this research showed the important effect of social representations in shaping perceptions through values, norms and experience or perceptions of other industrial activities. The scale of seaweed cultivation represents a keystone between positive and negative perceptions and could significantly influence SLO. Beyond the size of cultivation sites, different scales represent different models of industry: from regionalized to globalized. Seaweed bioenergy is still anchored to a vision of a large-scale and globalized industry that appeared less desirable than regionalized models. For various types of end-products, it was also shown that the industry model is a factor most likely to influence SLO.
To meet SLO the activity has to demonstrate legitimacy by underlining contribution to global needs as well as local needs. If seaweed globally benefits from a green image and is seen as able to contribute to food and potentially to energy production, local needs should equally be addressed. Additionally, trust in developers is central for SLO and should be developed progressively through appropriate engagement, ongoing dialogue and empowerment of communities.
Overall, the results demonstrated a preference for a regionalized and diversified seaweed industry, despite a general acknowledgement of the need for scaling-up for economic viability. Seaweed bioenergy is not perceived as representing potential for large-scale energy solution due to a current lack of readiness and economic viability in comparison to already developed technologies such as wind energy. Respondents underlined that seaweed bioenergy could play a role as a local energy solution through small-scale projects adapted to local needs.
Date of Award2 Mar 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of the Highlands and Islands
SupervisorAdam Hughes (Supervisor) & Suzannah-Lynn Billing (Supervisor)

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