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.