Logging and mill residues are currently the largest sources of woody biomass for bioenergy in the US, but short-rotation woody crops (SRWCs) are expected to become a larger contributor to biomass production, primarily on lands marginal for food production. However, there are very few studies on the environmental effects of SRWCs, and most have been conducted at stand rather than at watershed scales. In this manuscript, we review the potential environmental effects of SRWCs relative to current forestry or agricultural practices and best management practices (BMPs) in the southeast US and identify priorities and constraints for monitoring and modeling these effects. Plot-scale field studies and a watershed-scale modeling study found improved water quality with SRWCs compared to agricultural crops. Further, a recent watershed-scale experiment suggests that conventional forestry BMPs are sufficient to protect water quality from SRWC silvicultural activities, but the duration of these studies is short with respect to travel times of groundwater transporting nitrate to streams. While the effects of SRWC production on carbon (C) and water budgets depend on both soil properties and previous land management, woody crops will typically sequester more C when compared with agricultural crops. The overall C offset by SRWCs will depend on a variety of management practices, the number of rotations, and climate. Effects of SRWCs on biodiversity, especially aquatic organisms, are not well studied, but a meta-analysis found that bird and mammal biodiversity is lower in SRWC stands than unmanaged forests. Long-term (i.e., over multiple rotations) water quality, water use, C dynamics, and soil quality studies are needed, as are larger-scale (i.e., landscape scale) biodiversity studies, to evaluate the potential effects of SRWC production. Such research should couple field measurement and modeling approaches due to the temporal (i.e., multiple rotations) and spatial (i.e., heterogeneous landscape) scaling issues involved with SRWC production.
Synthesis manuscript for an Ecology & Society Special Feature on Telecoupling: A New Frontier for Global Sustainability
Abstract: European demand for renewable energy resources has led to rapidly increasing transatlantic exports of wood pellets from the southeastern United States (SE US) since 2009. Disagreements have arisen over the global greenhouse gas reductions associated with replacing coal with wood, and groups on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean have raised concerns that increasing biomass exports might negatively affect SE US forests and the ecosystem services they provide. We use the telecoupling framework to test assertions that the intended benefits of the wood pellet trade for Europe might be offset by negative consequences in the SE US. Through a review of current literature and available data sets, we characterize the observed and potential changes in the environmental, social, and economic components of the sending and receiving regions to assess the overall sustainability of this renewable energy system. We conclude that the observed transatlantic wood pellet trade is an example of a mutually beneficial telecoupled system with the potential to provide environmental and socioeconomic benefits in both the SE US and Europe despite some negative effects on the coal industry. We recommend continued monitoring of this telecoupled system to quantify the environmental, social, and economic interactions and effects in the sending, receiving, and spillover systems over time so that evidence-based policy decisions can be made with regard to the sustainability of this renewable energy pathway.
Citation: Parish, E. S., A. J. Herzberger, C. C. Phifer and V. H. Dale. 2018. Transatlantic wood pellet trade demonstrates telecoupled benefits. Ecology and Society 23 (1):28. [online] URL:https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol23/iss1/art28/
Exports of woody pellets from the southeastern United States (US) for European power plants have expanded since 2009, leading to concerns about major negative environmental effects. US exports of wood pellets have grown from essentially nothing in 2008 to 4.6 million metric tons in 2015, with 99% of US pellets being shipped to Europe. To examine effects of this recent expansion of the pellet industry on forest conditions, we use US Department of Agriculture Forest Service (USFS) Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) annual survey data for 2002–2014 to analyze changes in timberland trends since 2009 for two fuelsheds supplying pellets to the ports of Chesapeake, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia. This analysis reveals that the Chesapeake fuelshed had significant increases in acreage of large trees and harvestable carbon after 2009. Furthermore, the timberland volume within plantations increased in the Chesapeake fuelshed after 2009. The Savannah fuelshed had significant increases in volume, areas with large trees, and all carbon pools after 2008. Increases in carbon in live trees for the Chesapeake fuelshed and all carbon pools for the Savannah fuelshed for the years before and after 2009 provide empirical support to prior estimates that production of wood-based pellets in the southeast US can enhance greenhouse gas sequestration. Both fuelsheds retained more naturally regenerating stands than plantations; however the number of standing dead trees increased within naturally regenerating stands and declined within plantations (but only significantly for the Savannah fuelshed). While the decrease in the number of standing dead trees per hectare for the Savannah fuelshed plantations after 2009 warrants investigation into its effects on biodiversity, others have recommended thinning and hardwood mid-story control within pine plantations to provide habitat for regionally declining bird species, which is consistent with use of biomass for energy and reducing the risk of fire. While all energy use affects the environment, these results show that benefits accrue when sustainable forest management provides wood pellets for energy that keep fossil fuel in the ground. By contrast urbanization is the greatest cause of forest loss in the SE US. It is essential to consistently monitor and assess forest conditions to assess changes, for exports of wood-based pellets for the southern US are expected to grow. Even though use of pellets for energy has more than doubled, the pellet industry constitutes < 1% of US forest products by weight. Therefore, any recent changes in SE US forest conditions are more likely related to the 2008 declines in the housing market. Continued analysis of annual FIA data using the methods outlined in this manuscript provides a scientifically valid approach for ongoing assessment.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Co-Optimization (Co-Optima) initiative is accelerating the introduction of affordable, scalable, and sustainable fuels and high-efficiency, low-emission engines with a first-of-its-kind effort to simultaneously tackle fuel and engine research and development (R&D).
Co-Optima is conducting research to identify the fuel properties and engine design characteristics needed to maximize vehicle performance and affordability, while deeply cutting harmful emissions. Rather than endorsing a single solution, this initiative is designed to arm industry, policymakers, and other key stakeholders with the scientific foundation and market intelligence required to make investment decisions, break down barriers to commercialization, and bring new high-performance fuels and advanced engine systems to market sooner.
DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy has brought together nine national laboratories—the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Argonne, Idaho, Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Pacific Northwest, and Sandia National Laboratories—to collaborate on this groundbreaking research. The outcome of this effort will be new tools, data, and knowledge to pave the way for future generations of fuel and vehicle innovations.
In its first year, the Co-Optima initiative moved from robust concept to concrete results. The two DOE offices, nine national laboratories, and industry stakeholders that compose Co-Optima successfully worked to integrate fuels and engine R&D, breakdown barriers, and tackle challenges. This report highlights the progress made by Co-Optima in fiscal year 2016.
In this inaugural year, our parallel Co-Optima research tracks have focused on fuels and engine technologies related to spark-ignition and advanced compression ignition systems.
This report summarizes the results of an IEA Bioenergy inter-Task project involving collaborators from Tasks 37 (Energy from Biogas), 38 (Climate Change Effects of Biomass and Bioenergy Systems), 39 (Commercialising Conventional and Advanced Liquid Biofuels from Biomass), 40 (Sustainable International Bioenergy Trade: Securing Supply and Demand), 42 (Biorefining – Sustainable Processing of Biomass into a Spectrum of Marketable Bio-based Products and Bioenergy), and 43 (Biomass Feedstocks for Energy Markets). The purpose of the collaboration has been to analyze prospects for large-scale mobilization of major bioenergy resources through five case studies that determine the factors critical to their sustainable mobilization.
Understanding the complex interactions among food security, bioenergy sustainability, and resource management
requires a focus on specific contextual problems and opportunities. The United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable
Development Goals place a high priority on food and energy security; bioenergy plays an important role in
achieving both goals. Effective food security programs begin by clearly defining the problem and asking, ‘What
can be done to assist people at high risk?’ Simplistic global analyses, headlines, and cartoons that blame biofuels
for food insecurity may reflect good intentions but mislead the public and policymakers because they obscure
the main drivers of local food insecurity and ignore opportunities for bioenergy to contribute to solutions.
Applying sustainability guidelines to bioenergy will help achieve near- and long-term goals to eradicate hunger.
Priorities for achieving successful synergies between bioenergy and food security include the following: (1) clarifying
communications with clear and consistent terms, (2) recognizing that food and bioenergy need not compete
for land and, instead, should be integrated to improve resource management, (3) investing in technology,
rural extension, and innovations to build capacity and infrastructure, (4) promoting stable prices that incentivize
local production, (5) adopting flex crops that can provide food along with other products and services to society,
and (6) engaging stakeholders to identify and assess specific opportunities for biofuels to improve food security.
Systematic monitoring and analysis to support adaptive management and continual improvement are essential
elements to build synergies and help society equitably meet growing demands for both food and energy.
Abstract: Cellulosic-based biofuels are needed to help meet energy needs and to strengthen rural investment and development in the midwestern United States (US). This analysis identifies 11 categories of indicators to measure progress toward sustainability that should be monitored to determine if ecosystem and social services are being maintained, enhanced, or disrupted by production, harvest, storage, and transport of cellulosic feedstock. The indicator categories are identified using scientific literature, input from two stakeholder meetings, and response information from targeted surveys. Five of the categories focus on environmental concerns (soil quality, water quality and quantity, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity, and productivity), and six focus on socioeconomic categories (social well-being, energy security, external trade, profitability, resource conservation, and social acceptability). We hypothesize that by measuring these indicators, it will be feasible to quantify changes in ecosystem and social services related to provisioning (e.g., energy, nutrition and materials), cultural, regulating, and supporting services such as optimum soil water and nutrient balances, remediation of wastes, toxins, or other nuisance compounds, and continuation of physical, biological and chemical conditions. To advance our hypothesis from conceptual to real-world sustainability assessments, the next step will be to work with a team of stakeholders and researchers to implement a Landscape Design Project entitled “Enabling Sustainable Landscape Design for Continual Improvement of Operating Bioenergy Supply Systems.” The desired outcome is to identify a science-based approach so that progress toward sustainability can be assessed and useful management practices can be identified.
This report provides a status of the markets and technology development involved in growing a domestic bioenergy economy as it existed at the end of calendar year 2013. It compiles and integrates information to provide a snapshot of the current state and historical trends influencing the development of bioenergy markets. This information is intended for policy-makers as well as technology developers and investors tracking bioenergy developments. It also highlights some of the key energy and regulatory drivers of bioenergy markets.
As U.S. energy policy turns to bioenergy, and second-generation biofuels in particular, to foster energy security and environmental benefits, consideration should be given to the implications of climate risk for the incipient bioenergy industry. As a case-in-point, we review evidence from the 2012 U.S. drought, underscoring the risk of extreme weather events to the agricultural sector in general, and the bioenergy supply chain in particular, including reductions in feedstock production and higher prices for agricultural commodities and biofuels. We also use a risk management framework developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to review current understanding regarding climate-related hazards, exposure, and vulnerability of the bioenergy supply chain with a particular emphasis on the growing importance of lignocellulosic feedstocks to future bioenergy development. A number of climate-related hazards are projected to become more severe in future decades, and future growth of bioenergy feedstocks is likely to occur disproportionately in regions preferentially exposed to such hazards. However, strategies and opportunities are available across the supply chain to enhance coping and adaptive capacity in response to this risk. In particular, the implications of climate change will be influenced by the expansion of cellulosic feedstocks, particularly perennial grasses and woody biomass. In addition, advancements in feedstock development, logistics, and extension provide opportunities to support the sustainable development of a robust U.S.bioenergy industry as part of a holistic energy and environmental policy. However, given the nascent state of the cellulosic biofuels industry, careful attention should be given to managing climate risk over both short- and long-time scales.
Indicators of the environmental sustainability of biofuel production, distribution, and use should be selected, measured, and interpreted with respect to the context in which they are used. The context of a sustainability assessment includes the purpose, the particular biofuel production and distribution system, policy conditions, stakeholder values, location, temporal influences, spatial scale, baselines, and reference scenarios. We recommend that biofuel sustainability questions be formulated with respect to the context, that appropriate indicators of environmental sustainability be developed or selected from more generic suites, and that decision makers consider context in ascribing meaning to indicators. In addition, considerations such as technical objectives, varying values and perspectives of stakeholder groups, indicator cost, and availability and reliability of data need to be understood and considered. Sustainability indicators for biofuels are most useful if adequate historical data are available, information can be collected at appropriate spatial and temporal scales, organizations are committed to use indicator information in the decision-making process, and indicators can effectively guide behavior toward more sustainable practices.