Abundance of waste biomass in US creates opportunities for renewable energy

US agriculture could provide up to 155 million tonnes of crop residues and 60 million tonnes of manure for the generation of clean fuels and electricity in 2030, according to new analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The UCS research found the top 10 states with the potential to use the residues left behind from crop harvest and livestock production, such as plant materials and manure, are: Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Arkansas, Texas, California, Indiana, South Dakota and North Carolina. Together, these states can provide about two-thirds of total projected US crop residues and manure in 2030.

'The use of these biomass resources to produce renewable fuels for transportation and to generate electricity can provide a sustainable, low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels while enabling communities to benefit from local resources,' says Joshua Goldman, policy analyst for the UCS Clean Vehicles Program.

UCS found that, overall, the US could tap nearly 680 million tonnes of biomass resources each year by 2030, enough to produce more than 10 billion gallons of ethanol, or 166 billion kWh of electricity – this is equal to 4% of total US power consumption in 2010.

The UCS analysis found that the benefits of biomass depend on using the right types of resources at an appropriate scale. It identifies ways that farmers can adapt their practices to sustainably remove residues from their fields, such as using no-till farming and planting cover crops to reduce soil erosion and water pollution while expanding the amount of residues available for bioenergy.

By using anaerobic digesters, for example, to extract biogas from manure, small-scale livestock producers can improve water quality, reduce methane emissions and return nutrients to their soils. The biogas can then provide heat and power for the farm, or it can be further purified and sold as renewable natural gas or used to generate renewable electricity.

'Biofuels and biopower can play a larger role in our fuel and electricity mix in the years to come with technological improvements, private investment and smart public policies,' Goldman adds. 'Responsible development of biomass resources can go hand-in-hand with producing a more balanced harvest of healthy food.'

Specific findings of the UCS analysis include:
• Iowa has the largest potential in the country to use biomass resources to produce energy, with a projected 31 million tonnes of agricultural residues projected to be available in 2030.
• Arkansas has the potential to become a leader in bioenergy, with more than 10 million tonnes of agricultural residues projected to be available in 2030.
• Texas, one of the nation's leading agricultural states and home to a sizable cattle industry, could provide nearly 10 million tonnes of agricultural by-products to produce clean fuel and electricity by 2030.
• California has the potential to provide more than 9 million tonnes of crop residues and manure in 2030, including more than half of the vineyard and orchard prunings available nationwide.

'When combined with boosting fuel efficiency, investing in electric vehicles and smart business practices, sustainable biomass production will help us achieve our goal of reducing the nation's projected oil use in half in the next 20 years,' Goldman concludes.

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