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Homegrown Energy: Biofuels

Photo: Needles District of Canyonlands National Park . Photograph credit: Tonya Troxler, USGS.
Photo: Needles District of Canyonlands National Park . Photograph credit: Tonya Troxler, USGS.

Evaluating the Production of Biofuels on American Soil- Biofuels are combustible materials derived directly or indirectly from biomass – such as plants or algae – and they offer a renewable fuel alternative to fossil fuel burning. The American Midwest is considered the bread basket of the world for a good reason – it is very well suited for agricultural production. Expanding biofuel markets are increasing demand for corn and soybeans, and prices for these crops are rising. As a result, more land is being converted from conservation easements into soybean and corn production in the Prairie Pothole region of the Northern Plains.  This conversion comes at a cost to ecosystems services like carbon sequestration and erosion prevention. In contrast, the arid lands of the Southwest do not currently produce as much food, but have the potential to contribute a significant proportion of our energy portfolio as biofuels.  Yet biofuels development in the Southwest also has the potential to negatively affect important ecosystem features such as dust production and water quality, as well as wildlife. USGS scientists in the Southwest and Prairie Potholes regions of the United States are using a range of approaches to provide information to determine what type of biofuel development makes the most sense from energy, economic, and ecological perspectives.

Assessing Biofuel Production in the American Southwest
Photo: The Needles district of Canyonlands in Moab, Utah serves as a stunning backdrop to our study site in the high desert grassland of the Colorado Plateau. Researchers at Canyonlands Research Station are testing the effect of experimentally imposed altered precipitation regimes on plant reproductive success, mortality, and biomass. Photograph credit: Erika Geiger, USGS.
Photo: The Needles district of Canyonlands in Moab, Utah serves as a stunning backdrop to our study site in the high desert grassland of the Colorado Plateau. Photograph credit: Erika Geiger, USGS.

The southwestern United States boasts an abundance of sunlight and thus has good potential for biofuel production, especially with new technologies that reduce the need for water. USGS scientist Sasha Reed and other USGS researchers are actively evaluating the potential for and consequences of biofuel production in the Southwest. They take a two-pronged approach. First, they use remote sensing and modeling to help determine the amount of energy that could be added to our national energy portfolio by biofuel production in the Southwest, taking into account a variety of technologies. Second, they use biogeochemistry to assess how different strategies of biofuel development will affect greenhouse gas emissions, water availability and quality, air quality, and soil fertility and stability. Their results can help resource managers make decisions about if, when, where, and how to promote bioenergy development on the lands that they manage. This study is ongoing. Contact: Sasha Reed.

Evaluating Biofuels in the Northern Prairie
Photo: View near a groundwater well in North Dakota. Photograph credit: USGS.
Photo: View near a groundwater well in North Dakota. Photograph credit: USGS.

USGS scientists Ned Euliss and David Mushet have developed a modeling method that uses remote-sensing data and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools to measure the impacts of land-cover change in the Prairie Pothole region on ecosystem services of value to society.  So far, their modeling has focused on predicting changes in carbon storage and biodiversity under various conversion scenarios for USDA Conservation Reserve Program and Wetland Reserve Program lands.  Carbon storage helps reduce the amount of atmospheric CO2, a “greenhouse gas” affecting the global climate.  Models allow scientists to compare the economic benefits and ecological costs of conversion of land from conservation or agriculture to biofuels along an entire spectrum of intensity from completely protected to completely converted for corn or soybean production.  These predictions are further informed by additional GIS layers that project land-cover changes 50 years into the future under various socioeconomic and climate-change scenarios.  USGS modeling efforts like this help land managers and decision makers evaluate whether and how much biofuel production to undertake. This study is ongoing. Contacts: Ned Euliss, or David Mushet.

 

Photo: Needles District of Canyonlands National Park . Photograph credit: Tonya Troxler, USGS.
Photo: Needles District of Canyonlands National Park . Photograph credit:Tonya Troxler, USGS.

Homegrown Energy: Deserts Blooming with Biofuels? - USGS scientist Sasha Reed and other USGS researchers are actively evaluating the potential for and consequences of biofuel production in the Southwest. These scientists are conducting research to find answers to questions such as, what happens when biofuels are incorporated in different soil types and landscapes of the Southwest? And what effects will biofuel production have on ecosystems, dust production, or water quality and quantity? Read More >>

Image of Product: Wind Energy and Wildlife Research at the Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
 

Wind energy and wildlife research at the USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center - Read about innovative wind energy research occurring at this USGS research center where scientists are assisting public agencies and private industries with information to use in making sound decisions about wind energy. Fact Sheet >>

 

Photo of a badger. Copyright Cameron Aldridge 2008
Photo:Badger. Photograph taken by Cameron Aldridge, USGS.

For more information on USGS Wildlife and Renewable Energy Research, visit Links to related resources on energy and wildlife >>

 

 

 

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