Biofuels in the Southwest

Science Center Objects

Concerns about energy security and rising greenhouse gas emissions have stimulated an unprecedented increase in the push for alternative energy use, including the use of plant biomass as a source of renewable energy (bioenergy). However, meeting alternative energy goals, while also meeting food demands and mitigating potential detrimental effects of industrialized agriculture, has emerged as a critical challenge facing our nation. The southwestern U.S. provides exciting opportunities to grow biofuels, because land use in the Southwest is not currently focused on growing large amounts of food and because multiple arid-land plants are highly efficient biofuel sources. SBSC’s Southwest biofuels program takes a two-pronged approach to improving our capacity to incorporate biofuels into our national energy portfolio: (1) using remote sensing and on-the-ground techniques to improve our understanding of the potential for bioenergy and (2) assessing the environmental consequences of bioenergy development, namely, greenhouse gas emissions, air and water quality effects, soil destabilization and dust production, and effects on exotic plan invasion.

Agave plants in a field
Agave plants being grown to test their potential use as a biofuel source. This experiment is led by Dr. Sarah Davis (University of Ohio) and is part of the dryland agricultural research program led by the U.S. Arid Land Agricultural Research Center. USGS is working with these collaborators to improve our understanding of the ecosystem consequences of this development (spring 2013). (Credit: Sasha Reed, USGS. Public domain.)

Background & Importance

This research aims to assess the potential benefits and negative consequences of biofuels development in the southwestern U.S. The use of biofuels as an energy source has grown exponentially in the last two decades, and this alternative energy has the potential to increase our nation’s energy independence and provide a sustainable technology for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Southwest has become a focus for biofuels development, due to the relatively low proportion of lands that currently grow food and to an increasing interest in dryland biofuels crops, which are often a strikingly more efficient source of biofuels. However, at the same time there is large potential for biofuels crops to have serious ecosystem consequences, such as reduced air and water quality, elevated soil disturbance and dust, and increased emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

The large potential for benefits and consequences is problematic to use in decision making and planning, as there are remarkably few data describing the ecosystem consequences of biofuels development, and limited quantitative information about the potential for biofuels to add to our national energy portfolio. Indeed, studies in wetter biomes suggest that biofuels development could be a large source of greenhouse gas emissions, and could have severe negative consequences for air and water quality, soil fertility, and ecosystem biodiversity. Thus, while resource managers and policy makers are under increasing pressure to grow biofuel crops on public lands, they have little information with which to make sustainable management decisions. This research aims to address the following significant questions: (1) how much energy could biofuels provide?, (2) what are the local, regional, and global consequences of such development?, and (3) are there particular places or times when development maximizes potential benefits and reduces potential consequences.

General Methods

This biofuel program takes a two-pronged approach to provide information that could improve our capacity to incorporate biofuels into our national energy portfolio: (1) using remote sensing and on-the-ground techniques to better quantify the energy potential for bioenergy and (2) using a biogeochemical approach to assessing the environmental consequences of bioenergy development, namely, greenhouse gas emissions, air and water quality effects, soil destabilization and dust production, and effects on exotic plant invasion. We are creating multiple refined geospatial datasets – including for MODIS and Biome-BGC – and collaborate closely with land managers from multiple agencies. We strive not only to determine how biofuels production will affect ecosystems (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions, water and air quality, and the health of wildlife and habitat), but to take a nuanced scientific approach that will inform decisions on how, where, and with which biofuel crops we can sustainably incorporate biofuels into our nation’s energy portfolio.

USGS technician standing in a field of agave plants
USGS technician standing near an agave plant that is part of a biofuels experiment led by Dr. Sarah Davis (University of Ohio) at the U.S. Arid Land Agricultural Research Center (spring 2013). (Credit: Sasha Reed, USGS. Public domain.)

Important Results

Information from this research has the potential to inform alter the trajectory of biofuels development in the southwestern U.S., as the results will provide groundbreaking information to resource managers and policy makers tasked with deciding how to incorporate biofuels development into public land plans. This research represents one of a very few assessments of the ecosystem consequences of this activity in drylands, and we take innovative approaches to quantifying how much energy biofuels could provide. For example, we helped develop a novel satellite-based approach for estimating biofuels potential across the entire U.S. This effort greatly altered estimates of the capacity for biofuels to meet energy and revealed important but previously ignored aspects of biofuels life cycle analyses. The research was cited in the 2014 National Climate Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Reports, and has been reported on in multiple scientific commentaries and the media outlets.