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Renewable Energy from Willow Biomass Crops: Life Cycle Energy, Environmental and Economic Performance

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Short-rotation woody crops (SRWC) along with other woody biomass feedstocks will play a significant role in a more secure and sustainable energy future for the United States and around the world. In temperate regions, shrub willows are being developed as a SRWC because of their potential for high biomass production in short time periods, ease of vegetative propagation, broad genetic base, and ability to resprout after multiple harvests. Understanding and working with willow’s biology is important for the agricultural and economic success of the system. The energy, environmental, and economic performance of willow biomass production and conversion to electricity is evaluated using life cycle modeling methods. The net energy ratio (electricity generated/life cycle fossil fuel consumed) for willow ranges from 10 to 13 for direct firing and gasification processes.  Reductions of 70 to 98 percent (compared to U.S. grid generated electricity) in greenhouse gas emissions as well as NOx, SO2, and particulate emissions are achieved. Despite willow’s multiple environmental and rural development benefits, its high cost of production has limited deployment. Costs will be lowered by significant improvements in yields and production efficiency and by valuing the system’s environmental and rural development benefits. Policies like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), federal biomass tax credits and renewable portfolio standards will make willow cost competitive in the near term. The avoided air pollution from the substitution of willow for conventional fossil fuel generated electricity has an estimated damage cost of $0.02 to $0.06 kWh−1. The land intensity of about 4.9 × 10−5 ha-yr/kWh is greater than other renewable energy sources. This may be considered the most significant limitation of willow, but unlike other biomass crops such as corn it can be cultivated on the millions of hectares of marginal agricultural lands, improving site conditions, soil quality and landscape diversity. A clear advantage of willow biomass compared to other renewables is that it is a stock resource whereas wind and PV are intermittent.With only 6 percent of the currentU.S. energy consumption met by renewable sources the accelerated development of willow biomass and other renewable energy sources is critical to address concerns of energy security and environmental impacts associated with fossil fuels.

Research Areas
Energy Systems
greenhouse gas emissions reduction, life cycle assessment, net energy, plant biology, pollution prevention, renewable electricity
Publication Type
Journal Article
Digital Object Identifier
Full Citation
Keoleian, G. A. and T.A. Volk. 2005. Renewable Energy from Willow Biomass Crops: Life Cycle Energy, Environmental and Economic Performance. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences: 24(5-6):385–406.