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Life Cycle Assessment of a Willow Agriculture and Biomass Energy Conversion System


Current energy systems that rely primarily on fossil fuels are not sustainable because of the finite nature of fossil fuels and the environmental impact of their use.  Biomass is emerging as an important renewable alternative energy source with potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Agricultural production of biomass energy crops will present alternative uses for marginal soils; opportunities for improved stewardship of air, water, and soil resources; and new stable economic markets for rural America.  As part of the joint USDOE and USDA sponsored Biomass Power for Rural Development initiative, a system is being developed in New York to generate electricity from short rotation willow crops.  Overall sustainability of this bioenergy system is dependent on its environmental performance, in addition to economic and social aspects.  The research proposed here will provide a "cradle to grave" life cycle assessment of the resource utilization and environmental impact of this willow to electricity system.     

The life cycle assessment will inventory energy and resource demand as well as pollutant emissions for each process contributing to the generation of electricity from willow biomass: production of agricultural inputs, manufacture of farm implements and transportation equipment, preparation of soil, planting, cultivation and harvesting of the willow crop, transportation to the generating plant, and the final energy conversion at the plant.  Results of the life cycle assessment will include: overall energy efficiency of the system, net energy generated per hectare of agricultural production, amount of greenhouse gas emissions avoided, total and process-specific environmental emissions, and cost estimates of generating electricity from willow biomass.  These performance indicators will assist policymakers, investors, program evaluators, and the public and private sector in evaluating willow biomass as an alternative energy system.  The life cycle assessment will also be valuable in identifying specific areas within the willow to electricity system where effective improvements can be made.

The post-doctoral fellow and faculty mentor will collaborate with researchers at SUNY-ESF (Syracuse) and NREL in several aspects of data collection and life cycle modeling.

National Renewable Energy Laboratory
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Research Areas
Energy Systems