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One billion acres of abandoned cropland around the world could provide sustainable energy storage, according to a new study that promotes biomass as a key player in sustainable energy planning.
The study, published by the Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution, claims that the bioenergy from abandoned croplands could supply most of the storage needs for a range of energy production initiatives.
The study estimates the global extent of abandoned crop and pastureland and calculated their potential for sustainable bioenergy production from historical land-use data, satellite imaging and ecosystem models. On a global level, we’re talking about one billion acres of abandoned agricultural, all fallow.
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"Our study shows that there is clearly a potential for developing sustainable bioenergy, and we've been able to identify areas where biomass can be grown for energy, without endangering food security or making climate change worse." Chris Field, Director of Department of Global Ecology.
In the US alone, new estimates show that there are around 68 million hectares of abandoned cropland that could be used for bioenergy production. This is 70% more than previous gridded estimates.
Using these lands for energy crops, instead of converting existing croplands or clearing new land, avoids competition with food production and preserves carbon-storing forests needed to mitigate climate change.
The study lists three broad categories of crops that have potential for bioenergy: food crops, local native plants and special bioenergy crops such as switchgrass or elephant grass.
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Using a wide range of biomass yields and conversion efficiencies, potential bioenergy production has an upper-limit of 5%-30% of the current US primary energy demand, or 4%-30% of the current US liquid fuel demand, according to the study.
In terms of square kilometers, we are looking at some 4.7 million square kilometers of abandoned lands globally and 274,133 square kilometers in the US—that’s larger than the state of Texas.
The largest potential, then, is in the US, followed by Brazil and Australia—all of which have more extensive areas of abandoned crop and pasture lands.
Within the US, the east and mid-west have the greatest potential.
So is the bioenergy elixir we’ve been waiting for? Not necessarily. While this abandoned land could be put to massive bioenergy use, even if 100% of it were to be turned into bioenergy production sites, it would still only yield enough for about 6% of US national energy needs, the study notes.
By. Joao Peixe of Oilprice.com
Joao is a writer for Oilprice.com