Bioenergy potential of the united states constrained by satellite observations of existing productivity

W. Kolby Smith, Cory C. Cleveland, Sasha C. Reed, Norman L. Miller, Steven W. Running

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


United States (U.S.) energy policy includes an expectation that bioenergy will be a substantial future energy source. In particular, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) aims to increase annual U.S. biofuel (secondary bioenergy) production by more than 3-fold, from 40 to 136 billion liters ethanol, which implies an even larger increase in biomass demand (primary energy), from roughly 2.9 to 7.4 EJ yr-1. However, our understanding of many of the factors used to establish such energy targets is far from complete, introducing significgant uncertainty into the feasibility of current estimates of bioenergy potential. Here, we utilized satellite-derived net primary productivity (NPP) data-measured for every 1 km2 of the 7.2 million km2 of vegetated land in the conterminous U.S.-to estimate primary bioenergy potential (PBP). Our results indicate that PBP of the conterminous U.S. ranges from roughly 5.9 to 22.2 EJ yr-1, depending on land use. The low end of this range represents the potential when harvesting residues only, while the high end would require an annual biomass harvest over an area more than three times current U.S. agricultural extent. While EISA energy targets are theoretically achievable, we show that meeting these targets utilizing current technology would require either an 80% displacement of current crop harvest or the conversion of 60% of rangeland productivity. Accordingly, realistically constrained estimates of bioenergy potential are critical for effective incorporation of bioenergy into the national energy portfolio.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3536-3544
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 20 2012


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