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An overview of publications prepared by Biomass Research staff

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Fertilizer use, biofuel energy balance and GHG emissions

Energy balances and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emission reduction from biofuel production in the Netherlands was evaluated using a tool developed by Wageningen University and Research Centre and Biomass Research. The model (Energy Crop Simulation Model or E-CROP) covers the entire biofuel production chain from sowing to distribution. A recent paper describes E-CROP application to four crops on two sites in the Netherlands (potato and sugar beet for bioethanol, winter oilseed rape for biodiesel and silage maize for bioelectricity) and on the effect of crop management (irrigation and nitrogen fertilisation).

In all situations, gross energy output exceeded total energy input. Average net energy yield ranged from 45 to 140 GJ∙ha. Net reduction of GHG emissions ranged from 0.60 to 6.5 t CO2-eq per hectare. N2O emission from nitrogen fertiliser caused large variations in the net reduction of GHG emissions, which may be reduced to zero.

Reducing irrigation or fertilisation  caused large variations in the net GHG reduction, which even might become negative. Low nitrogen fertilizer applications reduced yield levels but enhanced net GHG emission reduction. It is concluded that good knowledge of agricultural practices is needed if one wants to optimise the performance of bioenergy production.

The study was done following ISO 14040/44 guidelines for Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). The goal of the analysis was to evaluate the effects of biofuel chain and crop management options with respect to the potential of energy crops to replace non-renewable (fossil) energy and to reduce GHG emissions. Bioenergy chains were compared in a “Well to Tank” analysis with their appropriate fossil reference chains (bioethanol −> gasoline from crude oil, biodiesel −> diesel from crude oil, bio-electricity −> power production from a mix of fuels and heat −> heat production from natural gas). Co-products from cropping and biofuel production were either incorporated into the soil or converted into additional energy, e.g., electricity, of which the benefits were added to the energy and GHG emission balances.

Energy crop modelling

A team of researchers of Wageningen University and Research Centre and Biomass Research developed a tool (Energy Crop Simulation Model or E-CROP) to calculate sustainable crop yield levels and (gross and net) energy yield and Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emission reduction. The model covers the entire production chain from sowing to distribution of bioenergy. Their paper describes E-CROP application on four crops, cultivated on two contrasting sites in the Netherlands (potato and sugar beet for bioethanol, winter oilseed rape for biodiesel and silage maize for bioelectricity) and on the effect of crop management (irrigation and nitrogen fertilisation).

In all situations, gross energy output exceeded total energy input. Calculated for an average situation, net energy yield ranged from 45 to 140 GJ∙ha. Net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the average situation ranged from 0.60 to 6.5 t CO2-eq per hectare.

Reducing irrigation and/or fertilisation input levels caused large variations in the net reduction of GHG emission, which even be- came negative in some situations. Lowering nitrogen fertilisation reduced yield levels but enhanced the net reduction in GHG emissions. Agricultural knowledge is important for optimising the outputs of bioenergy production chains.

Biofuels compete little with food production – So far

WAGENINGEN, The NetherlandsA recent study reveals food production is not suffering much from the use of corn, wheat or palm oil in biofuel production.

Calculating land use changes in Brazil, the USA, the EU, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa and Mozambique, a team headed by Hans Langeveld demonstrated biofuels are not likely to compete with food production – or cause major deforestation, usually indicated as indirect land use change (ILUC). According to the study, between 2000 and 2010, urbanisation claimed twice the amount of land used for biofuel expansion.

Farmers adapted to increased demand for crops, says Hans Langeveld, who is the main author of the study. “Not so much by opening new land”, he adds, “but by using it more effectively”. “This study is the first of its kind. We collected land use and crop data from the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).”
Langeveld: “Biofuel producers may use land that was used for other crops.” He emphasises that this should be discouraged. “Existing land rights should be respected – at all times”. But biofuel policies are not inherently bad. “Farmers have provided sufficient extra crops to compensate for biofuel expansion, serving both food and fuel markets”.

Complete land balances
The authors present an impressive set of data showing that biofuel expansion in the study area is based on a harvested area of 25 million ha. More than 40% of the biomass used in the biofuel production process is recovered in by-products used for animal feed.

Data presented are based on a combination of land use and crop production statistics, the first time this type of data are combined. So far, discussions on biofuel land use were based either on local observations or on modelling studies which used scenario projections.

Over 30 million ha of agricultural has been lost in the study area since 2000. This is more than two times the area used for biofuel expansion. Loss of land has been especially high in China and the EU. Most of this land has been used to host new houses, roads, industrial activities, etc.

Order the report
The report can be obtained free of charge by sending an email to info@biomassresearch.eu, with ‘Order report 1301’ in the subject.
Land grab and carbon debt

New research by Biomass Research is focussing on land use changes and its impact on carbon release. We study ways in which farmers can adjust their activities to provide more biomass – in a sustainable way. Special attention is given to land rights (preventing land grab), and soil organic matter.

Further activities will focus on ways to quantify carbon dynamics related to land use. We will use crop modelling principles to tackle the concept of carbon debt.

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