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Satellite-data derived study finds meeting renewable fuel targets is theoretically feasible, but would significantly impact agriculture mix

Roughly 80% of the current recovered harvest in the US would need to be re-allocated for the production of bioenergy crops to meet current renewable fuel targets with existing technology, according to a new study using satellite data led by researchers from the University of Montana. An alternative, according to the study to be published in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology, would be to convert more than 80% of managed rangeland, or nearly 60% of total rangeland, to biofuel crops.

The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) set a goal of increasing US biofuel production more than three-fold from 40 to 136 billion liters of ethanol per year by 2022. This implies an even larger increase in biomass demand (primary energy), from roughly 2.9 to 7.4 EJ yr-1, the authors note.

However, our understanding of many of the factors used to establish such energy targets is far from complete, introducing significant 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 US—to estimate primary bioenergy potential (PBP).

Our results indicate that PBP of the conterminous US ranges from roughly 5.9 to 22.1 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 US agricultural extent.

—Smith et al.

The analysis found that while the EISA energy targets are theoretically feasible, meeting these targets utilizing current technology would require significant displacement of current crop harvest or conversion of rangeland. The authors reported that both options would significantly reduce the amount of food US farmers produce. They also noted that research shows that increased farming could lead to more polluted freshwater and accelerate global climate change.

Accordingly, energy planning should include iteratively and realistically constrained bioenergy estimates for effective incorporation of bioenergy potential into the national energy portfolio.

—Smith et al.

The authors acknowledge funding from the Energy Biosciences Institute and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.


  • William Kolby Smith, Cory C. Cleveland, Sasha C. Reed, Norman L. Miller, and Steven W. Running (2012) Bioenergy potential of the United States constrained by satellite observations of existing productivity. Environmental Science & Technology doi: 10.1021/es203935d


The authors reported that both options would significantly reduce the amount of food US farmers produce.
Food or fuel.  It's time to admit that liquid fuels have very tight limits and the current gasohol/ICE model must give way to electric propulsion.

Sounds like an opinion that is firmly stuck in the past on the assumption that biofuels will only come from land-based crops that compete with food crops, whereas the technology is advancing towards the possibility of produing biofuels elsewhere - in the desert and the seas.


With few exceptions, biofuel is not what is required for future transport vehicles. Wirelessly recharged smart electrified vehicles will progressively replace most ICEVs during the next two or three decades.

Meanwhile, 100+ mpge PHEVs will be produced in large numbers to reduce liquid fuel consumption and pollution.

It would be wiser to invest the $$$$B currently vested into biofuel production in improved batteries and wireless on-the-move and fixed charging systems and cleaner e-power production facilities.


We need fuel for more than 200 million cars, 10 years from now we may have 1 million BEVs on the road at the most.

Dream about 200 million BEVs, but we need a bridge solution now. Saying it will keep us from our electric destiny is ridiculous, if we are going to have BEVs we will have them with biofuels or without.


I would not make ethanol, but synthetic gasoline and I would not just use biomass but natural gas as well.

There are 500 million acres of range land, you do not need to use 80% but less than 20%. Some grasses can produce 1000 gallons per acre.

100 million acres producing 1000 gallons per acre is 100 billion gallons per year. That is a good start.


These are ACS guys not agriculture experts. Most farmers might tell you that they have some land available and if a market growing grasses showed up, they would be glad to grow.

No rational person is saying replace all oil with crops and no rational person is forcing a decision of food or fuel. These types of all or nothing rants just cloud the issue and do not lead to clarity nor truth, but maybe that is the objective.

No rational person is saying replace all oil with crops
You missed where it said "current renewable fuel targets" in TFA.
no rational person is forcing a decision of food or fuel.
Ethanol mandates are doing EXACTLY that, TODAY.  What planet are you from again?

USA (the country with most arable land) is currently using about 86% of it to feed its 313 million people. The spare 60 million acres or so are quickly being diverted to urban, commercial, industrial, highways, roads etc uses at the rate of about 4+ million acres a year. At that rate + normal population growth, spare arable land will be close to zero by 2025 or before.

However, USA has about 525 million acres of lower quality grazing land that could be partially used to produce specialized biofuel crops if we eat (and export) less beef but more chicken and vegetables.

Eating loads of beef and driving super heavy ICEVs using biofuel from land crops will soon create head-on collisions. It is not a sustainable solution.



Don't insult, you can discuss rationally without all the nasty comments.


I am tired of buying expensive imported oil from countries that do not have our best interests are heart. I am tired of being at their mercy, or lack of it.

I do not think waiting 30 more years for some future dream solution is a viable plan, it is not a plan at all, just dreaming. We need to have alternate fuels for more than 200 million cars NOW, not in 2050.

Don't insult, you can discuss rationally without all the nasty comments.
You erected the strawman of "replace all oil with crops" when even current (far smaller) targets are problematic for food production.  If you think it's insulting to call you on your misrepresentation, you've got bigger problems than just mis-reading.
I am tired of buying expensive imported oil from countries that do not have our best interests are heart.
You won't change that with a strawman-to-gasoline process.

The major route forward isn't new liquid fuels, but electric propulsion (though it won't be 100%).  For instance, if the price of a Volt can be cut $5000 using Envia's cell electrodes, a great deal of liquid fuel can be replaced by electricity.  Electricity is inherently "flex-fuel", and almost none of it comes from imported oil.


"What planet are you from again?"

I think most would agree that IS an insult and you keep talking about "irony".

Roger Pham

For LDV's, HEV's and PHEV's are the best options to get off imported petroleum. Once every driveways will have an HEV, then it's time to focus on building more PHEV's, or convert them to PHEV's. A large fleet of PHEV's that are connected to the grid at work and at home can serve as storage means for extra solar and wind electricity, (V2G) saving tens of billions of extra batteries needed for grid electricity storage.

For HDV's, natural gas is the immediate option, while the eventual and ultimate solution will be Hydrogen for larger vehicles and commercial vehicles.

Agricultural wastes are very valuable as synthetic feedstock for plastics and organic compounds. It is not environmentally sustainable to "grow" all our current transportation fuels.


"However, USA has about 525 million acres of lower quality grazing land ..."

if factory grown stem cell meat is commercialized successfully it may lower that requirement.. or perhaps people will increase their hamburger consumption.

Electrics with optional range extenders like the Volt are the way to the future.


Some people seem to think that in 10 years everyone will be driving an HEV/PHEV/BEV, but the numbers do not show that.

It is what the people will buy that shapes the future, just wishing and hoping will not make it happen. We have less than 1% vehicles hybrid after more than 10 years of sales.

This is why we need a transition away from imported oil with synthetic fuels. If the PHEVs run on synthetic fuels, then we can tell the oil market to sell it to someone else.



Volt style PHEVs are not very efficient and even less so then many EU diesel units. Hyundai may build a more efficient PHEV with a very small 3-cyls genset but it may not be around for another 2 or 3 years.

Multi-car American families should have at least one 100+ MPGe BEV for inner town and short trips use. The second car could be a 60+ MPGe PHEV or 50 MPGe HEV. Those cars are available today. The effect on crude oil imports would be very significant. HEVs, PHEVs and BEVs higher price is almost fully compensated with Fed and States subsidies. The price difference will be progressively reduced with lower cost batteries and mass production.

Buyers can make the difference.


The Volt is a very obvious first-generation vehicle.  It has few optimizations; its oversized 4-cylinder engine doesn't even use the Atkinson cycle.  The turbo version of the Fiat TwinAir produces more power with far less weight and displacement.

Let's not confuse the Volt with PHEVs.  The Volt, being a GM product, may have been given just enough effort to get it out the door; management may still have the attitude that it will blow over with the next presidential election, expecting the Volt to be cancelled just like the EV1.

A lot of that depends on world oil prices (which I don't see Republicans being able to reduce other than by inducing a recession, and that only temporarily).  GM's management might find that the Volt is one of their few products that continues to sell.  Meanwhile, Toyota and Ford will have pushed into the PHEV market without Federal impetus/blackmail and be reaping the rewards.

IIUC, the median daily driving distance in the USA is 29 miles/day.  The Volt's 35-mile AER is greater than this.  What happens when more than half of drivers can cover their daily travel without burning fuel?  As PHEVs penetrate, fuel demand should drop like a rock.


The oil market is a global market. If tomorrow the US could produce all the oil needed for domestic consumption most of it would probably be exported overseas to the highest bidder. The US consumer would be back to square one.


If the US produced enough fuel for all domestic consumption, the dollar would soar because of the balance of trade shift and imports would become more attractive, not less.


Meaningless article. "...meeting these targets utilizing current technology would require significant displacement of current harvest...".
Would never get there using current technology (basically distilling corn).


Growing biomass to produce liquid fuel would be a short term half measure at best.

Using the same $$$$B to convert a few million existing vehicles (starting with light and heavy trucks) from gasoline-diesel to NG-SG could have equivalent impact on crude import while creating more needed jobs and without negative impacts on food availability and price. It may even lower food price due to lower transportation fuel cost.

For private cars, a progressive but more aggressive introduction of higher efficiency ICEVs, HEVs, PHEVs and BEVs will soon start to have a significant impact on crude import. A revised CAFE is all what is required to achieve the transition required.

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