Identifying Key Drivers of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Biomass Feedstocks for Energy Production

Published in: Environmental Science and Policy, v. 33, Nov. 2013, p. 109-119

Posted on on June 20, 2013

by David R. Johnson, Aimee E. Curtright, Henry H. Willis

Read More

Access further information on this document at Environmental Science and Policy

This article was published outside of RAND. The full text of the article can be found at the link above.

Many policies in the United States, at both the federal and state levels, encourage the adoption of renewable energy from biomass. Though largely motivated by a desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, these policies do not explicitly identify scenarios in which the use of biomass will produce the greatest benefits. We have modeled "farm-to-hopper" emissions associated with seven biomass feedstocks, under a wide variety of scenarios and production choices, to characterize the uncertainty in emissions. We demonstrate that only a handful of factors have a significant impact on life cycle emissions: choice of feedstock, geographic location, prior land use, and time dynamics. Within a given production scenario, the remaining variability in emissions is driven by uncertainty in feedstock yields and the release rate of N2O into the atmosphere from nitrogen fertilizers. With few exceptions, transport and processing choices have relatively little impact on total emissions. These results illustrate the key decisions that will determine the success of biomass programs in reducing the emissions profile of energy production, and our publicly available model provides a useful tool for identifying the most beneficial production scenarios. While model data and results are restricted to biomass production in the contiguous United States, we provide qualitative guidance for identifying favorable production scenarios that should be applicable in other regions.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation External publication series. Many RAND studies are published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals, as chapters in commercial books, or as documents published by other organizations.

Our mission to help improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis is enabled through our core values of quality and objectivity and our unwavering commitment to the highest level of integrity and ethical behavior. To help ensure our research and analysis are rigorous, objective, and nonpartisan, we subject our research publications to a robust and exacting quality-assurance process; avoid both the appearance and reality of financial and other conflicts of interest through staff training, project screening, and a policy of mandatory disclosure; and pursue transparency in our research engagements through our commitment to the open publication of our research findings and recommendations, disclosure of the source of funding of published research, and policies to ensure intellectual independence. For more information, visit

The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.