U.S. agriculture could provide up to 155 million tons of crop residues and 60 millions tons of manure to produce clean fuels and electricity in 2030 that would help cut the nation’s oil use and phase out the use of coal, according to a new analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Although the UCS is a controversial group with environmental activists leanings, the latest analysis does not appear to be controversial to those who know agricultural production in the U.S. The UCS research found that the top 10 states with the potential to use the residues left behind from crop harvest and livestock production, such as plant materials and manure, to create low-carbon fuels and electricity are: Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Arkansas, Texas, California, Indiana, South Dakota and North Carolina. Together, these states can provide about two-thirds of total projected U.S. crop residues and manure in 2030. 

“The use of these biomass resources to produce renewable fuels for transportation and to generate electricity can provide a sustainable, low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels while enabling communities to benefit from local resources,” said Joshua Goldman, policy analyst for the UCS Clean Vehicles Program.

UCS found that, overall, the U.S. could tap nearly 680 million tons of biomass resources each year by 2030, enough to produce more than 10 billion gallons of ethanol, or 166 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity — equal to 4 percent of total U.S. power consumption in 2010.

Agricultural biomass can be an important clean energy resource and offers a significant opportunity for local and regional economies. Due to recent scientific advances, residues like stalks, husks, cobs, and other biomass —unsuitable as direct human food and left behind by our nation’s primary crops of corn, wheat, and rice — can be used to produce energy rather than burning them or leaving them in the fields.

The UCS analysis found that the benefits of biomass depend on using the right types of resources at an appropriate scale. It identifies ways that farmers can adapt their practices to sustainably remove residues from their fields, such as using no-till farming and planting cover crops to reduce soil erosion and water pollution while expanding the amount of residues available for bioenergy. In corn-growing regions, large quantities of corn stover —leaves and stalks left over after corn is harvested — are available to produce ethanol.

Also, by using anaerobic digesters to extract biogas from manure, small-scale livestock producers can improve water quality, reduce methane emissions, and return nutrients to their soils. The biogas can then provide heat and power for the farm, or it can be further purified and sold as renewable natural gas or used to generate renewable electricity.

“Biofuels and biopower can play a larger role in our fuel and electricity mix in the years to come with technological improvements, private investment and smart public policies, “ said Goldman. “Responsible development of biomass resources can go hand-in-hand with producing a more balanced harvest of healthy food.”

Specific findings of the UCS analysis include:

  • Iowa has the largest potential in the country to use biomass resources to produce energy, with a projected 31 million tons of agricultural residues projected to be available in 2030. Corn stover from Iowa farms could yield 1 billion additional gallons of ethanol each year in 2030—an expansion of more than 25 percent—without the use of one extra kernel of corn.
  • Arkansas ranks first in the nation in rice production, second in poultry, and third in cotton production. The state has the potential to become a leader in bioenergy, with more than 10 million tons of agricultural residues projected to be available in 2030.
  • Texas, one of the nation’s leading agricultural states and home to a sizable cattle industry, could provide nearly 10 million tons of agricultural by-products to produce clean fuel and electricity by 2030.
  • California is the nation’s top agricultural state, with milk, grapes and almonds its highest-valued commodities. California has the potential to provide more than 9 million tons of crop residues and manure in 2030, including more than half of the vineyard and orchard prunings available nationwide.

“When combined with boosting fuel efficiency, investing in electric vehicles and smart business practices, sustainable biomass production will help us achieve our goal of reducing the nation’s projected oil use in half in the next 20 years,” said Goldman.

For more information on the UCS Half the Oil plan, visit www.halftheoil.org.