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Shifting Agricultural Practices to Produce Sustainable Low Carbon Intensity Feedstocks for Biofuel Production

Publication: 
Environmental Resource Letters
Publication Date: 
July 20, 2020

The carbon intensity (CI) of biofuel’s well-to-pump life cycle is calculated by life cycle analysis (LCA) to account for the energy/material inputs of the feedstock production and fuel conversion stages and the associated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions during these stages. The LCA is used by the California Air Resources Boards Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) program to calculate CI and monetary credits are issued based on the difference between a given fuelsCI and a reference fuels CI. Through the Tier 2 certification program under which individual fuel production facilities can submit their own CIs with their facility input data, the LCFS has driven innovative technologies to biofuel conversion facilities, resulting in substantial reductions inGHGemissions as compared to the baseline gasoline or diesel. A similar approach can be taken to allow feedstock petition in the LCFS so that lower-CI feedstock can be rewarded. Here we examined the potential for various agronomic practices to improve theGHGprofiles of corn ethanol by performing feedstock-level CI analysis for the Midwestern United States. Our system boundary coversGHGemissions from the cradle-to-farm-gate activities (i.e. farm input manufacturing and feedstock production), along with the potential impacts of soil organic carbon change during feedstock production. Weconducted scenario-based CI analysis of ethanol, coupled with regionalized inventory data, for various farming practices to manage corn fields, and identified key parameters affecting cradle-to-farm-gateGHGemissions. The results demonstrate large spatial variations in CI of ethanol due to farm input use and land management practices. In particular, adopting conservation tillage, reducing nitrogen fertilizer use, and implementing cover crops has the potential to reduceGHGemissions per unit corn produced when compared to a baseline scenario of cornsoybean rotation. This work shows a large potential emission offset opportunity by allowing feedstock producers a path to Tier 2 petitions that reward low-CI feedstocks and further reduce biofuelsCI. The prevalence of significant acreage that has not been optimized for CI suggests that policy changes that incentivize optimization of this parameter could provide significant additionality over current trends in farm efficiency and adoption of conservation practice.

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