The CRP currently provides numerous environmental benefits – it protects about 30 million acres of land by encouraging farmers to convert environmentally sensitive cropland to vegetative cover. However, while CRP lands could offer an increased land base for producing biofuel feedstock, the potential environmental costs and economic benefits seem to be at odds.

To help answer some of these questions and explore the solutions, we used a state-of-the-art model of the US energy sector. By running the model under different combinations of biofuel subsidies and CRP land use, we were able to uncover some interesting and important insights into the future of the biofuel industry and the potential role of the CRP. We published our results in Environmental Research Letters as part of the ERL Focus on Second Generation Biofuels and Sustainability.

There were two main findings of our study. First, using CRP land to produce biofuels had no major effect on industry development – converting 100% of CRP land to produce feedstock resulted in only a fraction more biofuels (5–10%) than if no CRP land was converted. Indeed, volumes comparable to those set by the Renewable Fuel Standard could be met with no CRP conversion at all (see figure). A complementary environmental assessment found that using CRP land to produce biofuels would have potentially serious detrimental environmental impacts, including degrading soil, water and air quality.

Second, we identified bottlenecks along the industry supply chain, including a lack of drop-in fuels to help overcome the ethanol blend wall, too few E85 vehicles being used and the associated small number of filling stations in the marketplace, and a need for initial capital investment support. These results suggest that a coordinated system of subsidies would be necessary for robust industry growth.

Taken together, our results indicate that the development of a robust biofuels industry that meets economic and environmental sustainability goals is possible. Second-generation biofuels that use non-food feedstock, like switchgrass, have the greatest potential when it comes to providing energy with minimal environmental costs.

So how do we get there? Our research suggests that coordinated policies that carefully examine alternatives in the areas of land-use change, the cost of commercial development, and the viability of a suite of fuel types, including high-blends, could help us get on the right road.

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