Agricultural Decarbonization

NREL researchers examine ways to reduce the energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions of agriculture while also exploring novel pathways to sequester carbon in soil.

NREL researcher Brittany Staie (left) and farmer Kailey Littlehorn of Sprout City Farms, harvest beans in an agrivoltaic farm.

Agricultural production is responsible for approximately 12% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Agriculture also involves the significant utilization of water and land resources. Throughout the agricultural supply chain, there are numerous decarbonization opportunities that can reduce its emissions footprint and promote sustainability in resource usage. NREL's agricultural decarbonization researchers have developed capabilities across all stages of the agricultural supply chain to illuminate pathways to more energy-efficient processes and better understand the complex relationship between agriculture, clean energy, and natural resources.

The different phases of the agricultural supply chain include pre-production; production; drying, cooling, storage; transportation; processing; retail; and disposal.
Opportunities for agricultural decarbonization are present throughout the various stages of the agricultural supply chain. Figure by NREL


  • Reduced energy and greenhouse gas intensity of production of ammonia for fertilizer and other chemicals
  • Solar and wind water desalination


  • Solar and wind-powered pumping and irrigation
  • Electrification of equipment and on-farm activities
  • Anaerobic digestion
  • On-site renewable energy production
  • Precision agriculture
  • Agroforestry
  • Biochar application
  • Enhanced efficiency fertilizers
  • Sustainable intensification
  • Irrigation strategies
  • Cover crops
  • No-till systems
  • Diversified crop rotation
  • Intercropping
  • Feed additives for livestock


  • Streamlined distribution chains
  • Use of fuel-efficient transportation
  • Reductions in energy demand for freight travel
  • Solar fruit drying and food production
  • Biomass-powered milling, pressing, and grinding
  • Cogeneration of heat and power in processing
  • Use of renewable energy for refrigeration and other processes
  • Reuse of food waste for energy
  • Biogas production
  • Biomass gasification
  • Biofuels generation

Cobenefits and Tradeoffs of Agricultural Decarbonization

An important component of NREL's agricultural decarbonization research is the identification and quantification of cobenefits across the various stages of the agricultural supply chain. Each stage, from pre-production to disposal, provides a unique opportunity to enhance the sustainability of the food system. Taking a comprehensive approach, researchers can analyze specific solutions that provide cobenefits such as ecological benefits, environmental justice benefits, food security benefits, and socioeconomic benefits, and tradeoffs such as increased complexity, farmer learning curves, delayed benefits, increased cost of inputs, and time requirements. This area of analysis is being led by the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis's Sustainable Agriculture Catalyzer, where the team is collaborating with stakeholders throughout the agriculture industry to identify opportunities and research gaps in the identification and quantification of agricultural decarbonization cobenefits.

Energy-Water-Food Nexus

Production of agricultural products comprises up to 16% of the energy use in the United States, and over 1.3 billion tons of food are wasted worldwide every year. In the United States, food processing, packaging, transportation, and distribution; i.e., post-farm energy inputs, make up more than 50% of all energy use within the food supply chain across all sectors of food products. While significant opportunities exist to improve agricultural and livestock rearing sustainability, the portions of the supply chain that occur after the farm comprise the majority of energy use and present both challenges and opportunities for transformation. These transformations provide an opportunity to re-think the intertwined roles of energy, water, and agriculture in providing for fresh and nutritious food. NREL's energy-water-food nexus research examines the system-wide opportunities for improving the sustainability of agriculture and addressing food system challenges, including:

  • Systems modeling and analysis: Multi-sector modeling and co-optimization across food, energy, and water infrastructure systems.
  • Systems integration: Enhanced reliability and resilience across sectors through greater integration and operational coordination.
  • Advanced water treatment: Novel treatment technologies and treatment trains that could be utilized in agricultural contexts.
  • Technology demonstration and validation: Development, validation, demonstration, and deployment of practical and efficient technologies that could be utilized in agricultural production.
  • Decision science support: Objective, technology-neutral support to help decision makers address technical, policy, social, and economic barriers.


Agrivoltaics pairs solar energy technology with agriculture, creating energy while providing space for crops, grazing, and ecosystem services under and between panels. To meet renewable energy goals by installing large-scale solar operations, agricultural land may be taken out of food production, but agrivoltaics offers the potential to balance food production and renewable energy goals. Under the right conditions, both crops and solar production can do better when paired together, and solar installations can provide economic and ecological benefits. NREL researchers study the economic and ecological tradeoffs of agrivoltaic systems. Read more about NREL's agrivoltaics work and learn about the Department of Energy's flagship agrivoltaics project, InSPIRE.

Controlled Environment/Vertical/Indoor Agriculture

Moving vegetable production to distributed controlled-environment farms could reduce water stress in vulnerable locations and could increase food supply resilience, especially for disadvantaged communities. Supply chain energy use would be reduced, but new energy and resource loads would be concentrated in cities. NREL's research quantifies the impacts and decarbonization opportunities of controlled environment/vertical/indoor agriculture on a national scale.

Urban Food Supply and Green Spaces

Buildings account for 30% of global energy use, and urban environments trap heat and pollutants. Trees and green spaces (green infrastructure) can reduce energy use, cool the environment and improve residents' health. NREL's research employs cutting edge building modeling to optimize the benefits from green infrastructure. For example, NREL partnered with the American Geophysical Union on a net zero retrofit project for their building in Washington, DC. Researchers integrated strategies for rooftop urban environments that optimize for people, plants, and PV. NREL's integrated urban services research also extends globally, with partnerships focused on building resilience in energy, water, and food systems in South Asian countries.

Clean Tech for Asia and Africa

Reliable, affordable, and low carbon electrification has been identified as a critical need for rural areas in Asia and Africa. Irrigation, refrigeration, and other productive uses of electricity in the agricultural sector, especially for smallholder farmers, can provide a basis implementing microgrids that benefit entire communities. NREL's support for the Clean and Advanced Technologies for Sustainable Landscapes program maps agricultural productive uses of electricity and microgrid opportunities across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Evaluation of Net Zero Agriculture Technologies and Approaches

Decarbonization and greenhouse gas mitigation strategies can differ greatly across regions, soil types, and agricultural activities. It is essential to clarify the magnitudes and uncertainties associated with greenhouse gas emissions and mitigation potentials from agricultural activities. NREL critically examines research and technologies addressing greenhouse gas mitigation opportunities in the agricultural sector.


Pathways for Agricultural Decarbonization in the United States, NREL Technical Report (2023)

Quantifying Agricultural Productive Use of Energy Load in Sub-Saharan Africa and its Impact on Microgrid Configurations and Costs, Applied Energy (2023)

Geographically Dependent Sustainability Indicators for Comparison of Conventional Vegetable Production to Controlled-Environment Agriculture, NREL Presentation (2023)

The 5 Cs of Agrivoltaic Success Factors in the United States: Lessons From the InSPIRE Research Study, NREL Technical Report (2022)

Agrivoltaics Provide Mutual Benefits Across the Food–Energy–Water Nexus in Drylands, Nature Sustainability (2019)


NREL works with collaborators at the international, domestic, and regional levels for agricultural decarbonization research, funding, and technology deployment. Learn how to partner with NREL.


Brittany Staie
Cobenefits and Tradeoffs of Agricultural Decarbonization
Evaluation of Net Zero Agriculture Technologies and Approaches

Jordan Macknick
Energy Water Food Nexus

Darlene Steward
Controlled Environment/Vertical/Indoor Agriculture
Urban Food Supply and Green Spaces
Clean Tech for Asia and Africa