Bioenergy Sustainability Analysis

NREL's bioenergy sustainability analysis group works with researchers around the world through global multilateral collaborations to assess bioenergy and bioeconomy developments in multiple scientific and social fields.

Illustration with a flattened world image in grayscale in the background with a dotted-line oval labeled "Global" and then a basic image of the United States superimposed on top of this in tan with a circle line labeled "United States". Over the top of the U.S. image are three overlapping circles that each contain a different photo: (1) natural fields and meadows labeled "Environmental", (2) a biorefinery labeled "Economic", and a farm labeled "Social". Where the three circle photos overlap are photos of water, a tree branch with a city in the background, two children walking in a field, and in the very center, a young plant sprout. A dialogue box in green points to the Environmental photo and contains the text: Environmental Sustainability: Climate, Soil quality, Water quality and quantity, Air quality, Biological diversity, and Land use. A dialogue box in yellow points to the Economic photo and contains the text: Economic Sustainability: Commercial viability, Return on investment, Net present value, Process efficiency, and Outputs on desired products. A dialogue box in blue points to the Social photo and contains the text: Social Sustainability: Social acceptability, Social well-being, Energy security and external trade, Resource conservation, and Rural development and workforce training. A URL is listed in the lower left:

We assess and synthesize developments as the science and technologies of biomass conversion and their systems mature. We aim to understand economic, environmental, and social aspects as these systems evolve and develop best practices. We also use advanced analytical tools and methodologies and perform systematic studies to understand how to bridge the gaps between bioenergy and integrated biomass systems and global sustainability.

NREL does this in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office Sustainability Program and its performing organizations.

Featured Publications

Chapter 1: Technical Summary, Chapter 2: Bioenergy Numbers, Chapter 6: Sustainable Development and Innovation, Chapter 9: Land and Bioenergy, Chapter 12: Conversion Technologies for Biofuels and Their Use, and Chapter 20: Bioenergy Economics and Policies, Bioenergy and Sustainability: Bridging the Gaps (2015)

A Global Survey of Stakeholder Views and Experiences for Systems Needed to Effectively and Efficiently Govern Sustainability of Bioenergy, WIREs Energy and Environment (2015)

Chapter 7: Energy Systems, Chapter 8: Transport, and Chapter 11: Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use, Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change (Working Group III Fifth Assessment Report) (2014)

Bioenergy and Climate Change Mitigation: An Assessment, GCB Bioenergy (2014)

Understanding the Evolution of Environmental and Energy Performance of the U.S. Corn Ethanol Industry: Evaluation of Selected Metrics, Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining (2013)

View all NREL bioenergy sustainability analysis publications.


Photo of fields of green, short sugarcane

Analysis of Global Systems

The world of biomass is complex and biomass resources vary around the world. We study the relationship of land types and their use in agricultural and forestry systems and in manufacturing. Products from these interconnected systems are consumed and generate waste and residues that are landfilled, with or without energy recovery, re-used in a cascade of uses, recycled into the same or different products, or used to produce energy.

We use statistical data that multiple government agencies from each country provide to the United Nations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (collects data on food, feed, forestry, inputs, and emissions), the Framework Convention on Climate Change (inventories greenhouse gases per the Kyoto Protocol), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development International Energy Agency (collects data on energy production and use in various sectors of the economy).

Bar chart with the y-axis labeled Average Annual GHG Emissions (GtCO2eq/year) and numbered 0 through 18; the x-axis shows four bar graphs for the years 1970-1979, 1980-1989, 1990-1999, and 2000-2009. The key shows 11 values, the red category (Land Use Change and Forestry) being the largest: brown = Crop Residues and Savannah Burning (N2O, CH4); light green = Cultivated Organic Soils (N2O); green = Crop Residues (N2O); dark green = Manure Applied to Soils (N2O);  light blue = Manure on Pasture (N2O); blue = Synthetic Fertilizers (N2O); dark blue = Manure Management (CH4, N2O);  page yellow = Rice Cultivation (CH4); dark yellow = Enteric Fermentation (CH4); orange = Drained Peat and Peat Fires (CO2, N2O, CH4); and red = Land Use Change and Forestry (CO2).

Greenhouse Gas Reductions

The system of agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU) was the only International Project of Climate Change (IPCC) sector whose greenhouse gas emissions decreased in the last decade according to the 5th Assessment Report of the IPCC. AFOLU emissions are the most difficult to quantify and have the highest uncertainties. The conservation of agricultural soils and afforestation have the potential to increase soil carbon sequestration and therefore further mitigate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We are looking at what role bioenergy, including biochar, can play in climate change mitigation at a large scale since bioenergy coupled with carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) could provide negative emissions needed to reach levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere compatible with 2oC or less from pre-industrial levels. The role of biomass in electricity generation or fuels production using gasification technologies followed by CCS is illustrated below. Coal and natural gas can reduce emissions with CCS but sustainably produced biomass is necessary to sequester carbon dioxide quickly to offset fossil emissions. Research questions involve the sustainability of the overall systems.

Illustration of the sum of CO2-equivalent (GWP100: Global Warming Potential over 100 years) emissions from the process chain of alternative transport and power generation technologies both with and without CCS. Values are uncertain and depend on the production chain as well as what and how biomass is sourced and its original location. Bar chart with the left y-axis labeled ALCA GHG Emissions (gCO2eq/MJ el) with values from -250 through 300 and the right y-axis labeled ALCA GHG Emissions (gCO2eq/MJ fuel combusted); the x-axis is divided into four sections labeled at the top with subsections labeled at the bottom: (1) Electricity section with four subsections for Coal IGCC, Natural Gas CC, Switchgrass, and Forest Biomass, each subsection is divided into No CCS and CCS; (2) CTLs section with a Coal subsection, divided into No CCS and CCS; (3) BTLs section with two subsections for Switchgrass and Forest Biomass, each subsection is divided into No CCS and CCS; (4) C + BTLs section with two subsections for CCS/Coal + Switchgrass and CCS/Coal + Forest Biomass. The key shows 6 values, the dark blue category (Fossil Combustion CO2 Vented) being the largest and the yellow category (Biogenic CO2 Stored) being the smallest in the negative: dark blue = (Fossil Combustion CO2 Vented); red = Biogenic CO2 Vented; yellow = (Biogenic CO2 Stored); light blue = CO2 Transport and Storage; blue = Value Chain GHGs; and white diamond = Net

Multiple Products

Biomass and bioenergy systems produce benefits and also impacts to air, water, and land locally, regionally, and globally, and many of them are diffuse. It is difficult to assign these impacts to bioenergy alone since these applications are part of agriculture, forestry, and management of rural and urban residues and wastes. Bioenergy applications include biomass for heating and cooking, electricity generation, and for combined heat/electricity in the power and pulp and paper industries, or in the production of liquid or gaseous fuels for transport or other large numbers of chemicals, materials, and special products currently made from fossil energy. The evolving bioeconomy aims to close these cycles of interconnected systems to optimize multiple economic, environmental, ecological, and social (e.g., jobs) of multiple resource use.

Research Team

Photo of two men and two women smiling for the camera

Principal Investigators


Argonne National Laboratory The Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) Model

Argonne National Laboratory Water Analysis Tool for Energy Resources (WATER) and Water Footprint Accounting

Idaho National Laboratory Bioenergy Feedstock Library

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

International Energy Association (IEA) Bioenergy: IEA Task 38, IEA Task 39, and IEA Task 43

Oak Ridge National Laboratory Center for BioEnergy Sustainability

Scientific Committee of Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) (leaders from the State of Sao Paulo Research Foundation and collaborators)

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO) Sustainability Program