7 Alternatives as Energy Crops for Marginal Lands

Several experiences have proved the feasibility of marginal lands for bioenergy. We selected 7 alternatives as energy crops for marginal lands for biofuels, heat, and electricity in semiarid environments, abandoned lands, and low-competitive regions.

However, when realizing that converting crop lands from food to fuel production probably isn’t such a good idea, more and more non-food crops are investigated. Interestingly, most companies focused on energy plantations work on just some well-known crops like Miscanthus, Switchgrass, Poplar, or Jatropha. Nevertheless, many of these species have shown that their specific soil and climate conditions are difficult to meet in several regions.

For example, Miscanthus cannot be produced without irrigation support in Southern Spain, where productivity was supposed to be higher than in the UK. Furthermore, Switchgrass has demonstrated in North Dakota that climate conditions limit productivity compared to the performance of some novel C3 grasses with summer drought resistance or higher frost tolerance and very low inputs.

Much of the ethanol used as a substitute for petrol is currently produced from corn, especially in the US. However, it has been criticized for driving up grain prices to record levels. Moreover, laws mandating the addition of biofuels to petrol and diesel had backfired badly and were unethical because biofuel production often violated human rights and damaged the environment.

The problem is, how do you get farmers to switch from corn to the less lucrative switchgrass and other C4 grasses used in creating bio-oil via the process known as pyrolysis? Researchers hope to pull this off by developing a market for drop-in fuel (defined as a fuel that is compatible with existing engines, pipelines, and refineries) and convincing farmers to use their marginal, less productive lands.

But low productivity means low energy balance for most researchers. And low energy balance could derive in high emissions and environmental impact per energy unit (e.g. expressed as CO2 eq per MJ of energy produced). Although, most evidence has been shown that marginal lands can produce feedstock in a highly efficient manner, with lower inputs and higher productivity. Several publications have addressed this issue and we show below how some unsuspected energy crops, could produce better results compared to best-suited known alternatives.

The following suggested energy plantations and bioenergy crops are just some examples of a much longer list. However, here we just want to suggest some energy crops and feedstock production systems a company should consider before starting a bio-project and deciding on best-suited alternatives in extensive agricultural lands and up-scaled bio-refinery projects. Moreover, there are many other possible species and combinations to consider, but these could be a sound start.

1) Perennial Grasslands in the US

According to an article in Nature, researchers with Michigan State University (MSU) show that marginal lands can serve as prime real estate for meeting alternative energy production goals. While growing mixed-species cellulosic biomass, marginal lands could annually produce up to 5.5 billion gallons of ethanol in the Midwest alone.

Grasslands can produce feedstock for biofuels in the US with more environmental benefits compared to many energy crops

“Understanding the environmental impact of widespread biofuel production is a major unanswered question in the U.S. and worldwide,” said Ilya Gelfand, lead author of the paper. “We estimate that using marginal lands for growing cellulosic biomass crops could provide up to 215 gallons of ethanol per acre with substantial greenhouse gas mitigation.” According to Gelfand, this was the first study to provide an estimate for greenhouse gas benefits, and an assessment of the total potential of these lands to produce significant amounts of biomass.

Download and read the complete article here: “Sustainable bioenergy production from marginal lands in the US Midwest“

2) Sida Hermaphrodita in Marginal Lands in Poland

Virginia fanpetals, herbaceous, melliferous perennials, belong to the mallow family (Malvaceae), and is native to North America. It is not a short rotation woody crop (SRC, SRWC) like both, willow and poplar, or a perennial grass (e.g. Miscanthus, switch grass) but is instead a soft woody herbaceous energy crop, based on its chemical content and stem structure.

This unique species, when harvested in the dry stage, has applications in the paper industry

Sida plantations have a useful lifespan of at least 15-20 years and grows well under many site conditions and does not have any special soil requirements. It grows well in poor conditions too, where there are mostly sandy soils, however, this restricts yields, which can be expected. Cold and dry conditions during the spring could restrict the germination of seeds and the development of new stems. Sida can survive without problem during the temporary deficit of water in summer, and harsh cold (up to -35 C) in winter. agricultural infrastructure.

The low moisture content of Sida biomass on the fields (11-20%) makes it possible to optimize the baling operation and therefore, allows lower transportation costs. The most advantageous harvest time can take place from January through April; however, before new stems start to emerge. Thus, it makes it possible, without expensive biomass drying and storage, to proceed to granulation or combustion of biomass delivered directly from the field. Sida would meet the need for next-generation biofuels to be environmentally sustainable, easily adopted by producers, and take advantage of existing

Some publications on Virginia mallow can be read here:

Full assessment of Sida (Sida hermaphrodita) biomass as a solid fuel

Virginia Fanpetals (Sida hermaphrodita Rusby) Cultivated on Light Soil; Height of Yield and Biomass Productivity

Two extremely different crops, Salix and Sida, as sources of renewable bioenergy

3) Tall Wheatgrass in Europe as Cheap Feedstock to Avoid Emissions Compared to Natural Gas Electricity

Different experiences in Spain and Hungary have been demonstrating that a perennial hardy grass can be more sustainable and produce lower costs than other tall grasses when natural resources limit the growth of other crops like Miscanthus, Switchgrass, Napier grass, or Bamboo. These results have also been confirmed in extremely cold environments like North Dakota in the US.

Tall wheatgrass: an alternative with lower impacts and higher savings as energy crop in marginal lands

Tall wheatgrass (Elymus elongatus subsp. ponticus AKA Elytrigia elongata) produce between 5 and 12 tons per hectare each year, can reach a lifetime of 30 years under certain environments (e.g. Patagonia, Argentina), and has been evaluated as an energy crop in several countries.

Suggested articles to read about this are:

Tall Wheatgrass Cultivar Szarvasi in Hungary

Tall wheatgrass (Agropyron elongatum) for biogas production: Crop management more important for biomass and methane yield than grass provenance

 Perennial energy crops for semiarid lands in the Mediterranean

4) Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) as a Novel Energy Crop in Southern EU Marginal Lands

Cynara cardunculus L. is a species native to the Mediterranean region that is adapted to this particular climate condition. The species has been cultivated as a vegetable since ancient times according to a rather artificial management system. It is commonly known as cardoon, but as an energy crop it is named just ‘Cynara’. The species is a perennial C3 herb with an annual development cycle. As an energy crop, Cynara is grown for its aboveground biomass and oil fruits (achenes, like sunflower), that are harvested every year. The establishment of the plantation is carried out from seed in the first year; then it is maintained for several years (>14 years).

In Spain, the growth cycle of Cynara lasts from September-October (plant sprouting) to June (seed ripening).

Harvest is carried out in summertime (August-September), once the growth cycle is over and the biomass is fully dried, thanks to the characteristics of the Mediterranean summer (high temperatures and very low rainfall). Afterward, and stimulated by the first autumn rainfalls, Cynara sprouts from the remnant buds of the plant stock, and a new growth cycle starts. Biomass production is closely related to the rainfall of the agricultural season. In average conditions (» 450mm year-1) Cynara yields about 14 t dry matter ha-1 year-1, of which nearly 8-10% are oil achenes. The applications of the crop’s produce are heating (biomass pellets), power, bio-diesel, and paper pulp, among others.

cardoon, cynara, cynara cardunculus,

Many semiarid and sub-humid regions can have Cynara as an alternative crop with a high potential to produce biomass for biofuels, heat, and electricity.

Some articles on Cynara cardunculus as an energy crop are here:

State of art of Cynara as an energy crop

Promising industrial energy crop, Cynara cardunculus: a potential source for biomass production and alternative energy

Long-term evaluation of biomass production and quality of two cardoon (Cynara cardunculus L.) cultivars for energy use

5) Agave and Cacti as Energy Crops in Arid Environments

Plants that use crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), which include the Cacti and Agaves, are of particular interest since they can survive for many months without water and when water is available they use it with an efficiency that can be more than 10 times that of other plants, such as maize, sorghum, Miscanthus, and Switchgrass. Large areas of the tropics and subtropics are too arid or degraded to support food crops, but Agave species may be suitable for biomass and biofuel production in these regions.

An agave sisalana plantation in the Pare Mountains, Tanzania, Africa. Some experts think abandoned agave plantations in Mexico and Africa could be reclaimed for biofuel. Photograph: MJ Photography/Alamy

In the context of biofuels, CAM physiology provides benefits beyond nutrient and water use efficiency. Lignin represents one of the major impediments to the digestion of lignocelluloses to release sugars, a process that allows for the fermentation of cellulose and hemicelluloses to fuels. Current plant feedstocks can be up to 30% lignin, a cross-linked polymer that gives the xylem adequate strength to withstand the tensions imposed during transpiration. However, in CAM plants, the tension in the xylem is low because transpiration is low and thus less lignin is required. As a result, lower amounts of lignin are evident in the composition of CAM tissue. Agave leaves, for example, have 3–15% lignin by dry weight and up to 68% cellulose. Another characteristic of CAM physiology that is advantageous for biofuel feedstock is the accumulation of soluble nonstructural carbohydrates in plant tissue to support PEPC-mediated carboxylation.

The integration between tequila industries, bagasse utilization, and new alternative uses for agaves, could provide excellent results generating several environmental, economic, and social benefits.

Some suggested literature on Agave as biofuel:

Pretreatment of Agave americana stalk for enzymatic saccharification

Distribution and potential of bioenergy resources from agricultural activities in Mexico

Bagasse from the mezcal industry as an alternative renewable energy produced in arid lands

The global potential for Agave as a biofuel feedstock

6) Siberian Elm as an Alternative Woody Energy Crop in Drought-cold Climates

  • Siberian Elm as an alternative woody energy crop in drought-cold climates

Short-rotation forestry is often not viable in many cold and semiarid regions and requires specific woody crops that produce low yields, but also have very low costs.

That is the case of Siberian elm, a novel woody crop developed in the Mediterranean with high potential for the biomass sector. The species require some development and breeding, and it has already shown enough evidence to be used as feedstock in several areas above 300mm of annual rainfall. Siberian elm under rain-fed conditions is to be considered as feedstock (Ulmus pumila) can in large scaled bioenergy projects. be a good alternative for biomass production in the Mediterranean areas. Some reports from Spain and Italy trials, in very poor soils have shown that Siberian elm can grow with low inputs, and production as high as 12 oven-dried tons per year where results showed that genetic differences are also very important.

Siberian Elm in demonstration plots in Europe have been showing that enough biomass productivity

The production under rain-fed conditions in the Mediterranean is a limiting factor for poplars, willows, and many other species in short rotation coppice (SRC) systems. Eucalyptus in some regions can have higher yields but many disadvantages regarding soil and water impacts have also been reported, while some specific solutions with drought-resistant crops could be a possible manner to achieve profitable yields for farmers in areas with few realistic alternatives.

Some publications about Siberian elm in constraint environments:

Ulmus Pumila under Irrigate and Rain-fed Continental Conditions in the First Year of Growth

Methodology for weighted potentials of energy crops in semiarid continental plateaus in Mediterranean climates: Case study Teruel

Biomass production in the Central Great Plains USA under various coppice regimes

Biomass properties and gasification behavior of 7-year-old Siberian elm

7) Agroforestry as a Bioenergy Feedstock in Low Competitive Lands

Trees play a crucial role in almost all terrestrial ecosystems and provide a range of products and services to rural and urban people. As natural vegetation is cleared for agriculture and other types of development, the benefits that trees provide are best sustained by integrating trees into agriculturally productive landscapes — a practice known as agroforestry.

Farmers have practiced agroforestry for years. Agroforestry focuses on the wide range of working trees grown on farms and in rural landscapes. Among these are fertilizer trees for land regeneration, soil health, and food security; fruit trees for nutrition; fodder trees that improve smallholder livestock production; timber and fuelwood trees for shelter and energy; medicinal trees to combat disease; and trees that produce gums, resins or latex products. Many of these trees are multipurpose, providing a range of benefits. In temperate zones, agroforestry systems come increasingly into focus as they offer an approach for the production of fuel wood, thus matching the increasing demand for a self-supply with bioenergy in rural decentralized areas. Because of the large area potential of marginal land,  search activities aimed at a reliable estimation of the minimum productivity of fast-growing tree species under the most unfavorable site conditions.

Foto: Nilsson,. Based on www.vanyalandscape.com.

Additionally, bamboo and many other species like Caliandra could be effective as possible energy plantations to consider in agroforestry systems in the tropics. Tree legumes that grow faster (e.g. Sesbania spp.) could also offer high-productivity plantations in several regions.

Although the pristine natural forest ecosystems represent the largest vegetation and soil carbon sinks, a considerable extent of this has already been lost especially in the less developed and developing countries of the world. It is unlikely that these degraded and deforested sites will be returned to natural forest cover. The need for transforming some of the lower biomass land uses (such as arable croplands and fallows) to carbon-rich tree-based systems such as plantation forests and agroforestry, therefore, assumes significance.

Agroforestry systems (AFS) spread over one billion ha in diverse eco-regions around the world have a special relevance in this respect. These woody perennial-based land use systems have relatively high capacities for capturing and storing atmospheric CO2 in vegetation, soils, and biomass products. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, AFS offer important opportunities for creating synergies between both adaptation and mitigation actions with a technical mitigation potential of 1.1–2.2 Pg C in terrestrial ecosystems over the next 50 years. Additionally, 630 million ha of unproductive croplands and grasslands could be converted to agroforestry representing a C sequestration potential of 0.586 Tg C/yr by 2040 (1 Tg = 1 million tons).

Some documents and sources of good information to consider:

Improved Energy Crop and Agroforestry Systems for Sustainable Development in Africa

A comparison of two agroforestry systems for soil, water and nutrient conservation on degraded land

Agroforestry as a potential alternative to sugarcane in marginal areas of Mauritius for economic and environmental sustainability and energy

An analysis of externalities in agroforestry systems in the presence of land degradation

Energy balance and economic benefits of two agroforestry systems in northern and southern China

Fuelwood production in agroforestry systems for sustainable land use and CO2-mitigation

Agroforestry practice and policy in the United States of America

Willow biomass production under conditions of low-input agriculture on marginal soils

Matias Garrido


Matías es sociólogo y doctor en Ciencias Políticas por la Universidad de Buenos Aires y la Universidad Complutense de Madrid, respectivamente. Tiene una amplia experiencia en investigación social y de mercado, relaciones públicas y capacitación en varios países de América Latina, trabajando con Amnistía Internacional y otras organizaciones. Matías fue Director Nacional de Políticas contra la Violencia Institucional en la Secretaría de Derechos Humanos y Pluralismo Cultural de la Argentina de 2016 a 2019. Actualmente, contribuye al desarrollo de cultivos de bioenergía y bioeconomía en países en desarrollo, en línea con los 17 Objetivos de Desarrollo Sostenible.