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Life-cycle energy and climate benefits of energy recovery from wastes and biomass residues in the United States


Agricultural and forestry residues, animal manure and municipal solid waste are replenishable and widely available. However, harnessing these heterogeneous and diffuse resources for energy requires a holistic assessment of alternative conversion pathways, taking into account spatial factors. Here, we analyse, from a life-cycle assessment perspective, the potential renewable energy production, net energy gain and greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction for each distinct type of waste feedstock under different conversion technology pathways. The utilization of all available wastes and residues in the contiguous United States can generate 3.1–3.8 exajoules (EJ) of renewable energy, but only deliver 2.4–3.2 EJ of net energy gain, and displace 103–178 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent GHG emissions. For any given waste feedstock, looking across all US counties where it is available, except in rare instances, no single conversion pathway simultaneously maximizes renewable energy production, net energy gain and GHG mitigation.

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Fig. 1: Energy, net energy and emissions from waste biomass utilization in the United States.
Fig. 2: Sensitivity analysis of emission estimates.
Fig. 3: County-level renewable energy production, net energy and emissions.

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This study would not have been possible without financial support from the UCLA Grand Challenges—Sustainable LA programme.

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D.R. conceived and designed the study, guided data collection, modelling and analysis and co-wrote the manuscript. B.L. contributed to the study design, collected the data, conducted the modelling and analysis and co-wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Deepak Rajagopal.

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Supplementary notes, Supplementary Figs. 1–8, Supplementary Tables 1–4 and Supplementary refs.

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Liu, B., Rajagopal, D. Life-cycle energy and climate benefits of energy recovery from wastes and biomass residues in the United States. Nat Energy 4, 700–708 (2019).

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