Bioenergy is one of the many diverse resources expected to play a key role in meeting the growing global demand for sustainable energy. It is a form of renewable energy derived from biomass used to produce fuels and electricity. Among the available biofuels, cellulosic biofuels, specifically those using perennial energy crops, have drawn significant research attention. Unlike grain-based biofuels, cellulosic biofuels have low impacts on water quality, compete less with the production of food crops, and have lower life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Despite the immense support from the government, the production of cellulosic biofuel is still lagging behind. In the United States, for example, only 0.42 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels were produced in 2019, significantly lower than the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) statutory production target of 8.5 billion gallons.
Increasing the production of cellulosic biofuels requires strong support from multiple stakeholders: farmers, local communities, biorefineries as well as government and non-governmental organizations. One of the many key challenges is changing the land use from currently food-crop-dominated in favor of a diversified crop pattern that includes perennial energy crops. Facilitating this change requires a thorough understanding of the key drivers of land use preferences and decisions, particularly those regarding perennial energy crops.
Preliminary studies revealed that farmers’ decisions on the adoption of perennial energy crops could be influenced by many factors such as their risks, profitability and the availability of risk and profitability mitigating tools like subsidies. However, there are limited surveys examining the evidence of the drivers of farmers’ decisions from the perspectives of economic, environmental and social effects. Additionally, the existing studies provide a limited understanding of farmers’ various responses to the incentives of perennial energy crop adoption.
It is hypothesized that farmers’ land-use preferences directly or indirectly affect their decisions through the mediation of some important intermediary variables, all of which follow a hierarchical causal-relationship structure. Therefore, the characterization of the causal-relationship structure could better understand the impact of different factors on their decisions. It will also better understand how different farmers’ heterogenous sensitivities to incentives could shape their perceptions of perennial energy crops adoption.
On this account, Dr. Pan Yang, Professor Ximing Cai, Ms. Carrie Leibensperger and Professor Madhu Khanna from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign designed a survey-based study to examine the socio-economic drivers of the decisions and heterogenous preferences of US Midwest farmers regarding the adoption of perennial energy crops. A Bayesian network (BN) model was developed to delineate farmers’ heterogeneity classification and the causal relationship between influencing factors and farmers’ decisions. Based on the collected data, the implication of the influencing factors on the design of perennial crops adoption policies was discussed. Their work is published in the journal, Biomass and Bioenergy.
The authors results revealed that farmers’ decisions to adopt perennial energy crops are mostly influenced by economic-related factors like profitability and less by social- and environmental-related factors like potential environmental benefits and familiarity with the crops. The farmers were classified into four distinct groups based on their preferences and attitudes toward social, environmental and economic aspects of perennial energy crops (Fig. 1). The categories were farmers advocating the environment, those favoring profitability, energy crop skeptics and energy crop supporters. Furthermore, the authors also established that outreach and educational programs to positively influence farmers’ attitudes towards perennial crops and the availability of local and contract marketers could benefit the quest for wide adoption of these crops and subsequent increase in the production of cellulosic biofuels.
In summary, the University of Illinois researchers developed a trained BN model to understand the factors influencing the adoption of perennial energy crops based on survey data collected from US Midwest farmers. The causal-relationship structure derived from the model provided a better and improved understanding of how different factors influenced the adoption of the perennial energy crops. The model exhibited a good agreement with the survey data. In a statement to Advances in Engineering, the authors explained that their findings contribute to the design of more effective policies to spark large-scale adoption of perennial energy crops.
Yang, P., Cai, X., Leibensperger, C., & Khanna, M. (2021). Adoption of perennial energy crops in the US Midwest: Causal and heterogeneous determinants. Biomass and Bioenergy, 155, 106275.