What Are Bioenergy Crops?

What are bioenergy crops?

Bioenergy crops are plants that are grown specifically to be used for energy production (1). They can be used to produce transportation fuels, electricity, and heat through various conversion processes. Bioenergy crops are an important renewable energy source that can provide alternatives to fossil fuels and help mitigate climate change.

The main types of bioenergy crops include food crops like corn, sugarcane, and vegetable oils, grassy crops like switchgrass and miscanthus, and woody crops like trees and shrubs. Bioenergy production from these crops offers numerous benefits such as reducing dependence on fossil fuels, providing income to farmers and rural communities, and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions (2).

While conventional food and feed crops can be used, dedicated non-food bioenergy crops may be better suited for renewable energy production at scale. These crops can grow productively on marginal lands unsuitable for food production and require lower agricultural inputs like fertilizers and pesticides (1).


(1) https://www.scirp.org/journal/paperinformation.aspx?paperid=120559

(2) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcbb.12261

Types of Bioenergy Crops

Common crops grown specifically for bioenergy production include:


Corn is one of the most widely used grains for ethanol biofuel in the United States. Approximately 40% of the U.S. corn crop is used for ethanol production annually. Corn is a high-yielding crop that can produce a large amount of ethanol per acre. However, there are concerns about the impacts of diverting such a large portion of corn for fuel instead of food. [1]


Soybeans are another common crop used for biodiesel production. Soybeans contain natural oils that can be extracted and converted into biodiesel through a chemical process called transesterification. Soybean oil accounts for over half of the feedstock used in U.S. biodiesel production. [2]



Poplar Trees

Advantages of Bioenergy Crops

Bioenergy crops provide several environmental and economic advantages over fossil fuel use. As a renewable energy source, they can reduce dependence on fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. Compared to fossil fuels, bioenergy emits lower amounts of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, helping lower net greenhouse gas emissions. Producing bioenergy crops and converting them to biofuels, biopower or bioproducts supports rural economies by providing income opportunities and jobs for farmers, processors, and other workers in related industries.

Disadvantages and Concerns

While bioenergy crops offer some advantages, there are also some important disadvantages and concerns to consider:

One major concern is the food vs. fuel debate. Using land to grow bioenergy crops means diverting land away from food production. With a growing global population, some argue that prioritizing fuel production over food availability is unethical (source 1). However, others counter that bioenergy crops can utilize marginal lands unsuitable for food crops (source 2).

Bioenergy crop production can also have concerning impacts on land use. Large-scale monocultures of bioenergy crops could reduce biodiversity and require clearing forests or grasslands (source 3). Strategic planning is needed to minimize disruptions to ecosystems.

The intensive irrigation required for some bioenergy crops has raised water usage concerns. In areas already experiencing water shortages, devoting water resources to bioenergy production instead of food production or ecosystems may not be sustainable (source 2).

While bioenergy has advantages, responsible policies and planning are crucial for avoiding food insecurity, ecological damage, and resource conflicts.

Sustainable Practices

Sustainable practices are critical for minimizing the environmental impact of bioenergy crop production. Some key sustainable practices include:

Crop rotation – Rotating bioenergy crops with other crops can help improve soil health and reduce pest pressure. Studies have found crop rotation enables farmers to grow bioenergy crops more sustainably (https://docs.fieldsoffuel.discovery.wisc.edu/bioenergy-and-sustainability/).

No-till farming – No-till farming avoids plowing to preserve nutrients and organic matter in the soil. Research shows no-till can benefit soil health when growing bioenergy crops sustainably (https://adbioresources.org/resources/guidance-on-sustainable-bioenergy-crops/).

Cover crops – Planting cover crops in between growing seasons provides ground cover that prevents soil erosion. Cover crops also supplement nutrients for bioenergy crops.

Integrated pest management – IPM uses a combination of techniques like biological control and habitat manipulation to manage pests. This minimizes the need for pesticides when growing bioenergy crops.

Bioenergy Crop Production

The leading producers of bioenergy crops are the United States, Brazil, and the European Union. According to the GLOBAL BIOENERGY STATISTICS 2021, in 2019 the United States produced 90 million dry tonnes, Brazil produced 50 million dry tonnes, and the EU produced 43 million dry tonnes of bioenergy feedstocks. Together these three regions accounted for over 60% of total global production.

Worldwide production of bioenergy feedstocks reached 830 million dry tonnes in 2021, up from 790 million dry tonnes in 2020 according to the GLOBAL BIOENERGY STATISTICS 2022. This reflects a steady upward trend, with global production increasing by around 2-3% annually over the past decade. The most widely used feedstocks are wood, crop residues, and energy crops. However, advanced biofuels produced from algae, municipal solid waste, and agricultural waste are also growing as conversion technologies improve.

Key drivers spurring growth in bioenergy crop production include government policies and incentives supporting renewable energy, decarbonization goals, and increasing competitiveness with fossil fuels. However, sustainability concerns around land use, biodiversity impacts, and indirect emissions from land use change remain challenges that must be addressed.

Conversion Processes

Bioenergy crops can be converted into usable energy through various processes:

Fermentation into Ethanol

Bioenergy crops like corn and sugarcane can be fermented to produce ethanol, which can be used as a transportation fuel. The crops are milled and mixed with water to extract sugars. Yeast is added to the sugar solution to ferment it into ethanol. The ethanol is then distilled and dehydrated to fuel-grade concentrations [1].

Combustion for Heat/Power

Bioenergy crops can be directly combusted or co-fired with fossil fuels like coal to generate heat and electricity. The biomass feedstocks are burned in boilers or power plants. The resulting heat and steam spin turbines to generate power. Combustion is a simple and efficient way to utilize bioenergy crops [2].

Gasification into Syngas

Bioenergy crops can be gasified at high temperatures with little oxygen to produce syngas, a mixture of carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and other gases. Syngas can be burned directly for heat/power or converted into fuels like ethanol or diesel. Gasification breaks down the biomass more efficiently than combustion [1].

Bioenergy Economics

The economics of bioenergy crops compared to fossil fuels is an important consideration. Biofuels produced from energy crops can have higher costs than conventional fossil fuels due to land, fertilizer, irrigation, harvest costs and more (source). However, costs have been decreasing as yield improvements, farming techniques, and conversion processes advance. According to one study, ethanol from corn crops reached cost parity with gasoline around 2019 (cite source).

Government subsidies and incentives have helped improve the economics of bioenergy crops and scaled up production. The US Renewable Fuel Standard, for example, mandates a certain level of renewable fuel blending which supports the biofuels industry. Tax credits for cellulosic biofuels also help incentivize growth and investment (cite source).

Investment in bioenergy crops and renewable fuels has been increasing with demand for sustainable energy. Major companies like Shell and BP have invested billions in biofuels over the past decade as part of energy transition plans. Venture capital investment in renewable fuels startups has also grown significantly, reaching over $1 billion in North America in 2021 alone (cite source).

Future Outlook

The future demand for bioenergy crops is expected to grow significantly in the coming years. According to projections, global demand for bioenergy could triple by 2050 as countries seek to increase renewable energy sources and reduce reliance on fossil fuels [1].

However, there are potential constraints on the expansion of bioenergy crop production. Concerns about land use changes and impacts on food production may limit the amount of land available for growing dedicated bioenergy crops [2]. Water usage and biodiversity impacts will also need to be carefully managed.

To enable sustainable growth, research is underway to develop higher yielding bioenergy crop varieties and improve farming techniques. Advanced plant breeding techniques and genomics research could create crops with higher biomass and stress tolerance [3]. With continued innovation, bioenergy crops are poised to play an increasing role in renewable energy production.


In summary, bioenergy crops hold promise as a renewable energy source, but need to be implemented in a balanced and sustainable way. Key points made throughout this content include:

  • Bioenergy crops are plants such as switchgrass, miscanthus, and fast-growing trees that are grown specifically for energy production.
  • Advantages include reduced reliance on fossil fuels, economic opportunities for farmers, and potential carbon neutrality.
  • Concerns include impacts on food production, land use changes, and lifecycle emissions.
  • Sustainable practices like crop rotation, minimum tillage, and integrating perennials can mitigate environmental impacts.
  • Conversion processes like combustion, gasification, pyrolysis, and fermentation transform the biomass into useful energy products.
  • Economics, policy incentives, and technological advancements will shape the future viability of bioenergy crops.

While not a silver bullet solution, bioenergy crops can play an important role in a balanced renewable energy portfolio when implemented responsibly. With the right policies and practices, they have the potential to provide clean energy, support rural economies, and aid the transition away from fossil fuels. More research and experience will clarify the proper scale and integration for bioenergy crops to maximize sustainability and climate benefits.

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