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Virginia Dale on bioenergy sustainability

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ORNL researcher Virginia Dale. Image credit: Genevieve Martin, ORNL

Ecologist Virginia Dale is an ORNL corporate fellow and director of the lab’s Center for BioEnergy Sustainability. In her work she focuses on environmental decision making, plant succession, land-use change, landscape ecology, ecological modeling, sustainability, and bioenergy systems. 

Dale has authored 10 books and more than 240 published articles. She has also served on the scientific advisory boards of five federal agencies and several committees of the National Academies of Science. 

Dale received a Ph.D. in mathematical ecology from the University of Washington. She has been at ORNL since 1984.

1. What is bioenergy sustainability?

Bioenergy is renewable energy that is made from materials derived from biological sources including both waste material and plants grown specifically for energy. Sustainability focuses on meeting the goals of the future without compromising those of today. Hence bioenergy sustainability is the use of biological material to produce energy in a way that addresses environmental, social, and economic goals for today and the future.   

What our ORNL team has done is determine ways to quantify social, economic, and environmental costs and benefits including jobs, social acceptability, profit, trading partners, clean water, clean air, habitat, and ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Progress toward bioenergy sustainability can be achieved in diverse ways and occurs differently in each context. For example, depending on crops that can be grown, available wastes, and energy products, efforts to enhance bioenergy sustainability in the midwestern United States can differ from those in the coastal regions.

2. Why is it important?

Energy is required by all, and bioenergy offers an opportunity to make use of agricultural, forest, and urban wastes as well as purpose-grown crops to provide a renewable energy source. In doing so bioenergy can provide rural jobs, enhance energy security, and provide incentives for improved land management that can lead to environmental benefits.

We need a consistent, quantitative basis against which to evaluate renewable energy options, including those that contribute to domestic energy security and create jobs. In any one place, appropriate energy choices are often a mix of options among bioenergy, hydropower, solar, wind, and geothermal. Bioenergy is a renewable option that makes sense in certain contexts, and we seek to determine where it works so that producers and consumers can make informed choices. 

3. What difference does it make to individuals? 

Everyone uses energy. Research at ORNL is helping decision makers at all levels consider what energy mix is appropriate for their use. Most people in the U.S. think of bioenergy when filling the gas tank of their car or truck. Ethanol mixes and biodiesel are renewable fuel options that are helping the U.S. vehicle fleet transition to battery-based cars and trucks. Over the long term, liquid fuels will still be required for long-distance transport such as in aviation, ocean shipping, and long-haul trucking, and biofuel is the only renewable liquid fuel option. Furthermore, demand for agriculture, forest, and urban wastes provides incentives for improved environmental quality such as better land management, enhanced water quality and quantity, reduced need for fires that contribute to air pollution, creation or retention of habitat of some species of special concern, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, use of waste and purpose-grown biomass provides rural jobs and energy security.  

4. You are director of ORNL’s Center for BioEnergy Sustainability. How does the center promote bioenergy sustainability?

Our work is not about promoting any one option but rather providing tools to quantify costs and benefits of energy options and thereby determine if bioenergy is appropriate in specific situations. Several groups that are interested in bioenergy sustainability talk about it in either vague or highly complex terms. In order to characterize bioenergy sustainability, they have come up with sometimes hundreds of different metrics to assess it. Such a complex approach hinders development of the industry and dissuades farmers and foresters from planting biomass crops or collecting wastes for bioenergy use. Our ORNL team has come up with a manageable set of metrics and a framework so that land managers and industry can quantify when progress toward bioenergy sustainability is being made. This approach allows users to gauge benefits and costs associated with bioenergy as compared to energy alternatives throughout the supply chain, from the farmers to transporters and biorefineries all the way up to people deciding what fuel mix to use in their cars and trucks.

Other groups have adopted ORNL’s approach. In particular, IEA Bioenergy, an international group convened by the International Energy Agency, has been thinking about ways to quantify bioenergy sustainability. It is implementing key aspects of our approach and testing it in different locations around the world.

5. What are some of your center’s accomplishments?

Our team has developed an approach to assess bioenergy costs and benefits in particular contexts. We have established a checklist of suggested metrics and proposed a framework for identifying key indicators in a particular situation. We have detailed several examples of how this approach can be deployed. Results from our computer simulations show options for producing bioenergy that can enhance environmental, social, and economic benefits. We have adapted the mathematic theory of aggregation to sustainability so that its dimensionality can be reduced.  

We publish our research in scientific journals, which is a way to vet the credibility of our science. Our publications appear in diverse scientific journals because the topics of bioenergy and sustainability include renewable energy, environmental protection, agriculture, and forestry as well as economic and societal effects. 

We have linked our efforts to industry and the public. We work with the agriculture, forestry, logistics, and bioenergy industries to understand management options for bioenergy. In addition, our team is actively engaged in outreach activities to educate others about bioenergy, for example by leading local participation in National Bioenergy Day.

Furthermore, our ORNL team engages practitioners and scientists from diverse backgrounds to explore bioenergy options. For example, last April we organized a Bioenergy Study Tour during which we assembled scientists and practitioners from seven countries on a bus and traveled from Oak Ridge to Savannah, Georgia, visiting family and industrial forest operations, a biopower facility, and logistics operations along the way. Participants learned that using wood in the southeastern U.S. to displace coal in European power plants provides an incentive for forest management practices that benefit water quality and wildlife and reduce the risk of fire and insect outbreaks.

In addition, my service on a National Academy committee dealing with bioenergy sustainability helped that group propose realistic options for ways to define and meet sustainability goals for the U.S. Other members of our team helped develop U.S. and international standards for assessing relative sustainability involving energy or chemicals from biomass.

6. Where do you see this work going in the future?

Our ORNL team is working with others to test the framework we have developed for assessing progress toward bioenergy sustainability. Tests are being deployed in Iowa where corn stover (leaves and stalks) and perennial grasses are used to produce ethanol and in the Southeast where wood-based pellets are being produced to displace coal for power in Europe. We anticipate that different bioenergy systems will have distinct goals as well as unique costs and benefits and, therefore, individual management practices that can enhance social, economic, and environmental goals. Hence we are using surveys and other techniques to understand stakeholders’ objectives in these two contexts.  Identifying the opportunities and the constraints in different places helps us understand and improve the assessment framework. 

Our Center for BioEnergy Sustainability staff are also part of teams organized by the International Energy Agency on Bioenergy to understand and engage with stakeholders and to ascertain ways to verify sustainability in various contexts. Much of that work builds from the ORNL efforts.

Finally, we are developing a web-based tool to provide a visualization of how decision makers can improve social, economic, and environmental outcomes of their bioenergy system. The decision makers include land managers such as farmers and foresters, energy producers, and energy users as well as other researchers. Eventually this visualization tool will be a user-friendly guide that addresses concerns of diverse stakeholders and presents information about their systems in a way that can improve management activities. Our long-term vision is that sustainability becomes less of a buzzword and more of a quantitative measure of how well social, economic, and environmental goals are achieved.