In Search of Wildlife-Friendly Biofuels

Native prairie plants could be the answer.

SHARE

Another is to grow native perennials such as switchgrass and big bluestem. The natural diversity of prairie plants offers many benefits, including increased carbon storage in the soil, erosion control and the maintenance of insect diversity, which does double duty by providing food for birds and helping to pollinate nearby crops.

“Bioenergy can be produced in ways that provide multiple benefits to society, including energy production, carbon sequestration and wildlife habitat,” Fargione said. “The Conservancy is working to implement on-the-ground demonstrations of grass-based energy systems that would increase the economic value of grasslands and provide an incentive for maintaining and extending grassland habitat.”

One concern about using native prairie plants as bioenergy crops is a lower yield per acre planted. However, said Flaspohler, he and fellow Michigan Tech associate professor Chris Webster have collected plant productivity data from12 test fields in southern Wisconsin that should shed light on how field level plant species diversity affects the amount of biomass produced per year. Flaspohler and Webster's work is partially supported by National Science Foundation funding. 

“We are looking at trade-offs between producing a commodity for use as bioenergy and maintaining important ecosystem services such as soil fertility, water quality, and wildlife habitat,” Flaspohler noted. “It was by ignoring unintended consequences that we’ve now found ourselves highly dependent on a non-renewable fuel source (fossil fuels) that is contributing to climate change.  With some foresight and with information on key trade-offs, I think we can make wiser decisions in the future. “