Modeling Energy Crop Productivity

We are developing an inventory of retired farmlands that can be used for energy crop production. Using this, we are modeling the expected yields and management systems for those lands.

Research question

Preliminary assessments have revealed a substantial area of herbaceous open lands in northeastern Michigan, comprised of retired and idle farmlands and other open lands not currently used for food production. These lands represent a tremendous opportunity for growing dedicated energy crops, such as hybrid poplar trees or perennial grasses, because these crops can produce up to 8 times as much biomass on a given acre of land compared to native Michigan forests. Looking at this another way, the same amount of biomass could be obtained from 1/8th as much land area if derived from energy crops cultivated on productive land. The key question is where these lands are located, and how much biomass could be produced on each acre. Answering this question is important not only to optimize supply chain networks, but also to help answer straightforward questions about which crops landowners should plant, how to manage those crops, and how much biomass yield they might expect from a sustainable management system.



A potential advantage from growing energy crops is the reduction in transportation cost and the increased supply chain efficiency that can accrue through intensive cultivation with relatively short transportation distances. This is especially true if energy crop production is facilitated by existing farming methods and infrastructure. Though some energy crops have a higher farm-to-gate cost than native forest biomass, the transportation savings could compensate and result in a more cost-effective feedstock. This would also provide a diversity of feedstock options as a hedge against risk, leading to additional efficiencies in the supply chain.

We are modeling both land inventory and energy crop productivity in time and space. A landbase model identifies the potential locations where bioenergy crops could be grown. A productivity model for energy plantations will be used to identify how much biomass might be possible to produce sustainably.

We are identifying the potential energy crop landbase, using land cover classification developed from satellite imagery and supervised classification algorithms. These data are augmented with soils, landform and spatial climate data to produce a spatial analysis system as a foundation in a GIS (Geographic Information System). The resulting geodatabase is a resource that will be used by other investigators for supply chain optimization, and investigation of potential environmental impacts of land management decisions. We will use the GIS geodatabase in combination with models of energy crop productivity to scale stand-level estimates to the entire northeastern Michigan landbase. This way, spatial sensitivity of land use decisions on biomass or carbon sequestration decisions will be evaluated. More importantly, “what-if” estimates of energy crop plantations across the landscape can be investigated, and estimates of the ultimate sustainable energy feedstock will be made.


Progress and Results

The geodatabase with base layers including climate, soils, land cover, and property ownership has been assembled. See the report below for more information.


Biomass GIS Data