Addressing the Invasive Potential of Bioenergy Feedstocks
Aviva Glaser and Patty Glick
Without question, America needs to
transition to a cleaner, more sustainable
energy future. As we move forward with
our energy choices, we must be mindful of how short term
economic decisions can come with unintended
consequences and high long-term costs to society and
the environment. Bioenergy is one homegrown source
of renewable energy that could help meet some of our
energy needs. However, in order to create a truly
clean energy future, bioenergy must be produced in a
way that has long-term economic viability, helps address
climate change, and protects and enhances native
habitats and ecosystems.
Download the full report: Growing Risk: Addressing the Invasive Potential of Bioenergy Feedstocks (pdf)
The explosion in federal and state mandates and
incentives for renewable energy in recent years has
led to a greatly increased demand for cheap and
plentiful biomass from a variety of plants and microorganisms.
This increased demand for bioenergy has
led to considerable interest in a number of non-native
and potentially invasive species that are currently being
cultivated or considered for use as bioenergy crops. In
fact, some of the very characteristics that make a plant
particularly useful as a source of biomass energy (e.g.,
rapid growth, competitiveness, tolerance of a range of
climate conditions) are the same characteristics that
make a plant a potentially highly invasive species.
Widespread cultivation of exotic and genetically modified
species for bioenergy is becoming increasingly likely.
Should these species escape cultivated areas and enter
nearby habitats, the results could be devastating for
native ecosystems as well as the economy. Very little is
known about the full potential scope of the problem, yet
the industry is moving full speed ahead. Already, there
are examples of intentional cultivation of biomass species
that are known to be invasive or have the potential to
become invasive. For instance:
- Giant reed is being used as a bioenergy
crop in Florida, despite the fact that it has been known
to invade important riparian ecosystems and displace
habitat for native species in states across the southern
half of the country.
- Reed canarygrass, which is
considered to be one of the most harmful invasive species
in America’s wetlands, rivers, and lakes, is being proposed
for cultivation as a bioenergy feedstock in several areas,
including the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
- Cylindro, a type of
algae that is associated with toxic algal blooms in the Great
Lakes region, is just one of many non-native or modified
strains of algae under consideration for bioenergy, even
though the fast growth rate of algae and the inherent
difficulty in containing them is a major concern.
- Napiergrass, also called
elephant grass, has been listed as an invasive plant
in Florida and described as one of the most problematic
weeds in the world, and yet BP is currently developing
a cultivated variety of it as an energy crop in the Gulf
In addition, the use of already highly-destructive invasive
plants for bioenergy, including Chinese tallow (Triadica
sebifera), kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata), Eurasian
watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum), and common reed
(Phragmites australis), is being proposed as a way to
capitalize on the potential benefits of the plants while
providing an opportunity for their control.While this
may allow for a win-win for ecosystem restoration and
renewable energy production, it also raises the concern
that the active re-establishment of the invasive species,
rather than their control, might be incentivized.
The severity of this threat is by no means trivial. Every
year, invasive species cost the United States billions of
dollars and affect countless acres of native ecosystems.
Researchers estimate that nearly half of the species listed
as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered
Species Act are at risk, at least in part, due to the impacts
of invasive species. Despite this, few safeguards exist
in law and in practice to prevent the spread of invasive
species. To date, current laws and regulations dealing
with invasive species have been reactive and piecemeal.
As a result, invasive species that we may have been able
to inhibit are causing widespread environmental and
We now have an opportunity to prevent irreparable harm
by heeding sensible precautions. With foresight and careful
screening, we have important opportunities to minimize
and, where possible, prevent negative impacts of biomass
feedstocks on the nation’s communities and ecosystems.
We recommend some key actions to help ensure that the
next generation of bioenergy does not fuel the next invasive
- Future bioenergy development should encourage
ecological restoration and improve wildlife habitat through
the use of ecologically beneficial biomass feedstocks such
as waste materials and sustainably collected native plants
and forest residues.
- Federal and state governments should conduct
coordinated efforts to restrict or prohibit the use of
known invasive species as dedicated bioenergy
feedstocks through rigorous Weed Risk Assessment
(WRA) screening protocols.
- State and federal governments should implement
rigorous monitoring, early detection, and rapid response
protocols, paid for by feedstock producers through
insurance bonding or other financial mechanisms.
- Feedstock producers should adopt best management
plans for monitoring and mitigation to reduce the risk
- The federal government should assign liability to
feedstock producers for damages from and remediation of
invasions by feedstock varieties that they develop.
- Governments and businesses should better account
for the economic risks associated with invasiveness of
feedstocks when assessing relevant costs and benefits of
potential bioenergy projects.
Bioenergy can be an important part of a sustainable energy
future, but only if it is produced in a way that safeguards
native ecosystems and minimizes the risk of invasion.