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Untapped Potential: Opportunities and Challenges for Sustainable Bioenergy Production from Marginal Lands in the Northeast USA


Over two million hectares of marginal land in the Northeast USA no longer used for agriculture may be suitable and available for production of second-generation cellulosic bioenergy crops, offering the potential for increased regional bioenergy production without competing with food production on prime farmland. Current yields of perennial bioenergy grasses and short-rotation woody crops range from 2.3 to 17.4 and 4.5 to 15.5 Mg/ha, respectively, and there is great potential for increased yields. Regional advantages for bioenergy development include abundant water resources, close proximity between production and markets, and compatibility of bioenergy cropping systems with existing agriculture. As New York and New England (a subset of the Northeast region) account for ~85 % of the nation’s heating oil consumption, production of bioheat, biopower, and combined heat and power could substantially reduce the region’s dependence on imported petroleum. While numerous grassroots efforts are underway in the region across supply chains, bioenergy development faces several challenges and unknowns in terms of environmental impact, production, yields, socioeconomics, and policy. We explore the opportunities for second-generation bioenergy production on the unused marginal lands of the Northeast USA and discuss the challenges to be addressed to promote sustainable bioenergy production on the region’s underutilized marginal land base.

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This paper arose from a collaborative multidisciplinary seminar series “Untapped Potential: Sustainable Bioenergy Production on Marginal Lands of New York and the Northeast” held at Cornell University in 2012, 2013, and 2014. The seminar brought together speakers from inside and outside of academia, focusing on the region’s marginal land bioenergy potential. We thank all seminar participants for discussion, and Ellen Demey and Valerie Podolec for their helpful comments. This work was supported in part by the USDA-NIFA through Sustainable Bioenergy Grant No. 2010-03869, AFRI Competitive Grant No. 2012-68005-19703, and Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station federal formula funds Project No. 125-7832; as well as by the USDOE Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office through the North Central Regional Sun Grant Center at South Dakota State University (Award No. DE-FC36-05GO85041). Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA, NIFA, USDA-NRCS, USDA-FSA, or the New York Bioenergy Association.

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Correspondence to Cathelijne R. Stoof or Brian K. Richards.

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Stoof, C.R., Richards, B.K., Woodbury, P.B. et al. Untapped Potential: Opportunities and Challenges for Sustainable Bioenergy Production from Marginal Lands in the Northeast USA. Bioenerg. Res. 8, 482–501 (2015).

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  • Second-generation bioenergy feedstocks
  • Marginal land
  • Perennial grass
  • Short-rotation woody crops
  • Impacts
  • Production
  • Policy
  • Northeast USA