Fine-Scale Analysis of the Energy–Land–Water Nexus: Nitrate Leaching Implications of Biomass Cofiring in the Midwestern United States

By Sun, Shanxia; Ordonez, Brayam Valqui; Webster, Mort D.; Liu, Jing; Kucharik, Christopher J.; Hertel, Thomas in Environmental Science & Technology

As scientists seek to better understand the linkages between energy, water, and land systems, they confront a critical question of scale for their analysis. Many studies exploring this nexus restrict themselves to a small area in order to capture fine-scale processes, whereas other studies focus on interactions between energy, water, and land over broader domains but apply coarse resolution methods. Detailed studies of a narrow domain can be misleading if the policy intervention considered is broad-based and has impacts on energy, land, and agricultural markets. Regional studies with aggregate low-resolution representations may miss critical feedbacks driven by the dynamic interactions between subsystems. This study applies a novel, gridded energy–land–water modeling system to analyze the local environmental impacts of biomass cofiring of coal power plants across the upper MISO region. We use this framework to examine the impacts of a hypothetical biomass cofiring technology mandate of coal-fired power plants using corn residues. We find that this scenario has a significant impact on land allocation, fertilizer applications, and nitrogen leaching. The effects also impact regions not involved in cofiring through agricultural markets. Further, some MISO coal-fired plants would cease generation because the competition for biomass increases the cost of this feedstock and because the higher operating costs of cofiring renders them uncompetitive with other generation sources. These factors are not captured by analyses undertaken at the level of an individual power plant. We also show that a region-wide analysis of this cofiring mandate would have registered only a modest increase in nitrate leaching (just +5% across the upper MISO region). Such aggregate analyses would have obscured the extremely large increases in leaching at particular locations, as much as +60%. Many of these locations are already pollution hotspots. Fine-scale analysis, nested within a broader framework, is necessary to capture these critical environmental interactions within the energy, land, and water nexus.


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