The unintended energy impacts of increased nitrate contamination from biofuels production

Kelly M. Twomey, Ashlynn S. Stillwell, Michael E. Webber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Increases in corn cultivation for biofuels production, due to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, are likely to lead to increases in nitrate concentrations in both surface and groundwater resources in the United States. These increases might trigger the requirement for additional energy consumption for water treatment to remove the nitrates. While these increasing concentrations of nitrate might pose a human health concern, most water resources were found to be within current maximum contaminant level (MCL) limits of 10 mg L-1 NO3-N. When water resources exceed this MCL, energy-intensive drinking water treatment is required to reduce nitrate levels below 10 mg L-1. Based on prior estimates of water supplies currently exceeding the nitrate MCL, we calculate that advanced drinking water treatment might require an additional 2360 million kWh annually (for nitrate affected areas only) - a 2100% increase in energy requirements for water treatment in those same areas - to mitigate nitrate contamination and meet the MCL requirement. We predict that projected increases in nitrate contamination in water may impact the energy consumed in the water treatment sector, because of the convergence of several related trends: (1) increasing cornstarch-based ethanol production, (2) increasing nutrient loading in surface water and groundwater resources as a consequence of increased corn-based ethanol production, (3) additional drinking water sources that exceed the MCL for nitrate, and (4) potentially more stringent drinking water standards for nitrate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)218-224
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Environmental Monitoring
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


Dive into the research topics of 'The unintended energy impacts of increased nitrate contamination from biofuels production'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this