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Streamlining scenario analysis and optimization of key choices in value chains using a modular LCA approach

Steubing, Bernhard, Mutel, Christopher, Suter, Florian, Hellweg, Stefanie
The international journal of life cycle assessment 2016 v.21 no.4 pp. 510-522
automobiles, case studies, climate, computer software, databases, electricity, energy, environmental performance, gasoline, inventories, life cycle inventory, models, natural gas, supply chain, wood
PURPOSE: The environmental performance of products or services is often a result of a number of key decisions that shape their life cycles (e.g., techology choices). This paper introduces a modular LCA approach that is capable of reducing the effort involved in performing scenario analyses and optimization when several key choices along a product’s value chain lead to many alternative life cycles. METHODS: The main idea is that the value chain of a product can be divided into interconnected but exchangeable modules, which together represent a full life cycle. A module is comprised of unit processes from the practitioner’s LCI database. The inputs, outputs, and system boundaries of each module can be tailored to the context of the studied system. Alternatives arise whenever multiple modules produce substitutable products. Unlike in conventional LCI databases, no copies are necessary to represent the same process with different inputs. A module-product matrix is used to store this information. It can be used as a basis for an automated scenario analysis of all alternatives or as an input to an optimization model. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: Our approach is illustrated in two case studies: (1) Passenger car fuel choices are modeled by 15 modules representing 33 alternative value chains for diesel, petrol, natural gas and electric cars. The automated comparison of LCA results indicates that electric mobility is often the preferable option from a climate perspective, but impacts depend strongly on the electricity source. (2) A dynamic optimization model including stocks is built from eight modules to analyze the optimal use of wood for material and energy applications. Results indicate that although direct substitution benefits are higher for energy applications, cascading use of wood can maximize environmental performance over the entire life cycle. CONCLUSIONS: The modular LCA approach permits an efficient modeling and comparison of alternative product life cycles, enabling practitioners to focus on key decisions. It can be applied to exploit a potential that is hidden in LCI databases, which is that they contain many specific inventories but not all useful combinations in the context of scenario analyses. The user-defined level of abstraction that is introduced through modules can be helpful in the communication of LCA results. The modular approach also facilitates the integration of LCA and optimization as well as other industrial ecology methods. An open source software is provided to enable others to apply and further develop our implementation of a modular LCA approach.