Thursday, July 28, 2005

Organic farming uses less energy for same yields

Organic farming produces the same yields of corn and soybeans as does conventional farming, but uses 30 percent less energy, less water and no pesticides, a review of a 22-year farming trial study concludes.

David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor of ecology and agriculture is the lead author of a study that is published in the July issue of Bioscience analyzing the environmental, energy and economic costs and benefits of growing soybeans and corn organically versus conventionally. Pimetel commented,

"Organic farming approaches for these crops not only use an average of 30 percent less fossil energy but also conserve more water in the soil, induce less erosion, maintain soil quality and conserve more biological resources than conventional farming does."

Among the study's other findings; in the drought years, 1988 to 1998, corn yields in a system that used a three-year rotation of hairy vetch/corn and rye/soybeans and wheat system were 22 percent higher than yields in the conventional system; the soil nitrogen levels in the organic farming systems increased 8 to 15 percent. Nitrate leaching was about equivalent in the organic and conventional farming systems; organic farming reduced local and regional groundwater pollution by not applying agricultural chemicals.

This study is relevent not only to agriculture but to energy production from ethanol or biodiesel whose critics claim that it takes more energy to produce than it provides. Organic farming will be a major element in the transition to a sustainable economy.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Texas and California make progress on renewable energy goals

Legislation in Texas has doubled the state's commitment to renewable energy development and a report on California's efforts indicates progress on meet its 20 percent renewable portfolio standard years earlier than required.

In July 2005, the Texas Legislature boosted the renewable portfolio standard so that it will double the goal for the amount of wind power, solar power and other forms of renewable energy in the state's energy mix. The new goal calls for the state to obtain 5,880 MW, or about five percent of the state's electricity, from renewable energy by 2015. Of the total, 500 MW must come from renewable energy sources such as solar and biomass. The law sets a long-range target for the state to get 10 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2025. The legislation also streamlines the ability of the Public Utility Commission to order construction of new transmission lines to meet the state's renewable goal.

In California, a June 2005 report for the Energy Commission indicates that the state's Energy Action Plan and the California Energy Commission's Integrated Energy Policy Report have expressed a state goal of accelerating the implementation of the RPS such that the 20-percent goal is met seven years early - by 2010. The Governor has endorsed this accelerated schedule and has set a goal of achieving a 33-percent renewable energy share by 2020 for the state as a whole.

Regulatory rules implementing major portions of the statute have been completed by the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Energy Commission. The state's three major investor-owned utilities, through interim renewable energy solicitations issued in 2002 and through bilateral contracts signed since that time, have increased their purchases of renewable energy.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

The debate over biodiesel and ethanol rages

Last week Cornell University Professor David Pimentel and University of California-Berkeley Professor Tad Patzek released a study claiming to show that it takes 29% more fossil energy to turn corn into its equivalent amount of ethanol, and 118% more fossil fuel to convert sunflower plants to the equivalent amount of biodiesel and 27% more to covert soybean plants into biodiesel.

The issue of net energy production is of utmost importance. For example, some studies show that, with federal subsidies, some oil well continue to produce even after they have to expend more energy to get the oil than they get from it. Similarly, oil sands take much more energy to produce than conventional oil and therefore have a lower net enrergy production, while shale oil has yet to prove that it can produce an energy surplus.

But the biodiesel and ethanol issue has been fiercely debated. The National Biodiesel Board this week issued it's response to the Pimentel and Patzek study, citing a comprehensive, peer reviewed study on biodiesel produced from soybeans. Its findings included the facts that for every one unit of fossil energy used in this entire production cycle, 3.2 unit of energy are gained when the fuel is burned, or a positive energy balance of 320%; the energy balance for biodiesel produced from soybeans is so high because the starting component, soybean oil, is already high in energy content. Oils and fats are nature’s preferred way to store high density energy; this study started with bare soil and took into account all the energy inputs associated with growing and harvesting soybeans: transporting and processing the soybeans into oil and meal, transportation and production of the soybean oil into biodiesel, and transportation of the biodiesel to the end user.

The Board criticized Pimentel and Patzek's assumtions on energy use. For example, the researchers’ assumption regarding the use of lime does not reflect current farming practices. Lime inputs account for over 36% of the total energy inputs for soybean production in Pimentel and Patzek study. While the use of lime on acidic soils may help improve yields, its use is dependent upon the requirements of the soil and is not a universal input for soybean production. Moreover, in most parts of the country, the use of lime is limited and, if used, is not applied on an annual basis.

The study includes labor as an energy input. Even though the calories consumed by farm workers can be converted to energy equivalents, most researchers do not treat the calories as fossil energy. Labor associated with soybean production has no significant effect on the total number of calories consumed in the United States and calories are not considered to be a scarce resource. Moreover, people must consume food to sustain life, regardless of their occupation.

The study does not acknowledge that producing biodiesel also results in the production of glycerin, a highly valued product used in pharmaceuticals, soaps, and other products. To be accurate, biodiesel’s energy balance should have been credited for the glycerin co-product.

The study uses a 1979 study to derive energy estimates for the energy required to manufacture construction materials and farm equipment. The U.S. manufacturing sector has increased energy efficiency dramatically over the past 25 years. There is no comparison between modern production facilities and farm equipment today and those constructed in 1979.

Pimentel erroneously reports that the USDA/DOE life cycle study concluded that the net energy balance of biodiesel was negative. The Pimentel study misrepresents the 1998 joint study by U.S. researchers from the Department of Energy and U.S. Department of Agriculture. The study actually concluded that biodiesel made from soybean oil resulted in an energy savings of more than 3 to 1.

Given the paucity of data included in the Pimentel and Patzek study, the edge in the argument would seem to be in favor of biodiesel and ethanol at this point.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Researchers make advances in wind energy generation

Engineers at the University of Alberta have made a very significant advancement in generating wind power, creating a wind energy generator is small enough for people to use to power their own homes.

The traditional problem with harnessing wind energy has been the high cost and the low return of energy, especially for small-scale generators. Present devices have been unable to convert any energy when winds fall below specific cut off speeds, wasting much energy potential.

However the new open loop control system can be built with a few, simple electronic components that are cheap and easy to find, use and repair. Anit it is able to transfer even light winds into electric energy.

Although nothing has yet been built hat is ready to sell, the engineers have designed and tested a generator that they are working to improve before they expect to apply for a patent and possibly bring it to market.

Wind energy is often derided due to the fact that the wind does not always blow, but a British study recently found that their wind generators were able to produce electricity over 90 percent of the time, while their nuclear power plants operated less than 80 percent of the time. The possibility of making a wind generator small enough and efficient enough for individuals to use would vastly enlarge the market.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Drought in Europe Spreads

In England, the counties of Surrey and Sussex have suffered through their driest winter and spring since 1975-76, and the third driest in nearly 100 years. The South-east as a whole, including London, is not far behind; south-east England is at the fringe of the drought that is affecting parts of western Europe, in particular France and Spain.

In Portugal, the country's worst drought in 60 years is expected to decrease farm income by 35 percent this year. Among forecast drops as fields wither, winter hard wheat production is expected to fall 90 percent this year from 2004 and soft wheat output is seen off more than 60 percent. Ninety-seven percent of Portugal was in severe or extreme drought at the end of June, the worst dry spell since at least 1945. Spain and France also are suffering from intense drought.

In France, a plague of hundreds of thousands of locusts which are devouring everything from crops to flowers in village window boxes, has worstened the effects of the drought. Aveyron Chamber of Agriculture says the locusts have hatched as a result of a drought that effectively began in 2003 and has never lost its grip due to insufficient winter rainfall.

The European Commission estimated on Friday that EU cereals production would fall by at least 28 million tonnes, or about 10 percent, because of the lack of rain. Portugal's Agriculture Minister Jaime Silva, believes that climate change is making drought more frequent and more severe; "We have more and more periodic droughts. It used to be it was once every 20 years, now it's less than 10 years and when it happens it's not just one year."

Climate change is another negative factor in the search for sustainability; as population and demand continues to grow, increasingly severe droughts lower the ability to meet the demand for food. If there are solutions they must come quickly.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Independent Online Edition >Now French Rivers are Running Dry

Rivers and reservoirs are running dry in France as a severe drought aggravates the heavy demand put on water supplies by French farmers.

In the south and east of France, departments that used to be animal-rearing country have steadily converted in the past two decades to large fields growing wheat and corn to take advantage of subsidies for cereals farming.

Corn, especially, demands huge amounts of water - about 1,000 cubic metres for every acre. Long, humped-back watering machines in northern and western France in the past 20 years.

Water tables have been pumped out faster than they used to be, while the more elaborate and efficient systems of field drainage have meant much of the rain that does fall runs off straight into streams, rivers and then the sea, rather than sinking into the sub-soil and the water tables, which supply reservoirs.

In some places cereal-growers have been banned from using public water supplies. Many took the public-spirited decision not to plant maize this year after the dry winter and spring. If the climate changes in France become permanent it will mean that farming patterns will have to change permanently.

Green Homes Are Going Mainstream

A growing number of home builders have decided that homes that use less energy, materials or harmful chemicals are ready to go mainstream. They say "green building" can be good for business as well as the environment, and they hope to persuade builders to create more eco-friendly houses for the masses.

"The idea is to mainstream it -- do simpler things, less exotic things, but do them over and over again to get a big return," said Nick Tennyson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Durham and Orange Counties.

Green building covers a wide range of techniques, designs and equipment. It includes gutters that collect rainwater from the roof for irrigating plants, concrete and stone floors that absorb the winter sun's rays to keep homes warm, and ventilation that keeps air free of pollen and humidity.

Tennyson's group will spend the coming months promoting green building among its members and drafting green guidelines based on a set published last fall by the National Association of Home Builders. By next year, it hopes to have the Triangle's first certification system that helps consumers weigh the environmental impacts of new homes.

Some production builders are starting to make their homes more environmentally friendly. By next year, all new houses built by Anderson Homes of Raleigh will include insulation and heating and cooling systems that meet tougher energy-efficiency standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program.

Michele Myers, president of M Squared Builders & Designers of Durham, thinks higher energy costs will drive more consumers to consider green building.

"I think the vast majority of them are in some way concerned about the environment," Myers said. "I think what builders are interested in is a middle ground, that they know they can still make a living and put their kids through college."