Conventional agriculture production relies heavily on fossil fuels, particularly in its ability to provide energy at a low cost. However, the uncertain future of fossil fuel availability and prices point to need to explore energy efficiencies in other cropping systems.
Most of the U.S. Corn Belt relies on a two-year rotation of corn and soybean with heavy inputs of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides derived from fossil fuels to achieve high yields keep costs low. Matt Liebman, Michael Cruse, and their colleagues at Iowa State University conducted a six-year study to compare energy use of a conventionally managed corn and soybean system with two low input cropping systems that use more diverse crops and manure applications, but also use less fertilizer and herbicides. The results were published in the May/June 2010 edition of Agronomy Journal, published by the American Society of Agronomy.
The two input systems consisted of a three-year rotation of corn-soybean/small grain/red clover and a four-year rotation of corn-soybean-small grain/alfalfa-alfalfa. Between 2003 and 2008, nitrogen fertilizer inputs in the 3-year rotation decreased 66% and decreased 78% in the 4-year rotation. Herbicide use decreased 80% in the three-year rotation and 85% in the four-year rotation. Despite the energy input reduction, corn and soybean yields matched or exceeded the conventional system yields.
Did the application of manure decrease the fossil fuel energy costs? Manure prices are dependent on local economic conditions, but the two low-input systems used 23% to 56% less fossil energy than conventional systems. To analyze the energy and economic costs of manure application, the researchers used two approaches. One where manure was a waste product of live stock and essentially free of cost except for the energy used in its application, and a second approach as if the costs of manure were the same as commercial fertilizers. As a low economic input, manure can return $249 per acre, or $28 to $38 under high economic input for four and three-year systems, respectively.
Most of the fossil energy input for all systems was from grain drying and handling. Conditions in northern latitudes, where farmers have limited time to allow grain to dry in the field, make it difficult to reduce this cost. The researchers point out, however, that growing corn less frequently in a rotation sequence can reduce the need for grain drying with fossil energy.
The three and four-year rotation plans rely on agriculture systems where livestock feeding, manure application are integrated into crop production practices. “Iowa has a long history of mixed crop and livestock farming, although these operations do require more management and labor,” said Liebman. “If fossil energy costs rise steeply, we may see more of them again.”
Electric cars are finally heading to the mass market””and cities are starting to get ready for them.
With the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt due to launch late this year, the car companies are making deals with local officials around the country to set up public charging stations and make it easier for customers to power up at home. In some areas, utilities are also backing the efforts, offering customers special rate packages for recharging their cars.
But the electrification efforts aren’t limited to the usual suspects””traditionally green cities like San Francisco and Seattle. Efforts are also under way in places like Orlando, Indianapolis and Memphis, Tenn., where the motor vehicle is the main mode of transportation””and where electric cars will likely meet their ultimate success or failure.
“If it can work in Houston, it can work anywhere,” says James Tillman, assistant director of the city of Houston’s finance department, and a big proponent of the municipality’s embrace of electric vehicles.
For cities, electrification offers a chance to cultivate an eco-friendly image as pollution laws tighten and people grow more environmentally conscious. Utilities, meanwhile, see the efforts as a way to boost revenue and stand out from competitors. Car companies also get a publicity boost as cities and power companies promote electrification (and officials take test drives in new models).
Pike Research, a Boulder, Colo., clean-tech market-research firm, forecasts that there will be 610,000 plug-in vehicles in the U.S. by 2015. But some of the groundwork is already in place to support the first generation of electric cars. Industry experts say that utilities have enough capacity to handle the vehicles for at least a few decades. Dealing with a sudden influx of electric cars into an area is something like accommodating a new subdivision””a “fairly familiar challenge,” says a spokesman for Puget Energy, a subsidiary of Puget Holdings.
What’s more, given that the cars are designed as commuter vehicles, with a limited range of 40 to 100 miles, there’s not a pressing need for massive public infrastructure to support them. In fact, all that most people really need to charge up for their daily drive is an accessible 220-volt outlet, the kind that electric clothes dryers use. (Cars charge twice as quickly from a 220-volt outlet as from a standard 110-volt outlet, which can take more than 12 hours for a full charge.)
While most residents were sleeping, a twin-engine Shrike Commander flew serial missions over the city recently, cruising low like Superman and back and forth like a lawn mower. Equipped with a laser system, the plane collected highly precise images of the city, its rooftops, trees, wetlands and much of what lies in between.
The early morning flyovers are expected to yield the most detailed three-dimensional picture of New York City to date, with an emphasis on structures, elevations, sun and shade, and nooks and crannies relevant to the city’s emergency response system and its environmental goals.
The data will be used, among other things, to create up-to-date maps of the areas most prone to flooding, the buildings best suited for the installation of solar power and the neighborhoods most in need of trees. An advisory panel of experts formed by the mayor has warned that the city must prepare for more rain and an increased risk of coastal flooding in the coming decades as a result of global climate change.
Rohit T. Aggarwala, the director of the city’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, said the effort would result in a picture of New York’s physical space “in far more detail than what we had before.”
The effort, which will cost about $450,000, is part of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s broader environmental agenda, known as PlaNYC.
The current flood plain maps used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency date to the 1980s and were based on aerial photography and ground surveys. The maps are not as accurate or precise as they should be for the density of the city, Mr. Aggarwala said, and the new data could lead to zoning changes and stricter building codes, among other adjustments.
The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency has teamed up with a Chinese environmental bureau to provide real-time air quality monitoring from the site of the World Expo in Shanghai.
EPA officials said Monday the move will help the city as it works with other areas in the region to clear its often thick blanket of smog.
The online system, dubbed AIRNow International, links technology developed by the EPA with the existing air quality monitoring network in Shanghai, a city of about 20 million.
Existing air quality monitoring systems in the region report day-before readings, which are little use in forecasting conditions for people whose health can be adversely affected by pollution.
“There’s a real power in real-time data. Once you make data available hourly, you can forecast and people start paying attention,” said Jeff Clark of the EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards.
“People start to buy into concern for air pollution,” he said.
The EPA’s AIRNow national index for reporting daily air quality was launched 11 years ago and provides information for nearly 400 U.S. cities.
The agency provided technical help to Shanghai’s Environmental Protection Bureau. The two sides also are collaborating on reducing emissions from vehicles and power plants, and on climate change, water pollution and other environmental concerns.
Shanghai, China’s commercial and industrial hub, staged a massive cleanup for the World Expo, which began May 1 and is expected to draw up to 70 million people. It razed old steel mills and shipyards to make way for the Expo along the banks of the Huangpu River and closed down heavily polluting factories, or moved them to distant suburbs.
The city also has sought to reduce car emissions by raising standards required of vehicles that travel into the city’s center.
But cleaning up the city is only half the battle, since Shanghai lies downwind of heavily industrialized regions further inland. At times, farm fields in neighboring provinces are burned to clear stubble, leaving the city enveloped in a mucky haze.
With BP’s spilled oil shimmering off the U.S. Gulf Coast, and a re-tooled bill to curb climate change expected to be unveiled this week in the U.S. Senate, what could be more appropriate than a bouquet of new environmental polls? Conducted on behalf of groups that want less fossil fuel use, the polls show hefty majorities favoring legislation to limit emissions of climate-warming carbon dioxide.
In the kind of harmonic convergence that sometimes happens inside the Capital Beltway, a new poll released on Monday by the Clean Energy Works campaign showed “overwhelming public support for comprehensive clean energy legislation,” with 61 percent of 2010 voters saying they want to limit pollution, invest in clean energy and make energy companies pay for emitting the carbon that contributes to climate change. A healthy majority “” 54 percent “” of respondents said they’d be more likely to re-elect a senator who votes for the bill.
Last Friday, the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been pushing for climate change legislation for years, released its own poll numbers. NRDC’s pollsters found seven in 10 Americans want to see fast-tracked clean energy legislation in the wake of the BP oil spill, and two-thirds say they want to postpone new offshore drilling until the Gulf oil spill is investigated and new safeguards are put in place.
Going back one more day, Rasmussen Reports found that even after the Gulf oil spill began dominating the Web, TV newscasts and newspaper front pages, 58 percent of respondents still favor offshore drilling. That’s a big majority but a 14-point drop from the 72 percent who favored offshore drilling after President Barack Obama announced at the end of March that he was opening new areas to exploratory offshore drilling for the first time in more than two decades.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi directed reporters to a poll by Republicans for Environmental Preservation “” a quote on their website reads “Nothing is more conservative than conservation” “” that showed 52 percent of Republicans and a similar number people who consider themselves conservatives support a U.S. energy policy to boost domestic energy production and cap carbon emissions. Even among Tea Party respondents, who are generally hostile to what they call big government, the poll found more favored the policy “” 47 percent “” than the 42 percent who opposed it.
Remember: the oil hasn’t really reached the Gulf Coast yet. And the bill, long delayed, isn’t set for launch until Wednesday. Let’s start counting now to see how many polls on these contentious issues arrive before a) the spill is cleaned up and b) the bill either becomes law or fails to gain congressional approval.