Day: May 11, 2021

Climate-friendly farming strategies can improve the land and generate income for farmers

A prairie strip filled with flowers and wild rye grass between soybean fields on Tim Smith’s farm near Eagle Grove, Iowa, reduces greenhouse gases and stores carbon in the soil. The Washington Post via Getty Images

by Lisa Schulte Moore (Iowa State University)

Agriculture has not been a central part of U.S. climate policy in the past, even though climate change is altering weather patterns that farmers rely on. Now, however, President Biden has directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop a climate-smart agriculture and forestry strategy.

As a scientist focusing on agricultural land use and adviser to several farm organizations, I have the privilege of working alongside farmers who have figured out how to do just that. I am enthusiastic about farmer-led solutions to climate change. What does this look like?

Restore strips of native plants around farm fields

Plants remove carbon from the atmosphere as they grow, and soil can soak up carbon and store it. These abilities are key to climate solutions that crop farmers can readily deploy today.

Seeding narrow strips of land within and around crop fields with native plants is an effective and affordable way to make farming more climate-friendly. Iowa State University’s STRIPS Project has shown that this technique reduces erosion and nutrient loss from soil and supports birds and insects.

Prairie strips can reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide emissions vary widely across agricultural landscapes and over time, but the largest contributions are associated with poorly drained croplands.

Nitrous oxide forms under anaerobic conditions – environments without oxygen, such as low-lying wet areas of farm fields, where it is produced by soil microbes. The easiest way to keep it from forming is to avoid fertilizing these areas, which amounts to feeding the microbes.

Prairie strips help reduce nitrous oxide emissions by soaking up nitrogen fertilizer that runs off of adjacent cropland. They also can store carbon in soil in two ways: by trapping sediment moving down slopes, and by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and storing this carbon in plant roots and soil.

‘Prairie strips’ integrate native grasses into row crop fields, bringing many environmental benefits.

Prairie strips are among the least expensive conservation practices available to farmers. This is especially true if the land they occupy is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take environmentally sensitive land out of production and conserve it for other purposes.

Installing prairie strips has qualified for Conservation Reserve Program funding since 2019. Colleagues and I estimate that via this route, they cost US$8 yearly per acre of cropland treated. A recent survey found that about half of Iowa farmers were willing to install prairie strips if they could access federal funds.

On April 21, 2021, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the agency will expand Conservation Reserve Program enrollment and offer higher payment rates for participating. The department is also creating a new Climate-Smart Practice Incentive to promote strategies that sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I hope this measure will promote national awareness of prairie strips, which today are known mainly in Iowa and neighboring states.

Turn soggy spots into wetlands

Since nitrous oxide emissions come mainly from wet zones, letting these areas remain as wetlands is another climate-smart strategy. Soggy areas tend to yield poorly in most years, and farmers rarely recoup their investment in cropping them. However, wetlands can be troublesome to farm around, which is why many farmers try to drain and farm through them.

But healthy wetlands also provide benefits: They sequester carbon, store and filter water and provide crucial habitat for mammals, birds, frogs and other organisms. The Agriculture Department’s new Climate-Smart Practice Incentive will support wetland restoration on agricultural lands.

Another USDA initiative, the Farmable Wetland Program, pays farmers to take previously farmed wetlands and buffer areas out of production for 10 or more years. Enrollment is currently capped at 1 million acres. A climate-smart agricultural policy could expand the program by removing the acreage cap and boosting incentive payments.

Low-lying zone of a farm field before and after conversion to a wetland.
A prairie wetland in Minnesota, formerly part of a crop field (left) and restored to provide habitat for water birds (right). Shawn Papon/USFWS, CC BY

Promote perennial crops, especially grasses

All crops are not equal when it comes to mitigating climate change and conserving the environment. Perennials – including various types of grasses, shrubs and trees – provide more ecological benefits than annual crops like corn, wheat and soybeans. But they receive less government support.

Just like annual garden plants, annual crops must be replanted every year. Perennial crops live for multiple seasons, so raising them requires fewer climate-warming inputs, such as fertilizer and fuel to power tractors. These crops develop deep roots that soak up water in soggy spots and help stabilize soil on sloping land.

Many fruits, vegetables and forage crops are perennials. Examples include apples, alfalfa, grapes and asparagus. Researchers are working to develop perennial versions of grains, legumes and oilseeds such as sunflowers.

There are many opportunities to expand cultivation of perennial crops. Grasses and forbs – flowering plants with stems and leaves, such as bee balm – are less expensive to establish and grow than woody crops like willow, and offer farmers more management flexibility.

I direct a transdisciplinary team called C-CHANGE, funded by USDA, that is working with farmers to create and expand market-based value chains for perennial grasses. We are helping farmers plant mixtures of native perennial grasses and forbs to build soil health where it has been eroded and protect environmentally sensitive areas.

The grasses can ultimately be harvested and processed in biodigesters – devices that break down organic materials to produce energy – along with manure or food waste. This cycle will yield electricity or biomethane from renewable sources that can displace fossil-based energy sources on or off of farms. It also will produce liquid and solid materials that can be used as organic fertilizers, along with other valuable products.

Replacing fertilizer made from synthetic nitrogen is important for the climate because making it consumes enormous quantities of natural gas and releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane is another powerful greenhouse gas, 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Biodigestion is widely used in Europe but underdeveloped in the U.S. We expect that the value chain we’re creating will embed it in a larger cycle that creates a market for protective perennial crops, reduces fossil fuel use and returns carbon to the soil.

The Agriculture Department’s Rural Energy for America Program provides grants and loans that can be used to support biodigester construction on farms. Expanding this program, which currently is funded at $50 million yearly through 2022, and making biodigesters a priority, is another climate-friendly opportunity.

When I think of climate-smart agriculture, I picture farmlands with lots of perennial vegetation smartly integrated as prairie strips, wetlands and crops. Federal policies and programs that can make such landscapes a reality are already in place. With concerted efforts and investments, they could be expanded to achieve a pace and scale that will help address climate change.

Lisa Schulte Moore, Professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Iowa State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Thermal energy storage startup EnergyNest secures US$130 million investment

Read the full story at Energy Storage News.

An investment worth €110 million (US$131.5 million) has been agreed by ‘thermal battery’ manufacturer EnergyNest which would make infrastructure equity investor Infracapital its biggest shareholder.

Infracapital is the infrastructure equity arm of FTSE 100-listed global investment management firm M&G Plc. In November Infracapital committed nearly US$200 million to investing in UK battery storage and electric fleet transport solutions provider Zenobe Energy.

Solar project will help locate reclaimed mine lands

Read the full story at Kentucky Today.

The state has unveiled a new web-based platform that will help businesses locate reclaimed mine lands for large scale solar projects.

The Energy and Environment Cabinet says this web platform, aimed at identifying solar projects providing 10 megawatts or more of electricity, would give Kentucky an important economic development tool to attract companies that want sustainable energy as a significant portion of their energy portfolios.

Local governments, city planners, solar developers, as well as all businesses and industry, can use Solar Siting Potential in Kentucky to identify solar sites using criteria such as typography, land cover and access to infrastructure, according to the Cabinet.

This biodegradable plastic will actually break down in your compost

Read the full story from Smithsonian Magazine.

Some single-use plastics have been replaced with biodegradable options in recent years, but even those aren’t fully compostable. Polymer scientist Ting Xu knows that because when she picks up composted soil from her parents’ garden, it is often littered with plastic bits that haven’t fully degraded, she tells Carmen Drahl at Science News.

For more than a decade, Xu has researched how plastic could be created with enzymes that break down the stubborn material. Now, a paper published on April 21 in the journal Nature describes a new plastic material that degrades by up to 98 percent after less than a week in damp composting soil. The plastic itself has a sprinkling of polymer-munching enzymes mixed in that are activated by heat and moisture to degrade the plastic from the inside.

Minority representation in US science workforce sees few gains

Read the full story in Nature.

Members of minority ethnic groups have made only modest inroads into US science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) positions in recent years, according to an analysis of nearly 20 million people.

The analysis was conducted by the Pew Research Center, a non-profit organization in Washington DC, and used data collected by the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series American Community Survey. It found that Black people accounted for 9% of the STEM workforce in 2019. That’s the same proportion as in 2016, suggesting a lack of progress at a time when many companies and universities had pledged to promote diversity. Over the same period, the proportion of Hispanic workers in STEM jobs rose from 7% to 8%. Black and Hispanic people make up 12% and 17% of the US workforce, respectively.

Wow no cow! Leonardo DiCaprio hails Perfect Day’s ‘forward-looking vision’ as lifecycle assessment shows non-animal whey protein has far lower environmental impact

Read the full story at Food Navigator.

Berkeley-based startup Perfect Day has underscored its sustainability credentials with the release of a lifecycle assessment suggesting its ‘non-animal’ whey protein – produced by microbes – produces up to 97% fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than whey protein from cows.

USPTO chief information officer most excited about new search algorithms

Read the full story at FedScoop.

New search algorithms for relevant prior art most excite the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s CIO right now.

USPTO created the machine-learning algorithms to increase the speed at which patents are examined by importing relevant prior art — all information on its claim of originality — into pending applications sent to art units, said Jamie Holcombe.

Filtering data into haystacks allowing patent examiners to more easily find what they’re looking for — the needle — is the new paradigm for search algorithms, Holcombe said.

Could the world ever run entirely on renewable energy?

Read the full story at Gizmodo.

This week’s question—could the world ever run entirely on renewable energy?—is shadowed by a much larger one: Namely, will politicians and powerful forces of delay like Big Oil ever allow the world to run entirely on renewable energy? For the most part, we have put that larger question aside for this installment; the experts below are interested primarily in whether it’s feasible.

To not switch to renewables in the very near future would, we know, summon a host of awful consequences. Unchecked carbon emissions would make vast swaths of the planet uninhabitable by century’s end; survivors of the heat-apocalypse would spend their days fortifying little hutments, or surgically excising mold from rotten squirrel meat. This is not the future we want—which is why planning for a renewable transition, and ensuring we bring it off, is so important. Hard as it might be, it’s worth setting aside your doomy visions of the future to consider, for a moment, what we can actually achieve. For this week’s Giz Asks, we’ve assembled a panel of experts to discuss whether the world could ever run entirely on renewable energy—and what it would take to get there.

Highview Power to develop first major cryogenic energy storage plant in UK

Read the full story at Greentech Media.

Highview Power is taking its unusual cryogenic or liquid air storage from demonstration to commercial scale.

The company is developing its first large-scale system in the northern part of the U.K., it revealed Monday. The first project will have a capacity of 50 megawatts/250 megawatt-hours and could be up and running by 2022.

It’s not a done deal: Highview is still looking for offtakers to secure contracted revenue that could balance merchant activity in Britain’s wholesale markets. But Highview has a location locked down at a retiring thermal plant site and is working on procurement for the construction phase.

If built as described, this project would mark a milestone for the exotic technologies challenging mass-market lithium-ion batteries for longer-duration grid storage. Battery plants have begun supplying several hours of power in certain markets, but they are not economic for storing days’ or weeks’ worth of renewable power. A motley crew of technologies is vying to fill that gap, including flow batteries of various chemistries, giant block-stacking cranes and some mysterious but well-funded designs

EIA expects changes in electricity generation and increased electricity use as economy improves

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects U.S. electricity generation will look different this summer compared with last summer as rising natural gas costs drive many electricity generators to switch to renewables and coal.

The annual Summer Electricity Industry Outlook, released today with Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), forecasts a 12% decline in electricity generation from natural gas, a 21% increase in generation from renewable sources, and an 18% increase in generation from coal nationwide over last summer. This trend will be most pronounced in Texas and the Midwest.

“We believe renewable sources will primarily make up for the decrease of natural gas usage in Texas. Our forecast is that 28% of Texas’s electricity demand will come from renewables this summer, up from 21% in 2020.”

EIA Acting Administrator Stephen Nalley

EIA forecasts a 1.5% increase in total electricity sales this summer over last summer, with a 4.5% increase in sales to the industrial sector and a 2.6% increase in sales to the commercial sector. These increases are primarily the result of rising COVID-19 vaccinations, fewer pandemic-related restrictions, and an improving U.S. economy.

“Increased electricity use will be most notable in hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that faced major hurdles in 2020 due to stay-at-home orders,” Nalley said.

Milder summer weather and fewer travel restrictions contribute to a forecast 2.5% decrease in residential electricity use per customer this summer, although this estimated household electricity use is still higher than the 2015–2019 average. EIA expects U.S. households to pay about $446 on average for electricity from June 1 to August 31, which is similar to last year.

EIA’s STEO forecast relies on the macroeconomic model from IHS Markit, from which they assume U.S. GDP growth will be 6.2% in 2021 and by 4.3% in 2022. The entire Short-Term Energy Outlook is available on the EIA website.

%d bloggers like this: