Archive for Agriculture

The Nitrogen-Biochar Link

by Tom Konrad, Ph.D.

Promoters of Biochar should ally with fishermen and other groups concerned about ocean dead zones caused by nitrogen runoff.

The folks at the Carbon War Room are trying to save the world by tackling the trickiest problems in addressing climate change.  One of their current focus points is biochar [pdf].  I’m one of very few investment writers who has taken notice of biochar so far, and they called me to ask what I thought needed to be done to bring in private investment dollars. 

Getting investors interested in biochar is going to be tricky.  The problems are three-fold:

  1. The science of biochar is not yet well understood.
  2. An agriculturalist who uses biochar only gains a fraction of the total benefit; other benefits are positive externalities felt far and wide. 
  3. Creating biochar is fairly low-tech (you can get plans for a charcoal burner on the internet, and make one in your back yard.)  This makes it difficult for companies to profit from it by producing and selling superior technology.

My third point about producing biochar being low tech may not turn out to be a problem.  I ran a draft of this article by Jonah Levine, an industry insider, currently Vice President of Technical Sales at Biochar Engineering, a technology startup.  He says, "The biomass industry is used to driving biomass to ash to garner all of the potential energy benefits. Driving off H and N from the biomass and leaving as much C as possible in a continuous, automated process is not simple. The reaction would like to either take off and reduce everything to ash or not start at all."

If my first two points can be addressed, creating a market for quality-controlled biochar, and portable biochar producing units like Biochar Engineering’s  technology can be produced at a cost low enough that the extra char yield compensates for the extra production cost of the pyrolyzer, then there will be investors interested in biochar, and much more funding will be available.

The Carbon War Room is already supporting research to flesh out the science, and they are working to get biochar included in the World Bank’s biocarbon fund, but I was able to give them one idea: work with others concerned about nitrogen runoff from the overuse of fertilizer to get stricter restrictions or fines imposed for nitrogen runoff.

Nitrogen Runoff

Nitrogen runoff is a massive environmental problem, if not on the same scale as global warming.  Farmers often use more fertilizer than their plants really need because the costs to them of using too little (low yields) outweigh the costs of using excess fertilizer.  Incentives that increase the price they get paid for producing corn and other nitrogen intensive crops only aggravate this tendency, since they increase the benefits of high production without changing the costs of excess fertilizer use. 

The excess fertilizer is not taken up by the plants, and instead runs off into the river system, causing marine dead zones, and contaminating freshwater sources.  This increases the costs of water purification as well as harming people and livestock who drink the untreated water, and is the cause of "blue baby" syndrome.

Biochar and Nitrogen

Biochar, used as a soil amendment, improves water and nutrient uptake by plants.  It has its greatest effects in poor soils, helping the plants access the nutrients that are available, and this effect can last for centuries after the soil has been amended with biochar.  Biochar-ameneded soil should reduce the risks to farmers of using too little fertilizer, and hence reduce the incentive to over-apply, benefiting both the farmers and everyone else in the watershed.

Studies suggest that fertilizer taxes are the most economically efficient way to reduce Nitrogen runoff.  If such taxes were in place, farmers would have a stronger incentive to use biochar in order to make the most of the suddenly more expensive fertilizer.  For environmentalists interested in reducing carbon emissions, this would have the added benefit of reducing nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from heavily fertilized soils, for an additional reduction of greenhouse emissions.

Hence, Biochar advocates should team up with groups concerned about the fisheries and health effects of runoff to advocate for higher taxes on nitrogen fertilizer.  When farmers complain, perhaps we can buy them off by using the revenue for a biochar subsidy?

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Ethanol, Cellulosic Ethanol, and Advanced Biofuels

Last week, I attended the 2009 Fuel Ethanol Workshop and the Advanced Biofuels Workshop, writing two articles.  The first is a commentary on what the corn ethanol industry needs to do to rehabilitate its image, and the second looks into how the stock investor can benefit from emerging advanced biofuel, cellulosic ethanol, and
algae technologies.

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Flying too Close to the PetroSun

Algae is the most promising source to produce oil in the quantities needed to displace any significant amount of petroleum. Can is Petrosun (Pink Sheets: PSUD) the company to fulfill this promise? I doubt it; follow the link to find out why.

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Corn is For Ethanol, Grass is for Cows

Last year my wife and I read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s
Dilemma
, and it changed we eat.  My wife was greatly affected by how animals are mistreated in production farming, while I was attracted by the health
benefits of eating grass fed beef
and other foods grown in the manner to which they are evolutionarily adapted, as well as by the lower degree of harm to the environment.  We haven’t become all-natural, all-organic, all-the-time at the Konrad household, but we’re now much more willing to pay more when we have the opportunity to do so for food which we consider healthier and more environmentally and morally sound.  For a world-class tightwad like myself, being willing to pay more is a considerable step.

In any case, the book also got me thinking more sympathetically about the ethanol industry, because it serves as a relatively benign outlet for the mountain of corn produced by America’s insane farm policies.   I find rising price of corn and other grains is more a cause for celebration than despair, because I see current prices more as a return to sanity rather than a likely cause for starvation.  Even in the third world, low agricultural productivity is (in part) due to a lack of incentive to compete with subsidized first world production, rather than an inability to grow enough food.  The market for corn has been massively distorted by oversupply caused by too many subsidies.  Ethanol represents a new source of practically inexhaustible demand which is restoring balance to a market too long out of kilter.

One practice which the massive flood of cheap grain begat was feeding corn to cattle.  In my AltEnergyStocks
column this week, I look at one way I think the market may be starting to find its equilibrium again.  As corn prices rise, there will be less incentive to fatten cattle in feedlots (or Concentrated Agricultural Feeding Operations, CAFOs ad Michael Pollan calls them), and more to feed them grass.  I believe that long before we can perfect the art of using energy crops such as switchgrass to make cellulosic ethanol on a commercial basis, the rising price of corn will make it economic to feed those same energy crops (i.e. grass) directly to cattle, more than doubling the amount of corn currently available to the ethanol industry.

Click here to read the entire column.

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Diversification: Nature Knows Best

A study  in Science (see article in Renewable Energy Access) from David Tilman, an ecologist at the University of Minnesota shows what we should have known all along:  When energy crops are grown sustainably in poor soil (i.e. most of our available land) without fertiliser, a diverse mix of native prairie plants yeilds more than twice (238%) as much harvestable energy than any monoculture (including the much-hyped switchgrass) grown on the same land.

At some point, humans are going to have to realize that our production-line mentality, which seems so efficient to us, is not really the best way to do things.  We like farming just one species in neat rows because it’s easier for us to comprehend.  But easier to comprehend is not the same as more effective.  In money management, we know that there is no one perfect security for an investor: diversification allows higher returns with lower risk.  Farmers have yet to (re)learn that lesson: growing just one crop puts strains on the particular resources that crop needs most, and allows specialized pests an environment of limitless growth.

Monocultures are sub-optimal, both in your fields and your portfolio.   Enron employees with their retirement fund in 100% Enron stock learned that the hard way.  As we transition to a new energy economy, I hope that David Tillman, and researchers like him will help us realize that the places we grow out energy crops don’t have to be like an Enron employee’s 401(k).

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Vision of a sustainable energy future

I’ve been meaning to write an article outlining a vision of a sustainable energy future, where biomass is converted into fuel and electricity through pyrolysis and the waste product, carbon is used as a fertilizer a-la terra preta to produce more biomass.  The good news is I don’t have to.  The Engineer Poet did, and it’s just part of a much broader vision you’ll find here.   He also goes into a great discussion of transportation technologies and efficiency which would never have made it into the article I’d write.  I like it when other people crunch numbers, so I don’t have to.

Give yourself a half hour to read the whole article.  It’s worth it.

( Terra Preta: I got a comment from Erich J Knight on terra preta here that went into a lot of depth, but I deleted it by mistake.  Forturnately, he says pretty much the same thing in his blog.  I first heard about terra preta from Ron Larson, chair of the American Solar Energy Society, who is very active in the local (Denver) renewable energy scene.  If you haven’t heard about terra preta, and are concerned about globabl warming or soil fertility without fertilizers from fossil fuels, it’s worth looking into.)

Read the rest of this entry »

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Good Ethanol

I wrote a blog a couple months back talking about how environmentalists should avoid lumping all ethanol together as “bad” renewable energy because the Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROEI) is very low.  First of all, new ethanol plants being built today do have a net energy gain on a well-to-wheels basis (the critics are using decade old data), and so long as the energy inputs come from renewable sources, ethanol looks like a decent way to turn other forms of renewable heat energy into something we can put into our tank and drive around with.

E3 Biofuels is doing just that with a 25 million gallon “closed loop” ethanol plant in Mead Nebraska.  The distiller’s grain byproduct of the ethanol production is fed to cattle at an adjacent feedlot.  This saves energy by avoiding having to dry the grain and transport it to where the cattle are.  The manure from the feedlot is passed into an anaerobic digester which not only produces 100% of the energy necessary for the ethanol distillation process in the form of methane, but it also helps solve the nasty environmental problems caused by the massive supply of manure feedlots produce.  It was runoff from cattle manure that caused the problems with our spinach supply recently.

Other benefits are that by running the manure through the digester, odor is reduced, and methane from the manure decomposition does not escape into the atmosphere.  Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than is CO2.

If you believe the promoters that “This plant will make ethanol more than twice as energy-efficient as any other method of producing ethanol or gasoline,” I estimate that the well-to-wheels EROEI is between 2 and 4 (probably closer to 2.)  It’s not the great EROEI’s we get from Wind and geothermal, but it’s a liquid fuel we can use in our existing vehicle fleet (either as E85 in Flex-Fuel vehicles, or as E10 or E20 in standard gasoline engines.)

Without liquid fuel, we’re in great danger of economic disruption due to peak oil, but unless we get that liquid fuel in a manner less carbon intensive than conventional corn ethanol, we’ll be up to our ears in melted icecaps.

Obviously, what we really need is much more energy-efficient cellulosic ethanol which does not compete with our food supply for feedstock, and it will be great if that process is powered by renewable heat (methane form digesters, or solar thermal) but given that we’re unlikely to stop eating beef anytime soon, this is an elegant, closed process.

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