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Accounting for increasing energy use by the US food system

May 25, 2010

Change in U.S. total and food system energy consumption over two five-year periods (1997-2002 and 2002-2007). Figure from Canning et al., 2010. Click image for report.

Energy used by the US food system accounted for 80% of the increase in American energy use between 1997 and 2002, according to a recent report from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Other remarkable conclusions of the analysis include:

  • Food system energy use increased by 22.4% while total energy use rose by just 3.3%.
  • On a per capita basis, total energy use actually fell by 1.8%, but food system energy use was still up by 16.4%.
  • Putting food on the plate of the average American required 2.4 million BTU more in 2002 than in 1997. (To put this in context, total per capita energy consumption of 20 nations was less than 2.4 million BTU in 2002.)
  • The period between 2002 to 2007 likely saw another jump in food system energy use that far exceeded the increase observed in the rest of the US economy.

Read more…


Help Wanted… Organic Energy Farm Research

May 21, 2010

Help WantedThe Land Grant Program at Kentucky State University seeks a full-time research assistant for work related to energy conservation and renewable energy production on organic farms. The research assistant will work closely with students involved with the project and with small farmers interested in the potential to apply our findings on their own farms. The work is part of a larger effort to assess the potential of Kentucky’s small farms to meet their own fuel needs sustainably. Read more…

Google Invests In Wind Power Technology

May 7, 2010

Last Friday, Google made a sizable investment of $38 million to North Dakota based wind farms. These wind farms harness the wind energy of the North Dakota plains to create electricity that can power more than 55,000 homes and does so in a clean and safe manner. Google understands that an investment of this size, in a technology as beneficial as wind energy, can help create more wind farms around the country, create more jobs within this clean energy, and help stimulate the economy. For Google, it’s as much about helping the environment, as it’s about making smart business decisions about the future of this planet. Other corporations like Globetrotters Corporation (a Chicago based engineering corporation founded by C.E.O. Niranjan Shah) and Hewlett-Packard are following in the same footsteps as Google. These companies are coming to the conclusion that investing in green technology and green energy is really an investment in the future of the technology, the planet, and even their own businesses.

Read more…

Solar greenhouses, Chinese-style

April 5, 2010
Chinese Greenhouse

Dr. Sanjun Gu in a Chinese-style solar greenhouse with a cucumber crop planted in September and harvested between December and April. Shandong, China, April 1998.

In Europe and North America, eating fresh perishable produce out of season usually means hauling it in refrigerated containers from regions where it’s in season, or growing it locally in heated greenhouses. Our large greenhouses tend to use technology developed in Holland: Huge boilers burn through prodigious amounts of natural gas, coal, wood, or other fuel to fill a network of pipes with hot water, radiating heat into vast leaky structures clad in a single pane of glass. Although these greenhouses boast extremely high yields, the amount of fuel needed to heat them generally far exceeds the amount that would be needed to haul an equivalent amount of produce from a region where it’s in season.

There are alternatives. One is the high tunnel, a simple unheated hoop structure clad in clear plastic. Small farmers in North America are increasingly building high tunnels to extend their growing season without spending a lot of money on energy-intensive technology.

Another alternative is a greenhouse design developed in northern China in the mid-1980s that relies primarily or entirely on solar energy for heat. By 2000 these greenhouses already covered about 260 thousand hectares (650 thousand acres) in northern China, and by 2004 they were supplying residents of northern China with 90% of their fresh produce in winter. That’s when Manitoba vegetable farmer Wenkai Liu first brought the technology to North America. Other Manitoba growers have adopted the design since then, but, to my knowledge, it has yet to be tried in other regions of Canada or the United States.

Read more…

Farm Scale Study: Results from 2009 field season

January 7, 2010
Soybean harvest, August 25, 2009

Soybean harvest, August 25, 2009

Part of the reason for blogging about our farm scale study is my belief that data should be openly accessible. I wanted to post results as we collected the information, to make the study available for continuous review by anybody interested in the project.

My idealism has fallen prey to time constraints. Instead of posting each new chunk of data as the growing season progressed, I am finally posting a season summary now that the 2009 harvest is stored and snow is on the ground.

As in 2008, we grew corn, soybean, sweet potato, and sweet sorghum organically at three different farming scales:

Read more…

Ireland and Kentucky: Contrasting Biofuel and Energy Plans

November 17, 2009

Ireland: Dublin at night (top); Irish whiskey, drystone wall, potato field (bottom)

Thanks to Anna Galovich for a Spanish translation of this article.

Ireland and Kentucky have a surprising amount in common, but they’re charting very different courses for their energy future. Ireland is a moderate energy consumer with a plan to reduce its energy use. Kentucky is a profligate energy user planning to increase its consumption. Biofuels play a big part in the energy plans for both, but will likely have different impacts.

Ireland and Kentucky both have just over 4 million inhabitants and about 4 million hectares (10 million acres) of farmland. Kentucky is about 50% bigger than Ireland, but more of it is forested.


Kentucky: Bourbon whiskey, drystone wall, tobacco field (top); Louisville at night (bottom)

Both have two large cities, with most people living in small towns and villages. Ireland has Dublin and Cork (metro pop. 1.6 and 0.3 million, respectively); Kentucky has Louisville and Lexington (metro pop. 1.2 and 0.5 million, respectively).

Ireland and Kentucky

Ireland and Kentucky have a similar population and amount of farmland.

Both have a lot of farms, relative to most of the USA. Ireland has about 130,000 farms; Kentucky has about 80,000. For purposes of comparison, the USA has seven farms per thousand people, Kentucky has 20, and Ireland has 30.

Both Ireland and Kentucky have old fields delineated by dry stone fences. This isn’t coincidence: Irish immigrants built many of the fences that criss-cross Kentucky today.

Both take their fermentation and distillation seriously. Irish whiskey and Kentucky Bourbon have long histories, and are prized by connoisseurs the world over. Again, Kentucky’s Irish immigrants are partly responsible for this shared characteristic.

Read more…

(Partly) renewable ethanol

November 9, 2009
Dried distiller's grain

Distillery pipes load a truck with dried distiller's grain, a protein-rich byproduct of ethanol production. Most of the energy benefit attributed to making corn ethanol actually comes from displacing animal feed with dried distiller's grain.

You might expect the Renewable Fuel Association to deal with fuel that’s mostly renewable. It doesn’t.

The Renewable Fuel Association is the US ethanol industry’s national trade association, so is — not surprisingly — a tireless promoter of corn ethanol. Its website offers plenty of useful information about the US ethanol industry. You can go there to learn that in 2008 the US made 9 billion gallons of ethanol from 3.2 billion bushels of corn grown on 21 million acres. In other words, a quarter of the nation’s corn fields generated enough feedstock to displace 4% of the nation’s gasoline consumption.

You will also find this remarkable fact, in boldface:

Ethanol has a positive net energy balance.

That means we get more energy out of burning ethanol than we invest in the form of fossil fuels to make it. That makes corn ethanol at least partly renewable. But how renewable is it? Read more…