Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Last week, Washington's State Energy Program awarded a second round of energy grants and loans through the Commerce Department; a Farm Power affiliate called Rainier Biogas received a $1.4 million grant/loan combo. Rainier Biogas was set up to build a digester in the shadow of Mount Rainier near Enumclaw, a small town about an hour southeast of Seattle. Enumclaw hosts one of the surviving half-dozen clusters of dairy farms in the Puget Sound region; although it is too far from the interstate for intensive building, the century-old farming community is threatened by the typical slide towards a post-agricultural pseudo-economy. Rainier Biogas will help the remaining dairy farmers on the Enumclaw Plateau better manage their manure while becoming self-sufficient in cow bedding from the digester's fiber product. Keeping the farms in the area will retain $30 million in annual local production, a boon for a community that can otherwise look only to tourism and boom-blight exurban building trends.
Not everyone approves of the government picking energy as a stimulus winner; the day of the announcement, the right-leaning Washington Policy Center singled out Rainier Biogas as a particularly wasteful way to create jobs. While both state and federal governments have a spotty record on supporting biofuels projects that actually succeed, manure digesters have consistently provided effective economic impact. It comes down to value judgments that someone must make: energy infrastructure is simply better for the economy than another housing development, and supporting existing agriculture is just more efficient policy than building industry (or worse, service business) where none existed before.
Rainier Biogas: expanding local energy, nutrient, and fiber output on the beautiful Enumclaw Plateau from 2011 for decades into the future.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
The main nutrients plants need are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium--NPK. Most nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas, while legumes such as peas, alfalfa, and soybeans can also fix nitrogen naturally. Unfortunately, we don't have the same plant-based alternate sources of phosphorus and potassium--everything we use is either mined from phosphate and potash deposits or recycled organic matter.
"The absolute worst case scenario, from a nutrient standpoint, is what we are doing today.
Producing any grain (corn, soybeans, wheat, etc) and shipping that food away from where it was grown is the largest depleter of P & K [phosphorus and potassium] from the land. By exporting food out of where it was grown your are exporting your most concentrated nutrients the plants have stored. The process essentially is mining the soil.You want to be exporting only C,H,O,and N off the land. They are all replaced via gases in the atmosphere. A century ago most of the food was recycled where it was grown via animal or human consumption and waste. Not so today. Exporting food from the "interior" to the major cities on the coasts moves P & K away from productive land, essentially into water systems"
Anaerobic digesters offer an opportunity to improve the recycling of nutrients--not only does manure become easier to handle, but food waste can be mixed in and its nutrients returned easily to farmland. It's definitely an improvement over practices other food-waste treatment practices such as composting and water treatment facilities. As long as most compost ends up as landscaping material, the nutrients might as well be gone, and wastewater treatment typically treats nutrients as a problem to be minimized rather than a resource to be recovered.
A movie called "Dirt" has recently gotten quite a bit of attention; I haven't seen it yet, and I suspect it doesn't dwell on specific nutrient issues, but hopefully it has been raising awareness over the importance of caring for the soil. A future with well-balanced agriculture needs plenty of awareness--and good stocks of phosphorus and potassium.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
- older plants not only waste about 70% of the energy in the coal but they also lack pollution control and are simply wearing out
- while the United States has vast amounts of low-grade coal, we're running out of the best stuff (and the Appalachian mountains that are blasted away to get at it)
- burning coal does more to drive climate change than any other human activity
- older refineries were designed to run on the high-quality, low-sulfur ("light sweet") crude oil that flowed from early wells; refitting them to run on the heavier oils more commonly pumped today will be so costly that some refineries will just be shut down
- the United States imports over half its oil, sometimes from places we'd rather not see benefit from our dollars
- transportation emissions are the second largest source of greenhouse gases (after generation of electricity).
The cost of equipment varies inversely with the cost of its feedstock; natural gas is quite expensive, while some biomass can be free or even better. I expect we'll even have some coal-to-liquids conversion, using the extra feedstock freed up by closing the less efficient half of the coal-fired electrical generators. The coal-to-liquids plant cost of $60,000 per barrel offers a good average between the other technologies; at this price, the partial overhaul of our liquid fuel system production system costs almost $400 billion.
So, a cool trillion dollars buys the United States an energy capacity similar to today's but cuts coal and oil consumption by half. It's not complete energy independence and many facilities still require purchased feedstocks. The most interesting question, though, is whether we can afford this trillion-dollar overhaul; the United States has burned through close to that amount of stimulus funding without having a serious impact on energy infrastructure. Is there much hope that we'll focus our efforts better in the future?