Author Archives: K. McDonald

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Advanced Rail Energy Storage (ARES): Using Trains to Store Renewable Energy

This video explains and demonstrates what looks to be a very encouraging development in the storage of renewable intermittent energy, which is one of the greatest challenges facing us today in our desire to transition to renewables.

Just like hydro power uses gravity to make energy, this rail car, a box full of rocks, and the power of gravity can be used to store energy from renewable power such as wind and solar, which could help stabilize the power grid.

This system, called Advanced Rail Energy Storage (ARES), is being tested right now in Tehachapi, California. It uses a diesel engine and carries a four ton concrete pad. Its developers have patented the system and it has been peer reviewed.

KGET TV 17 from Advanced-RES on Vimeo.

Map of the Agriculture Dependent Counties in the United States & Future of Rural Area Economies

This post includes material from the report on the July 2014 Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s symposium, “Structural Transitions in Global Agriculture.”

The subject is the lack of growth and decline of population in the rural areas of the U.S. which used to be much more reliant upon agriculture.

Although we have heard repeatedly from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and people like RFS lobbyist Bob Dinneen about how great ethanol has been for the rural areas, when we look at the data, it shows us quite the opposite. One of the reasons for this is that the farms that grow monoculture crops like corn keep getting bigger, which means depopulation and lack of support for the small rural communities.

Changes in agricultural markets have raised questions about the future for rural America. Throughout the United States, rural populations are barely growing, or even dwindling, despite the recent agricultural commodity boom. Though rural America has historically been inextricably linked to agriculture, a smaller share of the country today is considered farm dependent. […] However, the nature of rural America has fundamentally shifted over the past 50 years. Citing USDA data, Partridge showed that in 1950, virtually all of rural America was farm dependent. By 2000, however, less than 20 percent of America’s rural (nonmetropolitan) counties were considered farm dependent.

In addition, a disturbing graph from the USDA shows us that since the financial crisis, the urban area economies are recovering rather well when we look at employment numbers, but the rural economies have barely come up at all. The featured time span happens to coincide with the ramp up in ethanol production due to the federal mandate.

I have written about rural demographics and trends a number of times before, and there are many factors that are contributing to sobering declines in rural statistics. Just last week I learned that the rural grade school that I went to in Nebraska is shuttering its doors because there are no rural children left in the area. They waited until they were down to three students. When I went, there were around 70.


Structural Transitions in Global Agriculture: A Summary of the 2014 Agricultural Symposium – By Nathan Kauffman, Assistant Vice President and Omaha Branch Executive.

Rural America at a Glance – 2014 Edition

Pie Graphs of Top Global Pork Importers and Consumers & Livestock Trade

This post is from the report on the July 2014 Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s symposium, “Structural Transitions in Global Agriculture.” The subject is the changing dynamics of global livestock trade.

Echoing the sentiment of other agribusinesses, meat producers and processors pointed to export markets as the key to long-term success. Dhamu Thamodaran, executive vice president and chief commodity hedging officer at Smithfield Foods, explained that meat consumption in the United States has declined over the past 20 years. Assuming this pattern holds, growth is export dependent. Derrell Peel, professor of Agribusiness in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University, showed that global pork exports have, in fact, increased 37 percent since 2005. Global beef exports have risen approximately 30 percent over the past decade.

Export markets may be the key for the livestock sector to sustain its recent resurgence, but export markets do not come without challenges. One challenge is competition. Thamodaran pointed out that, although the U.S. produces feed relatively inexpensively, the U.S. no longer is the best at raising hogs. Places like Poland and Romania, although they lag in other economic measures, have made dramatic improvements in hog production. Another challenge is currency exchange rates. Although some currency risk can be hedged, it adds a level of complexity and required focus to any organization wanting to expand globally.


Sustainable long-term growth for the livestock sector, therefore, is likely to depend on the strength of export markets. As echoed by agribusinesses at the symposium, Peel noted that China is perhaps the pre-eminent factor underlying the future strength of export markets. Although China is the largest pork producing country, and produces more than the rest of the top 10 producing countries combined, its imports have also grown rapidly. Peel explained that the growth in Chinese imports could quickly lead to China also becoming the largest importer of pork worldwide.

Source: Structural Transitions in Global Agriculture: A Summary of the 2014 Agricultural Symposium – By Nathan Kauffman, Assistant Vice President and Omaha Branch Executive.

Reinert Interview: Climate Change

Today is the seventh post in this Monday series of subjects covered during my summer 2014 interview of Bill Reinert, recently retired energy engineer for Toyota who played a key role in the development of the Prius and then assumed the role of future transportation planning of alternative-fueled vehicles at Toyota. See his full bio here. –Kay M.

K.M.: What advice and cautions do you have for us regarding the subject of climate change?

Reinert: I worry about who the leading spokespersons are who are presuming authority on climate change. I worry about how too often it is nonexperts who have little understanding of energy who are the ones telling us what we need to do to prevent climate change. And, I worry about how well we can predict the future by extrapolating models because I’ve worked with models plenty in my life and I understand their limitations.

Lord Stern made cataclysmic predictions about climate change that didn’t come true. James Hansen speaks in a similar tone, and that concerns me. I see a lot of people who are the beacons of climate change and they are too often the people least prepared to discuss the science surrounding it. To give you an example, I was invited to a “secret” high level meeting about climate change a number of years ago. I was asked to write a white paper for it, which I did, but, of course, nobody at the meeting had read it. At the table were a couple dozen well known public figures, along with myself, and one university scientist. The discussion at that meeting frightened me because of the low level of scientific knowledge and the lack of understanding of the energy issues, yet, these same people had positioned themselves to lead the public dialogue on climate change.

I’ve done a lot of energy models, and, yes, we can curve fit and model the past, we can smooth out the curves and model carbon, but it is difficult to accurately predict the future from models. I’m worried about climate change and I think we need to address our use of carbon, and I think we’ve begun a hopeful downward trajectory. But while I’m very worried about the acidification of the oceans and the dying of the coral, I’m also worried about people who offer prescriptive remedies to address climate change who don’t understand the huge complexities within the energy systems and the unintended consequences that their often faulty prescriptions might have.


The meeting that Reinert described to me was a rather horrific experience for him, as he named one of those calling the meeting, a former vice-president of the United States who, at the time, was advocating that by converting our fuel supply to one sourced from switch grass, we could help stop the cataclysmic global warming that was rapidly coming at us. Although Reinert had explained in his white paper why it wasn’t possible to convert our fuel to switch grass sourced, they never read his white paper, so he told the table of persons gathered there that day at the end of the meeting that they “were an embarrassment” and shamed them for trying to lead the public discussion about climate change. The other scientist present at the table said he agreed with Reinert, and they left the room.

Weeks later, Reinert said that he received an apology from (Gore) in a written letter. (That day also marked a turning point in Gore’s message to the public about switch grass being the solution to our liquid fuel problem.)

When you hear that and think about the aerial views of the very large house that this vocal spokesperson lived in at the time (do you remember?) it makes us even more confused and frustrated about the message this person was sending.

Today, of course, the information we are listening to on climate science is from scientists, hopefully, but future predictions still are reliant upon models of an extremely complex system. That is why those of us who follow them see so many surprising headlines which show that the science continues to be evolving. Here are two great examples of that from just this past week, each reflecting rather large changes in the modeling: “The missing piece of the climate puzzle – Researchers show that a canonical view of global warming tells only half the story”, and, “New model includes critical plant-soil interaction processes in climate assessments”. —Kay M.

To see last week’s interview subject on “Farming and Monarchs” click here.

Coming next week will be Reinert’s comments on the future of renewables.

Photo credit: FlickrCC by Fizzr.