Category Archives: climate change

Reinert Interview: The Future of Renewables

Today is the eighth 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.

Photo by John Womack, Wikipedia

K.M.: For the past 15 years, the global ratio of fossil fuel use to renewables hasn’t changed at all and remains at 87 percent, even as global energy consumption rises. What’s the future for renewables?

Reinert: I’ve been working on various renewables in the industry since 1981. What I’ve seen is how policy makes them come and go, depending upon administrations, and depending upon fiscal conditions. When the money gets thrown, you get both good and bad projects. And there’s never an exit plan, and the industry never learns. Like in Spain where they initiated all this concentrated solar thermal power, along with the promise of jobs. But the minute the Spanish government got into trouble and couldn’t afford the incentives, the industries started imploding on each other, and the incentives ended.

We’re becoming a more energy dense world. The use of energy is increasing and renewables really are not going to keep up from an energy density point of view. Take for example, cities such as Boulder, Colorado, whose dream it is to become 100 percent renewable in the next 10 years. It can’t be done because there’s nothing on the market that takes care of the intermittency of solar or wind. And they’ll find out that the kilowatt of spinning reserves for every kilowatt of renewables costs a lot.

To see last week’s interview subject on Climate Change, click here.

Coming next week will be Reinert’s comments on the electrical grid.

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.

Organic Tomato Farm’s Soils Produce High Yields During Terrible Drought

Today’s post is reprinted by permission of Charles M. “Chuck” Benbrook, who is a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University.

Long-time readers of this site know that healthy organic soils retain moisture far better during drought-stressed conditions. Today’s post offers a pretty profound example of that principle in action this past summer during California’s drought.

Charles Benbrook reports about an organic tomato farm in California and its amazing success even during last summer’s terrible drought. The numbers he includes in this article of tomato yields and rainfall are astounding in a positive good-news way for producers of every kind, everywhere. He attributes this tomato production “miracle” to the organic soil health of the long-standing farm. (Although, I suspect because it is “Northern California-coastal” it is also receiving some moisture in the way of fogs.) Then, he warns growers that if they wish to be resilient in future weather-stresses expected from climate change, they need to establish similar soils in their own growing fields.

It’s a win-win.

Better tasting tomatoes, lower input costs, and crop resiliency.

It is better to let Nature do the work for us, instead of destroying the natural systems and then repairing the damage to get the yields we’re after.
—Kay M.

Promoting Global Food Security One Crop of Tomatoes at a Time

By Chuck Benbrook

In early September I visited a remarkable organic farm on the coast of California. This farm has been in organic production for about 30 years, and its harvests of mostly organic tomatoes have been marketed through a variety of outlets in Northern California.

I arrived on the day picking had just begun on a sloping tomato field about 6 acres in size. The crop was exceptionally clean, with virtually no insect damage and few weeds. Minimal, organically approved control measures had been used, including applications of sulfur and releases of trichogramma (beneficial wasps), along with many hours of hand weeding.

One of every dozen-plus fruits had minor, cosmetic blemishing on the skin, typically where the tomatoes contacted the soil. Otherwise, the tomatoes were picture perfect. I can also vouch for their organoleptic quality, from a first-hand eating experience at a dinner during my stay. These tomatoes also, no doubt, contain markedly higher levels of health-promoting phenolic acids and Vitamin C, for reasons discussed in an earlier blog (“A Tale of Two Tomatoes,” February 23, 2013).

The grower has since reported that the field produced about 30,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre.

Farmers in other tomato-producing regions often produce substantially more per acre.  My friend and colleague Madeline Mellinger runs Glades Crop Care (GCC), South Florida’s major independent crop consulting firm.  She and the GCC staff scout and advise farmers on pest management across about 11,000 acres of tomatoes each year.  In their neck of the woods, conventionally grown tomato yields average 50,000 pounds per acre, and in all but unusual years, range from 35,000 to 65,000 pounds/acre. Yields of 60,000 pounds per acre are common.

So what’s the big deal about a 30,000 pound per acre organic tomato yield in sunny California, when Florida (and some other California) growers often produce twice that per acre?

This was a dryland field of organic tomatoes – no, none, zero supplemental irrigation had been applied.  The field was planted in April.  Detailed weather data is accessible from a nearby weather station, which I accessed upon return to my office.

On August 6th and 7th, the last measurable rainfall had fallen in the area (0.02 inches, or two one-hundredths of an inch, i.e. almost none).  July rainfall totaled 0.16 inch, and 0.04 inch fell in both May and June. A far-below average 0.45 inch fell in April, and only 1.12 inches came in March, usually one of the year’s wettest months.

Total precipitation for the 2014 production season was 1.83 inches.  On California’s irrigated fresh market tomato fields, around 30” of irrigation water is applied to bring a crop to market, and according to the USDA, average yields are about 35,000 pounds per acre.

Organic production + 1.83 inches of rainfall = 30,000 pounds of tomatoes.

Conventional production + 30 inches of irrigation water = 35,000 pounds of tomatoes.

If a drought-weary California is forced to look for new ways to conserve water, the performance of this organic farm is both impressive and hopeful, given that it produced over 16,000 pounds of tomatoes per inch of rainfall.  On a typical, irrigated, fresh market tomato field in California, experienced growers harvest about 1,200 pounds of tomatoes per inch of irrigation water, and somewhat less than 1,000 pounds per inch of rainfall-plus-irrigation water.

How could 30,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre be harvested on a field receiving so little rainfall?

It’s all about the soil. Over the last 30-plus years, this field has been in a complex rotation, with ample amounts of added organic material and routine cover cropping. The organic matter content of the soil has been increased about two-fold – from around 1.5% to about 3% — promoting rapid water infiltration (when it rains), as well as enhancing the soil’s water holding capacity.

So what does this un-irrigated, organic tomato field have to do with feeding the world?

Governments around the world are urging people to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables to at least four servings per day (the USDA recommendation is 5-8 servings/day). The population of California is currently 38 million, so each and everyday, the good citizens of the State should be consuming at least 152,000,000 servings of fruits and vegetables.  Surely, mankind does not live by tomatoes alone, but for the sake of making an important point, bear with me.

According to the USDA, one serving of fresh tomatoes weighs 90 grams, or 0.19842 pound (i.e., there are about five servings in one pound of tomatoes).  Accordingly, 1,005 acres of similarly managed, organic tomatoes yielding, on average, 30,000 pounds per acre, would produce enough tomatoes to feed 38 million Californians four servings of this vegetable for one day.  Year-round, at the same yield level, only 366,943 acres would be needed to assure 38 million Californians get their four servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

The surface area of California is about 101 million acres, of which about 30 million acres are classified as farmland.  About 6 million acres in California are regarded as “prime” farmland. Over 500,000 acres of California land are planted to cotton most years, and another 1.5 million produce hay.  Clearly, finding 366,943 acres to produce enough fruits and vegetables (F+Vs) for all Californians should not be a major problem, at least not for a very long time.

For 314 million Americans, and the 7 billion on Planet Earth, less than 3% of available, high quality agricultural land would be required to assure production of at least four servings of F+Vs a day, per capita, year round.

Doing so, and getting the tomatoes, citrus, berries, and potatoes to the people who need them, including the poor, remains an enormous challenge, but not because of land shortages, lower yields on organic farms, or even persistent drought. In years when drought, or too much rain and flooding, or an untimely freeze, reduces fruit and vegetable production in one region, other areas can pick up at least some of the slack.  And through new methods to preserve and store F+Vs, the nation could (and probably will someday) create a strategic F+V reserve.

As climate change and severe drought become more commonplace, the importance of building soil quality as a hedge against catastrophic crop failure will grow.  Experience and insights gained on long-term, well-managed organic farms will provide a benchmark of what can be accomplished and how healthier, richer soil can serve as a buffer against climate extremes. And this will promote global food security, one field at a time.

Photo via FlickrCC Mr.TinDC.

Greenhouse Emissions from Agriculture

The recent United Nations Climate Summit put agriculture’s greenhouse emissions estimate at around 50 percent of global emissions when land use changes, deforestation, and food processing, packaging, and distribution are taken into account. Without those things, emissions from the agricultural production fields alone is estimated to be about 14 percent.

This above graphic breaks down the emissions which stem from the different categories involved in the global food production system contributing to climate change.

A United Nations Council on Trade and Development paper helps sort out the emissions numbers (below):

There are an enormous number of complexities involved in understanding agriculture’s role in greenhouse emissions. Each region and each farmer’s method varies widely, so we must attempt to make generalizations. Agriculture is the number one global land use-changer, water user, and destroyer of biodiversity.

An article in today’s WSJ contains one idea about how agriculture needs to change to reduce emissions:

Agronomist and coordinator at Grain, Henk Hobbelink, says the solution to reducing agriculture emissions lies in small farming and decentralized food systems.

“The more localized emissions of small farmers barely contribute to the overall agriculture emissions because they use very little chemical fertilizer, a main source of emissions, and produce more for local markets, so they don’t contribute as much to the transport emissions,” he said. Fresh foods also don’t create as much emissions from processing, freezing, packaging and storing in supermarkets.

The underlying factor driving all of this is population, of course. You cannot separate the issues of population from greenhouse emissions, although government policies (such as biofuels mandates) and our economic systems built upon growth (while ignoring environmental costs) also play large roles — as do our dietary choices.


Carbon Cycle Diagram

This diagram of the fast carbon cycle shows the movement of carbon between land, atmosphere, and oceans. Yellow numbers are natural fluxes, and red are human contributions in gigatons of carbon per year. White numbers indicate stored carbon.

What is left to discover about Gaia’s complex carbon cycle? It seems we are constantly hearing about some big new factor that hadn’t previously been known. For example, just recently, we’ve been told that ants play a huge role in mineral decay and might be capable of providing a promising method to geoengineer for carbon sequestration.

Diagram adapted from U.S. DOE, Biological and Environmental Research Information System. (NASA)