Category Archives: energy

Overuse of Groundwater in California Threatens Future Farming and Human Habitation and Requires Enormous Amounts of Electricity

As this California drought intensifies, this week I caught the first headline warning that people may need to be migrated out of areas where its groundwater has been depleted from pumping until exhaustion. As it turns out, there is little or no oversight on using up groundwater in the state, and so the busiest industry there of late has been well drilling.

Stanford is doing a series on groundwater use and policy problems in California, beginning with a great title, “Ignore it and it might go away“, referring to its unregulated use. They tell us that six million Californians rely on groundwater solely for their water supply (mostly in the Central Valley or Central Coast); 85% of California’s population relies on it to some degree; and California’s $45 billion agriculture industry relies upon it. Unfortunately, the state’s antiquated laws concerning groundwater use allow for secrecy, unfettered use, and depletion.

In that article, they inform us what ground water is:

Contrary to a popular misconception of an underground river or lake, groundwater is found in the tiny spaces between sand and gravel and rock. Glaciers left some of that water thousands of years ago, while much of it is regularly replenished by snowmelt, rain and surface rivers and streams.

A lesser known story is how much electricity is required to pump this groundwater, and as it depletes, the amount of electricity needed grows ever larger to pump from deeper depths. Earlier this year, a news reporter friend of mine told me that a large landowner in California’s Central Valley was paying 3 million dollars per month for electricity to pump water. Previously, I wrote about how much energy is required to move water in California.

According to the Association of California Water Agencies, water agencies account for 7 percent of California’s energy consumption and 5 percent of the summer peak demand.

California’s State Water Project uses 2 to 3 percent of all electricity consumed in California, including the electricity required to pump water 2,000 feet up over the Tehachapi Mountains, the highest lift of any water system in the world to supply southern Californians with water.

These percentages don’t include the farmers who pump water out of the ground, plus other users. And we all know that it takes a lot of water to make electricity, too.

Estimates tell us that between 19 – 23 percent of California’s total electrical consumption is used for water pumping, treating, collecting and discharging water, and most of that is used for farming.

We are facing a vicious cycle of quests for energy and water coupled with our human desire to live in the wonderful desert oasis climates.

ADDENDUM . . . Just so happens PBS Newshour covered this same story today, so I am adding their fine video to this post.

To learn more, see my previous post: How much energy does California use to move water?

Also see: California drought: ‘May have to migrate people’

2035 Energy Infographic from BP with Global Biofuels Predictions

This BP Energy Outlook 2035 Infographic depicts the key themes from (2014′s) BP Energy Outlook 2035. According BP’s annual report, North America will become a net exporter of energy around 2018, Asia will account for nearly all of the growth in energy trade, China will consume the most energy, biofuels production will continue upwards, and the U.S. will make major progress towards achieving energy independence. If this report comes true, then we will be seeing a very different set of conditions related to energy production and consumption by 2035.

Also, the report predicts a complete breakout of GDP from energy, or, in other words, a decoupling of energy from economic growth between now and 2035, a process which has already begun.

More (U.S.) points:
• Fossil fuels still account for 80% of US energy demand in 2035, down from today’s 85%, driven by the increase of renewables in power generation from 2% to 8%.
• Energy consumed in power generation rises by 10% and while coal remains the dominant fuel source, its share drops from 43% to 35%.
• Energy consumed in transport falls by 18%. Oil remains the dominant fuel source, but its share falls from 95% to 83% as both biofuels and natural gas capture an 8% share by 2035.

Biofuels are to account for 3% of global liquids supplies in 2035, equal to 1.9 millions of barrels per day.

Lastly, this graphic shows a guesstimate of biofuels in relation to all the other liquid fuel supply types by 2035 – on the global level.


The Latest from Dr. Chu

In late January 2014, the Society of Environmental Journalists met at the Wilson Center in D.C. to discuss what lies ahead in important environment and energy headlines for this coming year. I zeroed in (remotely) on the talk by our former Secretary of Energy, Dr. Steven Chu.

“Peak Oil” not an issue when it comes to CC
In beginning his discussion about climate change, Dr. Chu addressed the attitude by some who say that peak oil, or the running out of oil will happen, and that when it does, that will take care of greenhouse emissions — so we really don’t need to worry. Dr. Chu denied that this is likely to happen, as he sees that technology for finding oil is racing forward, with the ability to recover an ever growing percentage of the oil from wells, and citing for example, that now we can extract oil that is two miles deep quite affordably. Thus, he said we will easily be able to cook ourselves with gas and oil hydrocarbons alone.

Dr. Chu is very “bullish” on batteries, and reports good progress in battery technology.

A big concern of Chu’s in energy demand here in the U.S. comes from data centers. On our current trajectory, he reports that the two percent of electricity that servers now use could become ten percent by 2020.

He called our attention to the fact that biodegradable bioplastics are bad, because they release carbon, whereas non-biodegradable plastic is better, because it sequesters carbon.

In another agriculture-related topic, he reminded us that a whopping 22 percent of the energy used by the state of California is used to move water. In all of the water shortage headlines lately about California, that is a startling fact which you seldom see. [CORRECTION UPDATE: The percent of energy used by the state of California to move water is probably in the vicinity of 8 to 9 percent according to reader comment, below.]

When dealing with technology such as improved refrigeration, Chu said, “When lobbyists get out of the game and engineers get in the game, costs go way down.”

Dr. Chu said —as an aside— that the worst part of serving as the Secretary of Energy was the press — and the spin media — which attempted “gotcha” tactics and misquoted him at times. He told his worst story about when Politico misquoted him, saying that although they issued a corrected version, the corrected version is never the one which the public remembers. Wisely, he was using the opportunity to voice his pet peeve to his captive audience of journalists.

UPDATE: See follow-up post about California’s water/energy nexus.

Anti-Ethanol Policy AP Story: “They’re Raping the Land”

Rick, the photographer from North Dakota, who is documenting the destruction of the Dakota’s former CRP lands, just sent me another photo which you see above. With it, he wrote, “Most of the newly planted corn fields from the converted CRP lands just have yield strips combined through them — for their insurance company. Then they are abandoned.”

That is what Rick is observing.

His E-mail was well-timed, because it gave me a photo for today’s subject.


I’ve felt a bit like a lone voice in the wilderness. The agricultural writer-activists like Michael Pollan and much of media, too, have been wasting their time by promoting anti-GMO legislation, blaming many of agriculture’s ills on GMO crops because they hate Monsanto.

But the real problem has been ethanol policy.

Many of the unsustainable agricultural environmental problems which the U.S. is guilty of today, name any one of them, stem from it. In just the few years since mandated use of corn ethanol has created a new and unprecedented demand for corn, the detrimental environmental consequences have been enormous while most of America has turned a blind and apathetic eye.

So finally today, a lengthy story by the AP — which has lambasted ethanol policy and Obama for endorsing it — is splashed prominently across the pages of every newspaper in America.

See: Making corn-based ethanol badly hurting environment: AP and DO NOT miss the corresponding time-line of ethanol policy A Timeline of Recent Ethanol Events.

The AP story hits Obama hard. They blame him for this ethanol mess and rightfully so. You can’t be a good effectual president and keep claiming that you weren’t aware of “the problem” — whatever the subject may be.

Not to leave Bush II off the hook. He enacted the policy under his watch.

Me? I’ve tended to pick on Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture, for not speaking up, for not being a watchdog protecting our soil and water.

But the AP is demanding leadership from our president. Obama’s the one who appointed Vilsack. And this mandated ethanol policy intersects across the departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Defense as well as the EPA. It is embedded into our nation’s governmental powers that be.

Which brings me to another bone of contention that I have. I’ve wished that our nation’s presidents would start appointing good qualified candidates to the position of Secretary of Agriculture — individuals with PhDs in Agronomy, like we’ve been getting for our recent Secretaries of Energy, and more like the EU has in Dacian Cioloş — instead of small-town lawyers from Iowa or Nebraska.

Agriculture is the number one cause of environmental destruction in the world, so shouldn’t the person in charge of its leadership in the number one agricultural producing nation in the world have someone who understands the science behind it? If we mine our topsoil for no good reason, we are robbing the productive capacity of our nation to produce food and have clean water for our future generations.

If a president appoints a lawyer from Iowa to be their Secretary of Agriculture, they are appointing nothing other than the success of D.C. lobbyist special interests from the Midwest to have control of our agricultural policy. Like corn grower lobbyists. Like biofuels lobbyists.

Because we are the nation with some of the richest arable land in the world that the whole world watches and emulates — our policies go beyond our borders.

Today is a day of opportunity to “change” things.

As our farm bill waits to be rewritten, let’s put our subsidies towards rewarding the farmer who has conservation reserve program acres. Let’s strive for new high numbers in total CRP acres, paying a floating rate that keeps the marginal and good unfarmed lands in the CRP program. Let’s quit paying the farmers who choose to plow up their marginal lands — which are guaranteed to erode and destroy what was previously wildlife habitat — when their crop fails. Let’s put our subsidies towards farmers who practice rotational grazing, who grow organic corn and soybeans, who raise grassfed beef, bison, and other livestock. Let’s put our subsidies towards a pasture raised poultry program for the health benefits that these meats and eggs offer over corn-fed. Let’s put our subsidies towards helping the small eat local organic farmer survive and prosper.

And let’s scale back the ethanol mandate — gradually over the future — so our Midwestern producers have a soft landing — while at the same time creating new policies which steer them in new directions, which reward them for conservation methods, and healthier food that is produced more humanely, and more respectful of the land.

Creating the right policies could also allow today’s modern farm producers to reduce their sky-high input costs and hefty energy needs — while conserving soil and water, and while still making a decent living.

And last but not least, new aesthetic values represented in a better farm bill could provide our badly hurting rural communities with a new energy and vibrancy from the younger generation of people that it would attract back to farming, a generation which would love to participate in agriculture, if given the right opportunity.

This AP story is a call for action from President Obama. It is an opportunity for him to lead.

What Did the Average U.S. Household Spend for Food and Transportation in 2012?

The BLS has reported average U.S. expenditure rates (per consumer unit*) for 2012.

From the report, as compared to 2011:
• Average before-tax incomes went up 3.0 percent to $65,596
• Average annual expenditures went up 3.5 percent to $51,442
• Total food costs went up 2.2 percent to $6,599
• Transportation expenditures went up 8.5 percent to $8,998

In the pie graph below, I have taken the BLS data on food and transportation expenditures from the report and divided them by the average annual total expenditures (for the average consumer spending unit*) to come up with 12.8 percent spent for food, 17.5 percent spent for transportation, and 30.3 percent spent for the two categories combined.

The changes in per consumer unit* expenditures over two years reveal that the food category expenditure went up 5.4 percent in 2011, followed by 2.2 percent in 2012, whereas the transportation expenditures went up 8.0 percent in 2011, followed by 8.5 percent in 2012.

This year, the BLS also reported expenditure averages according to race. For example, Hispanics are spending 15.5 percent on food, and 19.7 percent of their total expenditures on transportation, according to the BLS.

It’s worth noting that the USDA also reports these statistics, and with a different set of numbers. The USDA reports that Americans spent 15.0 percent on food and 20.5 percent on transportation in 2012. Each year, the USDA’s expenditure numbers vary from this annual BLS expenditure report, and the reason why is unknown to me, but I’d venture to guess that they are using a lower income scale subset of data. The USDA also states that the food share of consumer expenditures is down from 17 percent in 1984, as consumers “spend a greater share of income on housing, health care, and entertainment.”

Another unanswered question for me, is how food benefit programs such a food stamps and free school breakfast and lunch programs enter into the consumer food expenditure data. I’d expect that these programs lower the BLS’s food expenditure percentage numbers from what they would otherwise be, since that portion of food cost is not an expenditure for the respective consumer spending unit, something important to consider when glancing at the data.

* A consumer unit, as defined by the BLS, averages 2.5 persons, 1.3 earners, with 1.9 vehicles, 64 percent of which are homeowners.