Category Archives: energy and agriculture

Hopes for Algae Biodiesel are Fading

For all of the hope surrounding algae biofuels, surrounding Craig Venter’s big algae project, and then, surrounding Sapphire – one of the last algae games left in town, we get news that Sapphire Energy’s CEO has been replaced. Some read this as a significant and negative sign.

It would seem that we’ve been putting a lot of false hope into algae as a “sustainable” savior for liquid fuels. The requirements to grow it and to get it to produce oil are not so little as it turns out. Nor can living cells be manipulated to produce a lot without requiring a lot in return.

A new emphasis may be emerging from fledgling algae start-ups, and that is to produce an Omega-3 oil human nutrient product instead of crude oil, something that might actually be a profitable venture.

I’ve had a post on the back burner for a very long time, and this seems like a good time to run it. Captain T. A. “Ike” Kiefer wrote a paper titled “Twenty-First Century Snake Oil: Why the United States Should Reject Biofuels as Part of a Rational National Security Energy Strategy” in January 2013. I liked all of it, but I especially liked the part about algae for biodiesel.

The remainder of this post is the excerpt on algae for biodiesel, written by Kiefer and republished with his permission.
—Kay M.

A third option, besides growing a plant for its starches or cellulose, is to grow it directly for oil. Species which yield some biomass as lipids include soy, camelina, rapeseed, oil palm, jatropha, peanut, sunflower, cottonseed, safflower, and microalgae. All of these crops, including a non-poisonous Mexican variant of jatropha, have provided human and animal food over the centuries. The natural lipids in these plants can be broken down by adding methanol (made from natural gas) to convert them into a soup of fatty-acid methyl esters (FAME) commonly known as “biodiesel.”

Lipid fractions of plants are generally small compared to starch fractions, and that is why soy biodiesel yields per acre are much smaller than corn ethanol yields (70 gal/acre v. 500 gal/acre) and consume so much more water per liter of fuel, as will be discussed later. Soy Biodiesel EROI calculated from rigorous, full commercial-scale lifecycle studies is slightly better than corn ethanol at 1.9:1, but still nowhere close the 6:1 threshold for minimal utility. The well- known oil fraction limitation of terrestrial plants is why there has been 80 years of research on fast-growing, higher lipid fraction micro-algae as a way to get a high- yield biodiesel crop.

Algae is the only biodiesel crop with high enough potential yields to replace US petroleum without consuming all US territory as cropland, so it is worth a detailed look. All plants, including algae, stubbornly want to produce carbohydrate structural biomass instead of lipids because that is how they grow and reproduce. Lipids are an intermediate synthesis product that are only accumulated in larger amounts when the plant is starved of some essential nutrient such as nitrogen or silicon essential to complete biosynthesis of new structural biomass.

Lipid yield in g/m2 of pond or bioreactor surface area is a function of the number of algae cells and their individual lipid fractions. Absolute yield is limited because one can either starve the algae to produce more oil or feed them to foster reproduction, but not both—another catch-22. In addition, lipid fraction controls buoyancy for algae. It cannot be increased beyond the point where the algae float to the surface, crowd out the sunlight, dry out, and die. These are physical and biological limits known from previous research under the Aquatic Species Program. It is not possible to change basic physical laws such as Archimedes’ principle of buoyancy with even the most sophisticated genetic engineering.

Additionally, attempts to move algae from the lab bench to commercialization continue to be crushed by poor EROI. A literature survey of reported algae EROIs performed by the National Research Council found values from 0.13:1 to 7:1, but in the higher cases, energy credits from co-products dwarfed the energy delivered as biodiesel—biodiesel was really the co-product and solid biomass the product.

If there is any benefit and profit to be made from algae, it appears to be more in producing soylent green than in producing green fuel. A critical look at the more optimistic studies that predict the higher EROIs reveals that they depend upon a host of unrealistic assumptions—massive supplies of free water and nutrients, a free pass on enormous environmental impact, and market economics that miraculously transform the huge burden of enormous accumulations of soggy byproduct biomass that has per-ton value less than the cost of transportation into a cash commodity crop. Proponents often claim that algae need only sunlight and CO2 to grow.

However, to make the high yields promised, fertilizer energy is typically supplied in the nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen molecules of a solid form of ammonia called urea. Solazyme Inc., the US Navy’s choice for algae biofuel and recipient of a $21 million DoE biorefinery grant, actually grows their product in dark bioreactors, feeding it carbon and hydrogen energy in the form of sugar. This makes them unique in producing a biofuel 100% dependent upon a food crop and getting 0% of its energy from the sun via direct photosynthesis—a worst case scenario.

The most realistic, full-scale, full commercial lifecycle studies find a break- even 1:1 EROI if the algae biomass is simply sun-dried and shoveled directly into a furnace for heat. Any attempt to convert to liquid fuel results in a large negative energy balance. Hydrotreating further destroys EROI, as can be seen in prices paid by the US Navy for algae biofuels below. The simple but decisive math is that, even at commercial scale, with generous assumptions about cellular reproduction rate and lipid fraction and oil extraction, and ignoring the costs of facilities and water, Argonne National Laboratory calculated that it takes 12 times as much total energy and 2.6 times as much fossil fuel energy to put a gallon of non-hydrotreated biodiesel in a gas station pump instead of a gallon of petroleum diesel.


Under the heading “The Mineral Problem”, Captain T. A. “Ike” Kiefer has some more important comments about algae for biodiesel:

Exchanging a fuel dependent upon foreign oil imports for a fuel dependent upon foreign mineral import does not improve national security.

Potash and phosphate are critical plant macro-nutrient minerals which must be provided in large quantities for both food and biofuel cultivation. The United States currently imports 85% of its potash supply. In 2011 the global price of potash doubled, sending fertilizer prices skyrocketing. In 2010 America imported 13% of its phosphate, and 90% of this came from Morocco, an Islamic kingdom of the North African Maghreb region that is a growing stronghold of Al Qaeda. In 2011, phosphate prices jumped $60 per ton.

Replacing US transportation fuel with algae biodiesel would require about 88 million more tons of phosphate rock to be mined a year compared to current US production of 28.4 million tons and total global production of 191 million tons. While there is a loud chorus of pundits preaching doom about the price volatility of oil and US dependence upon unstable Persian Gulf nations (source of 13% of US crude in 2011), few are those who recognize how susceptible US agriculture is to foreign economic influences.

Basing our transportation energy supply on agriculture via biofuels only exacerbates this risk. It is critically important for energy strategists and policy makers to realize that exchanging a fuel dependent on foreign crude oil imports for a fuel dependent on foreign potash and phosphate imports does not improve national security. In fact, it puts both food and fuel in jeopardy of a single embargo.

There is much more of value in the paper…

Source: “Twenty-First Century Snake Oil: Why the United States Should Reject Biofuels as Part of a Rational National Security Energy Strategy” by Captain T. A. “Ike” Kiefer (JAN 2013):

Food Prices reflect Energy Prices and Inflation

U.S. food price inflation has trended downward since the 1970s

On average, food price inflation in the United States has been falling over the past several decades. Since 2010, food prices have risen by an average of 2.1 percent a year. By contrast, the 1970s saw the all-food Consumer Price Index (CPI) increase by an average of 8.1 percent annually, led by increases of 14.5 and 14.3 percent in 1973 and 1974, respectively.

The 1970s were a time of high energy prices and high inflation for consumer goods, including food. In the 1980s, the all-food CPI increased by an average of 4.6 percent per year, and food prices rose 2 to 3 percent per year in the following two decades. Advancements in agricultural productivity contributed to falling inflation-adjusted prices for agricultural commodities during the 1980s and 1990s. In addition, enhanced agricultural trade has allowed the U.S. food supply to better respond to supply shocks.

source: usda

Map of Countries Sized by Population & a Changing Global Economy Dominated by Asia

This map was tweeted by @incrediblemaps and shows us the size of countries relative to their populations, which as we know has big implications for food security and the commodity trade markets.

On a related note, one of the news items that really got my attention last week was the WSJ sideline interview of Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard, during his speaking engagement at the Credit Suisse Asian investment conference in Hong Kong.

From the WSJ’s blog:

…he can foresee a tri-polar world in which China and India are the major economic powers, counterbalanced by a bloc of the United States, Europe and Japan, whose populations together will total about one billion people.

“We’ve said the U.S. is a superpower, an economic superpower. But these are giants, they’re bigger than a superpower,” he said. “What would that world be like, both economically and politically? I think that’s really hard to understand. How much would the Western bloc be willing to cooperate politically to be a counterbalance to China and India?”

Mr. Bullard offered few specifics of what such a world would look like, but did acknowledge that it might require some adjustment on the part of ordinary Americans like those he serves in the heartland.

This future is a challenge to imagine, but has implications for the competition for oil and energy, number one, I think, and all of the other commodities, with ever-bigger demands on the Earth’s natural resources. It has jobs implications; global communications will continue to improve and evolve; technological advancements and innovations will be coming more and more from Asia; and, global politics and alliances will change, as Bullard states. Finally, it has big implications for food and agriculture. My personal view is that there will be very surprising innovations in both of these sectors.

In another weekend article, the NYT’s travel section contained this interesting paragraph:

Ernst & Young estimates that by 2030, nearly one billion people in China could enter into the middle class and have a disposable income that allows them to travel domestically and abroad. Ten years ago their government singled out tourism as a key pillar of economic growth, and as a result, they have invested well ahead of the curve in high-speed trains, hotel complexes and airports to absorb growth within the middle class. In fact, right now they are busy building 69 airports around the country, so that in the future no person in the country will be more than a 90-minute drive from an airport.

There are a few “somethings that are gonna haftagive” when we consider these rapidly changing global dynamics.

If you have any visions of where this puts people in Bullard’s heartland, in, say the year 2035, please let us know your ideas in the comments. What does the future look like for your children under this scenario? What will their standard of living look like? What will transportation and supply chains look like in the U.S. and in Asia? Where will the job opportunities be? Will there be enough jobs? What will global cooperation look like by then?

Back in Time: Rural Electrification

The theme of this month’s Luddite feature is rural electrification.

The Rural Electrification Administration was established to bring electricity to isolated rural areas not serviced by private utilities. Political officials realized the injustices that people of rural areas experienced by being deprived of a higher quality of life with electricity, not unlike today’s funding through the USDA to bring the internet to the rural communities.

In the above photo, taken on May 11, 1935, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt (center) signs the Rural Electrification Act with Representative John E. Rankin (left) and Senator George W. Norris (right).

George Norris was from McCook, Nebraska, and he also sponsored the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. Norris’s role in rural electrification was influential in the state of Nebraska because the state has never had any privately owned electrical utilities – only public power.

The REA administered the loans for purposes of electrification and providing telephone services to rural areas. A few years following its creation, the program was reorganized as a division of the USDA.

In this photo, we see the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) erecting telephone lines in a rural area. (Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration.)

The above photo is from the FDR Library photo collection, and shows a lineman working on a pole as a farmer watches. (Truck says: Arcadia, Wisconsin)

This July 1942 photo (above) shows a Rural Electrification Administration cooperative lineman at work in Hayti.

The above is a photograph of a young girl listening to the radio during the Great Depression. (Photo date: between 1938 and 1945)

What kind of similar programs could be in the cards for the future?

Besides the ongoing upgrades to rural internet availability, I’d suspect that at some point, farms – especially in the more sparsely populated regions – will go off the grid. Programs which offer solar and wind generators (admittedly these already exist to some degree) with fuel cell or battery storage that is either local or local-regional just might be the best subsidized farm program priorities of the future.

It is also worth noting that it is the farmers of this nation who are renting their land to host the big wind generator “farms” and cell phone towers, as well as the new power lines required by these large “wind farms” – often to the detriment of their former farming operations.

Agricultural Predictions, Concerns, and, What’s New?

Desk calendar. Roy Lichtenstein. 1962.

To help kick off the new site, I didn’t post much in January, so today, I thought I’d recap the month from behind the scenes here. Again, the feedback I’ve received on Sowing Agricultural Seeds Daily has been very positive and I do hope that each of you are using it as the great resource that it’s meant to be.

First off, a couple of new things.

1) I’ve added my personal twitter feed to the right sidebar here at Big Picture Agriculture since posts here will be less frequent. This will keep some updates to this site for those who don’t do twitter and want to check in occasionally on what I’m tweeting. (Twitter is the only social media that I do.)

2) Realizing that a fair number of readers value a little commentary, I’ve added a small commentary box to the upper lefthand corner on Sowing Agricultural Seeds Daily. I plan to have fun with this and keep the space pithy, snarky, and at times, personal and off-topic. I will be changing this frequently.

3) I’ve recently changed the link font color scheme, also, on Sowing Agricultural Seeds Daily — with black links and an orange hover color. Over time, I will see if I can change the color of the visited links, as the set-up has some complications for doing that at present. I might also see if there is some way to add a small comment box.

For those who’ve requested an RSS feed, I’m also looking into the possibilities.

About the crash.

No, not the stock market. My computer. For those who’ve read my commentary box this past week, I’ve written about my computer hard drive failure that happened with no warning whatsoever. Since my computer was only three years old and was working perfectly, I expected a warning, and so was…. you guessed it… unprepared. For the second time, I’ve tried to go Apple as a replacement, and this time looks like a charm as I’m loving the software and solid state machine. (Before my last computer purchase, yes, the one that died, I came home with a defective iMac and was extremely disappointed with Apple’s technological support service related to that situation, enough so to give up on them at the time.) Anyway, I lost my photos, and all my off-line Chrome apps that I was keeping a ton of info on. With a little luck, my local super-super-nice Geek Squad is retrieving the photos for me right now. You’d think I’d have known better by now than to live so dangerously.

For the second year in a row, Johan Oppewal at Boerderij, the largest farm magazine out of the Netherlands, has interviewed me for their January issue, asking my impression of what the year 2014 will bring in U.S. agriculture. This has been fun for me, as I couldn’t imagine a nicer person asking me questions over the phone for an hour from across the Atlantic, and his English is so impressively better than my Dutch. Readers here might enjoy knowing what I said. If so, it follows in the box below…

• We have a situation with depressed farm incomes this year because ag commodity prices have fallen, and we will get a ripple effect in falling farmland and rent prices. Will corn meet input costs?

• The GMO food labeling debate which is on ballots in 20 states following Hawaii’s move… How will it play out? How could that change agriculture in America? (Johan finds this interesting because attitudes are loosening up on this issue over there.)

• How will the farm bill change, which is to be passed in January 2014? We are pretty sure it will drop direct payments and increase the crop insurance program. Farmers need to know so they can plan accordingly and policy is everything.

• The looming severe drought in California: Only 5% of water will be granted to farmers next year under current conditions.

• Ongoing loss of CRP (conservation reserve program) lands in US. — 1.6 million more acres were lost last year after it had already shrunk by 25% in the previous five years. Farmers are farming the ditches, removing fences to farm, ploughing down trees to farm, and farming the hillsides. This, too, is a result of government policies creating an economics that encourages plowing everything under. Will that policy continue?

• Our military, the biggest consumer of petroleum in the nation, is stepping up the efforts to use biofuels for fueling the navy in an alliance between the Departments of Energy, Agriculture, and Defense. This, along with exports of ethanol, could help keep up the corn demand if the EPA mandate levels change.

• Global markets (other nations) are gaining market share in corn and soybean exports.

• As in your country, high tech farming continues to advance, precision ag, sensors, and the study of drones. As these industrial farm methods gain, they are being used in conjunction with more sustainable cover crops.

• Organic production is becoming economically competitive. The demand is there. Right now organic soybeans, or edamame beans in our grocery stores are imports from China!

• Irrigation continues to go strong, with not enough protection for depleting groundwater and aquifers. New systems continue to be installed, however they are also becoming more efficient.

• Farmers organizations are trying to improve their image through advertising. (like this Superbowl commercial from one year ago). Johan found this “odd”.

• California nut production is going crazy, China is importing our almonds and walnuts. The industry uses transported commercial honeybees from all over our nation, which is a set-up for a very abnormal bee situation.

• Diets: More and more consumers and foodies are shunning wheat products and going gluten free. The most popular new diet in America was the paleo diet this past year.

• The big farms keep getting bigger, and rural areas continue to depopulate, with the average age of the farmer around 58.

• I expect that the use of biotech methods to increase crop yields is a huge growing trend for the future, for example, Monsanto recently partnered with Novozymes for seed coating products.

• This year livestock farmers should do better because of lower feed prices.

• Long-range trends possible: Given right policy and for climate and dietary reasons, US crops could branch out from the predominant corn and soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice into more sorghum, barley, oats, sunflower seeds, dry peas, lentils, canola and peanuts and other crops, and if California loses water and is in a long term drought like those seen historically, other regions might start producing more of the vegetables and other crops known to be from California. ALSO, Canada is growing more corn and soy, as their industrial farming expands due to price incentives created by biofuels programs, and, in part, due to climate change.

Environmental Journalists.
I was also honored to have Dennis Dimick, Environmental Editor of National Geographic, ask me to weigh in with a few of my ideas about what the emerging headlines in environment and energy will be in the future, with an emphasis on agriculture, food, and water internationally, for his preparations to appear on a panel of six journalists at the Woodrow Wilson Center in DC last week. In my response, I gave him four topics of concern, and I’ve put them into the box below.

• The Middle East: In many of their nations, the population is exploding. They have energy to export and money, but they don’t have enough water or food. More and more headlines from there discuss their planning and researching on how to provide water and food for their people. They are putting great effort into this subject. In a few days, there is a huge sustainability/Ag conference in Abu Dhabi drawing innovators from around the globe to discuss the future of growing food sustainably through innovation. (As a wild idea, I wanted to go to this but found out too late, and didn’t get funding.) They also have global water conferences, continually look into methods of desalinating water, growing food in desert greenhouses, and they acquire land in other nations to help with their food security. The Middle East’s geopolitical situation is ever so fragile for so many reasons. The Strait of Hormuz carries oil out and grain in, so forbid it ever becomes impaired. The globe’s rapidly growing energy demand is becoming more and more complicated, with growing renewables, and our fracking technology, which will eventually be expanding around the world, has implications for their future long term energy export prices. Saudi’s domestic economic and their own energy demands are rising, so to meet their needs, they really need high oil revenue. And as the U.S. appears to be stepping back from its previously strong defense there, the question is whether new nations like China could step in more. Recently, on Sowing Agricutural Seeds Daily, I included this amazing news item: GCC countries plan to build a 2,000 kilometre pipeline costing $10.5 Billion to move water from Oman to Kuwait.

• The pollution in China will start becoming more of a target of concern of other nations (if it isn’t already). A recent PNAS study reveals that on some days, Chinese pollution contributed as much as 24 percent of sulfate concentrations over the western U.S., and that China has 16 out of 20 of the world’s most polluted cities. (No hypocrisy intended, as we import our goods from China which lead to much of this pollution.) Last year, China approved the construction of more than 100 million tonnes of new coal production capacity, or, six times more than a year earlier and equal to 10 percent of U.S. annual usage. Given that, and increased coal to liquids and gas plans, and the knowledge that they’ve polluted much of their land for food growing and much of their water, too, now we hear that rich younger Beijing citizens want their children to be able to live outside of China because of pollution.

• This drought in California is scary from an ag perspective and could lead to ugly fights between farmers (nut and vine growers want priority over lettuce and vegetable crops, for example). It could lead to higher food prices, changes in trade, or, relocation of some of the crops they are known for.

• Complexity of more and more technology is an ongoing concern… Is it saving us or will it bring us down? As my computer failed this week and I saw the insanity that goes on inside the Apple store, and, also know that we are trying to automate cars and tractors and gather more and more data from EVERYTHING, I really also worry about a serious technological failure on the horizon because of power failures, terrorism, solar flares, or who knows what, because more and more, technology is embedded into our food, ag, and water systems. Finally, there is a human element here that is in question philosophically.

• These are the negatives. I also see tons of positives happening…

Also, I received an inquiry about my availability to be on a panel at the BIO Convention in SanDiego this summer, but it is looking unlikely at this point.

(Earlier, I turned down an invitation to speak to a waterfowl hunting group in Wisconsin in March, about the loss of CRP land and policy related to that issue.)

Other than that, had a very interesting visit with a relative visiting Colorado on a ski trip who is an EE computer whiz/geek and suddenly finds himself a new northeast Nebraska farm landowner through inheritance (farmland inheritance is a quite a story in itself these days and he has quite a tale to tell just about that). He’s weighing and confronting the realities of being a conscientious absentee landowner who wants both to use sustainable methods and see some profits, too. This is a fascinating subject, as it is no doubt echoed across this nation, with, for example, more than half of farmland rented in many Iowa and Illinois counties according to 2007 USDA data. Sometime, I hope to make a post about this, and I’m proud to say that this family has been keeping up with what I write in this space in helping to sort through Ag issues.

Finally, good luck to local friend and reader B, and congratulations on his new farming venture as he finalizes an acreage purchase here in Boulder County this month. I’m looking forward to my tour of the property and will have the fun of adding my two cents to what his permaculture landscape planner says about using perennials to produce food, fiber, or beverage. That, too, just might be featured in an upcoming post someday.

Stay warm and safe. Spring is on its way judging by some recent Red Winged Blackbird and Great Horned Owl activity nearby. We’re having a mild Colorado winter this season with abundant Rocky Mountain snowfall, which is good, given the drought in the western U.S.