The Agriculture — Energy Connection

On the TerViva website, it says that I have familiarity with  “the nexus of agriculture and energy”.  Just what is that nexus?  There are two ways of thinking about it:  agriculture as energy supplier and agriculture as energy user.

Ag as Energy Supplier

This topic has gotten much mainstream discussion over the last several years.  There are numerous public companies and start-ups working on “bioenergy”, loosely defined as electricity and transportation fuels created from “biomass”, itself defined as a collection of organic non-fossil materials (e.g., commodity crops, forest residue, organic waste, dedicated energy crops).

One type of bioenergy, biofuels, is already a big business in the US.  Our largest crop by acreage is corn, and about 40% of it is used to make ethanol.  Our second largest crop by acreage, soybean, is popular with biodiesel producers because of its high quality vegetable oil.  The use of these two crops for bioenergy has triggered a debate over “food vs. fuel”.  That’s a topic for its own post.  But briefly, what’s our philosophy about the use of crops for bioenergy?  We think it’s an excellent idea in theory that has to been implemented well in practice.  In other words, for each bioenergy technology, the positives have to significantly outweigh the negatives.

Positives of ag bioenergy vs. negatives

Positives of ag bioenergy vs. negatives

For better or for worse, the current US legislation for biofuels, RFS2, takes into account only some of the factors. We like pongamia for bioenergy because we believe it’s “best-in-class:  it more than checks the box on cost, land, and carbon.  A gallon of US pongamia fuel will cost $3.00 or less to produce.  We are growing pongamia on land that’s no longer suited for prime ag.  And because pongamia is a tree, our orchards permanently sink an estimated 10 tons of carbon per year — potentially making pongamia a source of carbon-negative energy.

 Ag as Energy User

Far less discussed is agriculture’s consumption of energy.  Ag is not a huge consumer of energy – it represents 3-4% of energy use in developed countries and 4-6% of energy use in developing countries.  That energy is consumed in two forms:  directly via agriculture crop cultivation and processing, and indirectly via the production of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

But energy use in agriculture is becoming more important.  The world is looking for more arable land, and we’re turning toward Africa and Asia to find it.  On those continents, ag land has had lower productivity, in part because of a lack of direct and indirect energy.  To put it another way, the more energy we put into land, the more we get out of it.   And if we want to improve farmland productivity in developing countries — where ag is already a whopping 30% of GDP on average — we’ll need to produce more energy.

Recently, developing countries have made significant improvements in electrification (e.g., power plants, transmission infrastructure) and household energy systems (e.g., cookstoves, solar water heaters).  But comparatively fewer initiatives have targeted energy supply for agriculture.

Enter bioenergy: we can use agriculture to produce energy for agriculture.   There’s lots of potential.  Let’s examine our favorite crop, pongamia, in this vein.

Easily extracted via basic crushing equipment, pongamia oil is not a perfect substitute for diesel, because raw pongamia oil (like other raw vegetable oils) contains water and gums.  But it can be used on a limited basis in tractors and generators, and improvements in this regard are being made. Cummins, the large engine manufacturer, built a special generator that runs on raw pongamia oil to power a rice mill in a remote Indian village.  For great video on this project, check out this link:  http://bit.ly/1aYVXKO.

In the future, we’d like to see pongamia used in developing countries not just as a large-scale commercial crop, but on a smaller scale too – where in a polyculture setting, pongamia provides the energy for food crop cultivation and also provides animal feed for livestock.

Spraying pongamia oil on citrus

Spraying pongamia oil on citrus

Back here in the US, pongamia oil could also be used in agriculture contexts.  One of our Florida landowner partners currently uses 20% biodiesel in its irrigation pumps.  Another one is working with us to see if pongamia oil could be used as a substitute for expensive, petroleum-based mineral oil for crop spraying.  Citrus growers have been spraying more and more mineral oil as a part of their efforts to combat citrus greening disease.

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Agriculture often gets discussed as a producer of energy (e.g. biofuels), but agriculture itself requires increasing amounts of energy, and with some investment and planning could provide itself with that energy.

Naveen is TerViva’s CEO.  For this blog post, he borrowed liberally from some great thoughts put together by the FAO (see http://bit.ly/1fiCjuP).  

One thought on “The Agriculture — Energy Connection

  1. Very interesting information. Any solution like this one that can get us closer to the commercial mass proliferation of bio-energy is a good thing. Decentralizing and diversifying the global energy markets will benefit everyone.

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