The Alchemy of Nitrogen-Fixation

By Kevin Hancock

With an ever-increasing world population comes an increased demand for food, fuel, and fiber. Land, water, and energy resources are becoming scarcer. Nitrogen is abundant worldwide, and is needed for the growth of most plant species. The majority of the world’s nitrogen is in the gaseous form, which cannot be utilized by most plants. This means that most plants must rely on additions of synthetic fertilizers to supply the needed nutrients.

There are very few plant species that are capable of fixing atmospheric, N2 gas, converting it into a usable form like ammonia, and storing it in root tissue. These plants are referred to as nitrogen-fixing. Symbiotic nitrogen-fixation (snf), which occurs naturally in some leguminous crops, can play a vital role in transforming atmospheric nitrogen gas into ammonia that can be utilized by these plants.

Biological reduction to ammonia can only be performed by prokaryotes and is a highly oxygen-sensitive process. Symbiotic interactions between prokaryote partners occur in two groups of soil bacteria — rhizobia in symbioses in legumes and Frankia bacteria in actinorhizal symbioses.

Snf is highly important in the production of biofuel feedstocks. Many current plants which produce abundant amounts of biofuels such as oil palm, canola, and corn are not nitrogen-fixers and consequently they rely on inorganic nitrogen fertilizers. Every step in the production, delivery and application of nitrogen fertilizer requires fossil fuels. Even though the formation of fossil fuels occurs naturally through anerobic decomposition of plants and animals, they are not considered renewable sources of energy.  Decomposition takes millions of years to form large enough quantities of fossil fuels. Those reserves are being depleted at a much higher rate than they are being formed.

The problem with the use of synthetic fertilizers is that plants only absorb a small percentage of applied fertilizer at any one time. The remainder of the applied fertilizer (30-50%) is subject to runoff, volatilization, and are leached beyond the root zone or denitrified. In many areas this can create algae blooms and eutrophication – a condition of high concentration of nutrients, but low oxygen levels. For example, Lake Okeechobee in Florida is experiencing this due to nutrient runoff from adjacent croplands.

Snf reduces the plant’s dependence on inorganic nitrogen sources and can provide a substitute for nitrogen fertilizers, thus reducing costs and helping the environment at the same time. Biological nitrogen fixation has been estimated to produce approximately 200 million tons of nitrogen annually.

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Leguminous root nodules – PC: NMSU

It would be very beneficial to humanity as well as the environment if all agriculturally important plants were capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen.  Although a lot is still unknown, a lot of work has been conducted to better understand the intricacies involved in symbiotic nitrogen fixation. Nitrogen-fixation is composed of 3 components; first, the formation of nodules which provide the correct environment for nitrogen-fixing bacteria; second, the regulation of nodule numbers by both internal and external factors, and third, the actual conversion of atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia by the invading bacteria using the nitrogenase enzyme complex.

Nitrogen-fixing plants are not capable of extracting N2 gas directly from the atmosphere, they work in concert with common soil bacteria called Rhizobium. Rhizobia attached to root hairs, induce a pronounced curling of root hair cells. The root hair becomes deformed and the bacteria enter the plant by a newly formed infection thread growing through it. At this same time, cortical root cells are mitotically activated giving rise to the nodule primordium. Infection threads will grow towards the primordium and the bacteria are released into the cytoplasm of the host cells. The bacteria become encapsulated in the small compartment formed by the curling. The bacteria enter the plant’s root system and form nodules along the root pathway. The plant supplies all the essential nutrients as well as energy to the bacteria. Within a week after infection, nodules will become visible by the naked eye. Under field studies, nodules appear within 2-3 weeks. The nodules allow the plant to absorb the N2 gas that is present in the soil, and the plant converts it into ammonia that enters into a biochemical pathway producing both organic and inorganic forms before reverting it to N2 gas. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria need high calcium levels to work efficiently. Three micro-metabolic elements, iron, molybdenum, and cobalt are essential for the nitrogen-fixing process in bacteria.

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Nodule Formation Cycle in Pea Plant – PC: Pearson Education

Most legumes form symbiotic relationships with a select few Rhizobium, however Pongamia pinnata is able to produce snf relationships with various strains of Rhizobia as well as Bradyrhizobium. In areas of India the results clearly demonstrate the major advantage of the leguminous nature of Pongamia when compared to the Jatropha tree, another plant feedstock being evaluated as a source of biofuel energy.

Since the presence of oxygen can inactivate the process of nitrogen-fixing, it is important to know that legumes can regulate the gas permeability in their nodules allowing enough oxygen to maintain respiration without deactivating the nitrogenase enzyme. Nodules contain a heme protein called leghemoglobin. Leghemoglobin is present in the cytoplasm of infected cells at high concentrations (700 uM in soybean nodules). This protein gives the nodule a pink color.

The mystery of the symbiotic relationship is that it only occurs through a complex exchange of signals between specific genes of the plant host and symbiont. Infection and nodule organogenesis occurs simultaneously during root nodule formulation. The symbiotic relationship between legume and bacteria is not obligatory. It is quite possible for a seedling to live out its life cycle without becoming associated with a symbiont.

Among many compelling characteristics, the reduction of dependence on commercial, nitrogen fertilizers, the reduction of runoff and minimizing other environmental concerns all show the benefits of the snf process inherent in Pongamia pinnata.

 

References:

Majda, W. (2014). How to increase the rate of biological nitrogen fixation. Retrieved from https://permaculturenews.org/2014/09/25/increase-rate-biological-nitrogen-fixation/

Meyer, S. B., Anderson, D. B., Bohning, R. H., & Fratianne, D. G. (1973). Introduction to plant physiology (2nd ed.). New York, NY: D. Van Nostrand Company.

Rhoades, H. (2017). Nitrogen nodules and nitrogen fixing plants. Retrieved from https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/soil-fertilizers/nitrogen-nodules-and-nitrogen-fixing-plants.htm

Taiz, L., & Zeiger, E. (2002). Plant physiology (3rd ed.). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc.

Wikipedia. (2017). Nitrogen fixation. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrogen_fixation

Flynn, R, & Idowu, J (2015) Guide A129 Nitrogen Fixation by Legumes. Retrieved from http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_a/A129/

Market Driven Restoration: Stepping Beyond Sustainability

by Drew Wilkinson, TerViva Propagation Associate

As a farmer, I’m naturally drawn to the diverse array of agriculture solutions that hold potential for making significant strides towards a carbon neutral future. While combing through the spring 2017 issue of Permaculture North America Magazine, I came across an interview that ignited my attention. It was on David Karr, the co-founder of Guayaki Yerba Mate, and featured a unique business model I knew little about, but came to greatly admire. It is called market driven restoration. Karr explains one of their main missions is to “steward and restore 200,000 acres of South American Atlantic Rainforest and create over 1,000 living wage jobs by 2020.”

With their roots planted deep in the soil, I was excited to learn about this company striving to go beyond sustainability. The more I read, the more I reflected on the intricate relationships between consumers, businesses, agroforestry, community, environment, and the resulting impacts on global climate change.

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Rainforest in Paraguay – Photo Credit: Cyrus Sutton

Guayaki specializes in fair trade organically grown yerba mate, an herbal tea made from the leaves and stems of the holly tree, Ilex paraguariensis found in the South American Atlantic Rainforest. Yerba mate has been a long standing cultural drink in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. It’s a healthy alternative to coffee and according to the Guayaki website it includes 24 vitamins and minerals, 15 amino acids, a surplus of antioxidants, and naturally occurring caffeine all which provide a smooth energetic lift. Guayaki sells a variety of yerba mate products ranging from canned drinks to loose leaf.

There are many sustainable components of Guayaki’s business model that set them apart from the crowd. They have a very thought out supply chain that incorporates biodiesel powered cargo vehicles, biodegradable packaging, and chemical free facilities to name a few. They are a certified B Corp, which is a rigorous certification process completed by B Lab, a non-profit that verifies companies meet standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. The most impactful part of Guayaki’s supply chain lies within their approach to producing forest grown yerba mate and their ability to sequester 573g of carbon for every 454g of yerba mate produced.

According to Project Drawdown, which describes the top 100 ways to reverse global climate change, Paul Hawken and his team of international scientists and policy makers have ranked the reforestation and preservation of tropical forests as #5 on the list of 100 solutions. Guayaki has incorporated reforestation as a standard for cultivation of yerba mate. The highest quality yerba mate grows beneath the shade canopy of taller hardwoods. As Guayaki expands their agriculture production, they are replanting hardwood trees along with fruit trees to create the perfect environment to grow yerba mate, all the while restoring biodiversity.

A sustainable hand harvesting approach is used to collect yerba mate. Yerba mate produces more income per acre than cattle or agricultural products such as corn, soy, or wheat. Guayaki is able to provide a stable annual living wage for these small farmers, which allows them the ability to plan and make long term decisions about the health of the land and their people, while adding a “market driven” incentive to restore and protect the forest.

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Hand harvested yerba mate – Photo courtesy of Guayaki

Guayaki achieves this by building relationships and working with native forest communities. They help construct tree nurseries, organize grower conferences, and provide safe and just working conditions. The revenue generated from selling yerba mate in North America cycles back to these indigenous communities and helps fund the rainforest restoration. This steers the local economy in a regenerative ideology away from the clear cutting mentality for lumber, cattle grazing, and monocrop agriculture that has eradicated 90% of the South Atlantic Rainforest.

Project Drawdown summarizes that when these tropical forests are restored, “trees, soil, leaf litter, and other vegetation absorb and hold carbon. As flora and fauna return and interactions between organisms and species revive, the forest regains its multidimensional roles: supporting the water cycle, conserving soil, protecting habitat and pollinators, providing food, medicine, and fiber, and giving people places to live, adventure, and worship.”

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Indigeneous workers – Photo courtesy of Guayaki

At the heart of Guayaki’s business model is the principle of internalizing all the true costs. This goes outside the norm of traditional business structures with a narrow minded focus on profit. As companies strive to maximize profits, negative externalities result and are pushed to the side or slid under the rug and out of view from the public eye. As a result, companies end up not paying the full cost of extraction of materials, production, distribution, and disposal. These costs are often felt negatively by 3rd parties in the form of land degradation, excess carbon emissions, toxic waste, and polluted waterways.

Karr summarizes that this ‘short term thinking’ paradigm shifts the true costs of conventional business to future generations. Guayaki’s market driven restoration model serves as an exemplary platform for other companies to strive for. Karr states “We’re passionate about people voting with their dollars. We believe business can drive environmental and social change.”

So, where do we go from here? I encourage you to think about your next purchase as a consumer. Try to incorporate a broader whole systems thinking approach to the product you are purchasing. Instead of just laser beaming your focus on what the product will do for you and the associated lowest price mentality, think about the external costs that may or may not be reflected in the price tag.

While the effects of global climate change are felt across the world, environmentally conscious consumers can help shape more eco-minded businesses, and together we have the potential to play a huge role in shaping a carbon neutral future.

More references:

https://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/nielsenglobal/dk/docs/global-sustainability-report-oct-2015.pdf

https://www.bcorporation.net/what-are-b-corps?gclid=EAIaIQobChMItqbwlaiO1wIVSGV-Ch1Dpwt2EAAYASAAEgL9afD_BwE

Hurricane Irma’s Devastation to Florida Agriculture

by Robbie Hall, TerViva Propagation & Agronomy Associate

Hurricane Irma swept across Florida on September 10-11, 2017, leaving a wake of destruction behind. A month later, Floridians are still dealing with the aftermath. Agriculture is Florida’s second largest industry, and contributed $4 billion to the state’s economy in 2015 [1]. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services released its preliminary report on Irma’s damage to the industry on October 4, 2017, and estimates agricultural damages totaling over $2.5 billion! Here is the breakdown of losses outline in this report [2]:

  • Total Florida Agriculture: $2,558,598,303
  • Citrus: $760,816,600
  • Greenhouse, Nursery and Floriculture: $624,819,895
  • Sugar: $382,603,397
  • Forestry: $261,280,000
  • Beef Cattle: $237,476,562
  • Fruits and Vegetables (excluding citrus): $180,193,096
  • Field Crops: $62,747,058
  • Aquaculture: $36,850,000
  • Dairy: $11,811,695

The economic assessment above accounts for some crop losses, damaged infrastructure, debris cleanup, and animals’ long-term welfare that was affected by Irma. These costs will likely increase as more information is made available. The remainder of this blog post will discuss some of the impacts from Irma in greater detail and provide some insight into what could potentially happen in the near future.

Florida’s citrus industry has been reeling over the past decade from production losses, due to the citrus greening disease [3], and Hurricane Irma was the last thing growers needed to come along. Reports range from 40% of lost fruit in Central Florida, to as much as 100% in some areas of Southwest Florida [4]. These numbers are still climbing, as damaged fruit initially left on the trees continues to drop. In addition to fruit loss, some of the trees received significant structural damage, such as broken limbs and even trunks splitting down the middle. One of the hardest hit groves near LaBelle, FL, had 70% of its trees ripped from the ground, exposing the roots of the trees. The severely damaged trees will need to be cleared out with front-end loaders. Some of the smaller trees that were blown over can be pruned, stood back up, and braced, but that will require additional labor. Paul Meador, owner of the LaBelle-based Everglades Harvesting & Hauling, brought up another point. “The trees are extremely stressed. You get what’s left of this crop off, and then next year we’ll probably have half a crop again… It’s the ugly gift that keeps on giving” [3].

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Fallen fruit sits on the ground below orange trees in Frostproof, FL, U.S. Hurricane Irma destroyed almost half of the citrus crop in some areas.
PC: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Hurricane Irma caused problems for cattle owners as well, especially in Okeechobee County. As everyone in the state frenzied to prepare for Irma’s landfall, many routine operations became interrupted. One of these instances happened with the “grain train”, a train bound for Okeechobee with 26 freight cars of ground corn, soybean meal, cottonseed meal, and other commodities used in making feed for the dairy cattle in the area. On the weekend of September 2nd, farmers anxiously awaited the overdue delivery. As the week wore on, the grain train still had not arrived. Fortunately, the State Agricultural Response Team (SART), a partnership made up of government agencies and non-profit groups, intervened and the train finally arrived Friday evening, September 8th.

Without SART’s assistance, many dairy cows could have gone without food for too long [5]. After the hurricane arrived, one beef cattle ranch in Okeechobee, the Alderman-Deloney Ranch, experienced major flooding after a surrounding dike broke loose. A group of 20 people had to move the herd of approximately 500 cattle five miles down the road to higher ground at the Triple S Ranch. The Aldermans believe that at least five of the animals drowned before they were able to be moved [6][7]. Statewide, ranchers estimate that 100 animals died during the storm. Some additional losses from this disturbance include an estimate of 7 percent of cows not breeding this year, and approximately 187,000 calves losing close to 50 lbs each while awaiting shipment to out-of-state feedlots ($75 loss per calf) [4]. Other losses to cattle owners include damage to grain bins and commodity barns, as well as rain-soaked commodities, feed, and silage [5].

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Antique windmill before hurricane Irma – PC: Robbie Hall

 

On a personal note, my family has a small cattle operation near Bushnell, FL, and we were not without our own problems from Hurricane Irma. Countless trees and large limbs fell around our property, and many came down on our barbed wire fences. We spent the rest of the week sawing up trees and rebuilding our fences around the perimeter of our property before some of our cattle decided to go out on the highway. Additionally, we were without power for six days, and by the fifth day, our cattle water troughs were empty. Thankfully, we were able to borrow a friend’s trailer that had a 500-gallon tank, and used a generator so we could pump and haul water to the empty troughs. At the moment, we still have trees and cross-fences down on the interior of our property that will need to be repaired when we have time, but our cattle at least cannot escape anymore. We were very fortunate that we did not have any structural damage to our house and barn, but our antique windmill was not lucky in surviving the storm!

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Robbie hauling water to the empty trough in front of the damaged windmill after hurricane Irma – PC: Matthew Hall

This blog post was not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of all those industries affected, because really all of Florida was affected; Hurricane Irma was roughly the size of Texas, so it was thorough in enveloping the whole entire state! Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam has stated that he will “present the needs of Florida’s agricultural sector to Congress and ask for short-term federal disaster relief” [8]. In the meantime farmers will continue their efforts in recovering from this natural disaster. In addition to the losses incurred by the agricultural sector, Hurricane Irma could impact Florida’s economy in a couple of other ways. Some of these domestic crops may be replaced in grocery stores with foreign competition from countries such as Mexico, Honduras, and Costa Rica [1]. Also, Puerto Rico was ravaged by both hurricanes Irma and Maria, and there will likely be an influx of people moving to Florida that will be looking for jobs in construction and agriculture-related fields [8]. One thing is certain: Florida agriculture will never forget Hurricane Irma!

 

References

  1. http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/weather/hurricane/fl-reg-irma-agriculture-tour-20170918-story.html
  2. http://www.citrusindustry.net/2017/10/05/760-million-initial-estimate-of-irmas-florida-citrus-damage/
  3. https://www.thepacker.com/node/3091
  4. http://www.wptv.com/news/state/irma-s-agriculture-toll-tops-2-5-billion-in-florida
  5. http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/news/2017/09/27/uf-expert-helps-ensure-grain-train-gets-feed-dairy-cows/
  6. https://www.local10.com/weather/hurricane-irma/hundreds-of-cows-rescued-from-flooded-ranch-in-okeechobee-county
  7. http://www.wptv.com/news/region-okeechobee-county/cows-dead-many-more-at-risk-after-okeechobee-county-ranch-floods
  8. http://www.floridatrend.com/article/23179/perseverance-a-priority-for-florida-farmers-post-irma

What I Wish I’d Known Before Becoming a Pongamia Farmer

by Elisabeth Beagle, TerViva Propagation & Agronomy Associate

My friends won’t know what I’m talking about.

New pongamia farmers, have your elevator pitch ready – even most fellow farmers have never heard of the crop. Pongamia (pohn-gah-me-ah for most, pohn-gaym-ee-ah for Florida folks) is a semi-deciduous, nitrogen-fixing legume tree that can be grown in diverse tropical and subtropical marginal lands. Drought and salinity tolerant, it’s well-suited for land not arable for food crops. The trees grow to 15-20 meters, set flowers after 3-4 years, and take 9-11 months to form a mature pod after anthesis.

Pongamia farmers harvest pods – up to 100 kg of pods per mature tree, per year. Each pod contains a seed. The oil content of the seed is approximately 35% of the dry seed weight and 55% of it is oleic acid, the ideal fatty acid for good-quality biodiesel production. Uses for pongamia oil are extensive – from adjuvant to lubricant, biodiesel to jet fuel. Beyond the oil, the seedcake (pulp left over after the oil is pressed from the seed) is a valuable source of protein; the pod shells separated during processing is a viable baseload feedstock for power plants.

DO mistake the forest for the trees.

Each variety of pongamia tree grows differently – the trick to successful pongamia crop production is to grow the best varieties, consistently. Ideal traits include regular and timely flowering, growth rate, pod set and weight, and seed oil content. Here’s the catch: if you crack open a pod and plant the seed, the tree that grows is unlikely to share the characteristics of the tree the pod came from. TerViva has compiled an exclusive library of high yielding, patentable pongamia genetics from around the world, and developed propagation techniques for scalable, consistent results. The core of TerViva’s IP platform is elite pongamia genetics that are iteratively advanced.

TerViva is not a coconut water company, Mom.

TerViva helps growers convert distressed agriculture land into productive acreage by growing pongamia. The US has lost 40 million acres of arable land in the past 40 years to disease and changing environmental conditions – while demand for food and fuel soars. In Florida, disease has caused 50% of citrus acreage to be lost in 10 years. Hurricane Irma made the picture worse. In Hawaii, 85% of sugarcane production has been abandoned due to cost of production and competition.

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Pongamia orchard on the North Shore of Oahu in July 2017

TerViva provides cultivar development and supply by selling growers elite trees best suited to their situation. TerViva has established commercial size acreage in Florida and Hawaii, geographies where the need for a new crop and the proper climate for pongamia intersect. Pongamia easily “drops in” to existing farm operations, utilizing the same field setups and infrastructure. The grower plants and maintains the trees at their expense; the pods are harvested using existing mechanical nut-harvesting equipment and transported to a centralized processor; then TerViva acts as the marketer for oil, protein seed cake and shells.

Pongamia farmers in Hawaii take an average of 9,740 steps per day in the field.

Hope your boots are made for walkin’, pongamia farmers. It turns out putting hands and eyes on each of the 121 trees per acre adds up to quite a distance. Trees are planted at 18 feet intervals along rows spaced 20 feet apart to accommodate the catchment frame of the harvester. Each field row consists of trees of the same cultivar, so that the entire row flowers, sets pods, and is ready for harvest at the same time.

The walking distance triples during planting. Pray for cloud cover.

Never say there is nothing beautiful in the world anymore. There is always something to make you wonder in the shape of a tree, the trembling of a leaf (Albert Schweitzer).

Sweaty, dusty pongamia farmers enjoy moments of respite while sitting beneath the shade of pongamia trees, reflecting hopefully on the gravitas of our work. Growing pongamia is for those farmers who are in it for the long game; growing pongamia is an investment for the future. Growing pongamia exhibits the belief that agriculture will continue to lead our population forward, towards renewable and environmentally sustainable energy sources. Had I known how rewarding growing pongamia would be, I would have started sooner! Wish someone had told me.

 

 

Toward a Low-Carbon Transportation Future: Part I

by Tomas Endicott, TerViva Processing & Markets Manager

 

It’s the 21st century. We have amazing technology! Certainly we can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the transportation sector in the U.S., but how? We’re doing it! Did you know that already we have good systems for tracking and measuring our progress?

Fossil fuels are the mainstay for transportation energy in the U.S., and there is no question that they power our economy, but renewable fuels like ethanol, biodiesel and renewable natural gas are also making significant contributions. In the U.S., biofuels are derived from primarily corn and soybeans, as their production systems are well-established and their production volumes are extremely large. But just wait! In time, perennial crops like seeds from pongamia trees will contribute even lower-carbon fuels to the transportation mix.

Carbon efficiency is cool. Carbon intensity is not.

Carbon efficiency is cool because it reduces greenhouse gases and mitigates climate change. Hydrocarbon-based fuels have carbon embedded in their molecular structures, but they also generate carbon emissions in the form of the heat, power and transportation that are consumed to produce them and to get them to market. The less carbon emissions generated to produce a particular fuel, the more carbon efficient it is. In comparison, fuels that generate larger carbon emissions have a higher carbon intensity (CI). Not surprisingly, fuels that are more carbon efficient are generally more energy efficient as well. The less energy we consume as a society, the less greenhouse gases we generate.

We consume a lot of transportation fuel in the U.S. and that generates a lot of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

In the U.S., the transportation sector generates about 27% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions annually—second only to electricity generation, which accounts for 29% of GHG emissions. GHG emissions from transportation are the result of burning liquid fuels—primarily gasoline and diesel fuel.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2016 U.S. drivers consumed about 143 billion gallons of finished motor gasoline (that’s a BILLION with a “B”), a daily average of about 392 million gallons. U.S. drivers consumed about 44 billion gallons of diesel fuel in 2016, a daily average of about 122 million gallons.

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Plants use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce biofuels for transportation

Did you know that renewable fuels are required by law?

In the U.S., the federal government requires fuel companies to blend a minimum volume of renewable fuels, like ethanol and biodiesel, into the total fuel volume consumed every year. This program, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), began in 2005 with the passage of the Energy Policy Act. Congress expanded the law in 2007 with the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA). How much renewable fuel does the RFS require? More than 19 billion gallons of renewable fuel, primarily ethanol and biodiesel, in 2017! Of the 188 billion gallons of total transportation fuel Americans will consume this year, renewable fuel will make up a little more than 10%. In other words, renewable fuels could supply the U.S. transportation fuel markets for almost 38 days. Not bad really, but we can do even better!

All fuels are not created (carbon) equal.

All liquid fuels -whether bio-based or fossil-based- are composed of hydrocarbons: long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms bonded together in a variety of ways. All of these molecular bonds contain energy that is released when the bonds are broken -when the fuel is burned. The result: the fuels are converted into energy and their molecules are converted into primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H20).

This is where biofuels and fossil fuels are different. Fossil fuels mine ancient hydrocarbons from beneath the earth’s surface and add new carbon to the atmosphere, but biofuels recycle the same contemporary carbon in the atmosphere on an annual basis. The CO2 released by burning biofuels today is re-captured by living plants to create more biofuel during the next harvest cycle—a net zero effect for the carbon embedded in the biofuel.

Carbon attributed to different fuels includes more than just embedded carbon, though. To create fossil fuels requires exploration, extraction, refining and transport -all of which generate carbon emissions. To create biofuels from recycled materials (i.e. food waste, used cooking oil) requires collection, refining and transport. To create biofuels from agricultural crops requires cultivation, fertilization, harvesting, processing, refining and transport.

Accounting for carbon is the first step.

As scientists and policymakers acknowledge the effects of increasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the need to reduce them, they create systems for measuring the GHG emissions generated by different activities. Carbon accounting tracks the amount of carbon emissions required to produce a particular fuel.

The federal RFS tracks the carbon intensity of transportation fuels. Carbon intensity is the measure of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions attributed to all activities required to produce a transportation fuel, expressed in grams of carbon dioxide equivalents per megajoule of energy or gCO2e/MJ. Wow! That’s a mouthful, but what it means, simply, is that making different transportation fuels generates different amounts of carbon emissions. The lower the carbon emissions generated to produce any particular transportation fuel, the lower the carbon intensity.

Who accounts for GHG emissions in transportation fuels?  How do they make sure that comparing all fuels is comparing apples to apples?

In 1999, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory developed the GREET model.  The Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy Use in Transportation (GREET) model is a “well to wheel” or “farm to wheel” life-cycle model that is used to establish a specific carbon intensity (CI) value for every type of fossil fuel and renewable fuel that is consumed in the U.S. transportation sector. A fuel pathway describes the feedstock and the process for how each fuel is made, so each fuel pathway has a unique CI value.

This chart shows the carbon intensity (CI) values for different renewable fuels compared with gasoline and diesel fuel. Gasoline has a CI value of 95.86, whereas the CI for ethanol ranges from 77.44 to 120.99 -depending on where the ethanol is made and what type of energy is used for the heat and power required in the production process. Ethanol from Brazilian sugarcane has a CI value of 73.4. Petroleum diesel has a CI value of 94.71, whereas the CI for soy-based biodiesel is 83.85. Biodiesel from recycled cooking oil has a CI value of 11.76 or 15.84. Wow! That’s a reduction. Almost 90%!

What specific factors contribute to higher or lower carbon intensity (CI) values of transportation fuels?

Different feedstocks -both bio-based and fossil-based- and different fuel production pathways generate different amount of CO2 emissions.  What are the factors that affect the carbon intensities for different feedstocks and for different fuel production pathways?

Stay tuned.  We will pick it up there next week.

We Can Reverse Climate Change

by Lila Taheraly

After learning about Project Drawdown last year, I could breathe a sigh of relief. I could finally envision an appealing goal for the world: reversing climate change. Not mitigating it, adapting to it, or solely reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but actually reversing climate change.

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming is a book which gathers 100 solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sequester carbon. It ranks them based on their potential carbon impacts in the next 30 years, and studies their implementation costs compared to business as usual (using fossil fuel oil, gas and coal). Published in June 2017, the book describes a possible and hopeful future.

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PC: Paul Morris on Unsplash.com

What is Drawdown? Drawdown represents the moment when greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere begin to decline. Combined, all these proposed solutions could eliminate up to one trillion of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2050 — enough to prevent the climate tipping point of 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial level. These solutions would also cost less and create more jobs than business as usual.

Below are the top 10 solutions in terms of carbon impact and their potential carbon savings by 2050:

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PC: Karsten Würth on Unsplash.com

  1. Refrigerant Management – 89.74 GT CO2* eq.
  2. Onshore Wind Turbines – 84.60 GT CO2 eq.
  3. Reduced Food Waste – 70.53 GT CO2 eq.
  4. Plant-Rich Diet – 66.11 GT CO2 eq.
  5. Tropical Forests – 61.23 GT CO2 eq.
  6. Educated Girls – 59.60 GT CO2 eq.
  7. Family Planning- 59.60 GT CO2 eq.
  8. Solar Farms – 36.90 GT CO2 eq.
  9. Silvopasture – 31.19 GT CO2 eq.
  10. Rooftop Solar – 24.60 GT CO2 eq.

Beyond these 10 solutions, the real power of this book lies in the abundance of solutions and the measurement of their potential impact. These technologies all exist today, and some are scaling up right now. In the USA, in 2016, solar power employed more people than electricity generation through coal, gas and oil combined.

To reflect on this profusion of solutions, here is my selection of favorites through an award competition.

The unexpected: Educating Girls, ranked 6th.

Discovering “Educating Girls” as the 6th solution to mitigate Climate Change was fascinating! After the surprise, the explanation made perfect sense. Educated girls tend among others to have fewer and healthier children, to have higher wages and contribute more to the economic growth. In developing countries, educated women also grow more productive agricultural plots, and their families are better nourished. Today, there are still barriers preventing 62 million girls from their education rights.

The low-key: walkable cities, ranked 54th.

Walkable cities or neighborhoods favor walking over driving (thus reduce CO2 emissions but also improve health). In a neighborhood, walkability can include density of homes, offices, and stores; practicability of sidewalks, walkways and pedestrian crossings; and accessibility to public transportation. Today, demand for walkable cities far exceeds the supply. You can check the walkability of any location via applications like this one.

The never-heard of: temperate forests, ranked 12th.

We hear so much about the tropical forest degradation, than we tend to forget its sibling: the temperate forest. A quarter of the world’s forest lies in temperate zone, either deciduous or evergreen. 99% of it has been altered throughout history with timber, conversion to agriculture or urban development. This solution is to restore and protect temperate-forests on degraded land. Young temperate forests sequester carbon in both soil and biomass at very fast rates.

watermill

The most picturesque: in-stream hydro, ranked 48th.

While hydropower reminds us at huge dams, reservoirs, and big environmental impacts, in-stream hydro is defined as less than 10 mega watts hydropower technologies. They are small scale in-stream turbines. The advantage of small scale is that turbines can be designed to have a minimal impact on the environment and become accessible in remote territories like Alaska or Nepal, unlocking great potential.

The most related to our business: perennial biomass, ranked 51st.

Compared to annual crops like corn, perennial biomass grows for many years. In a climate perspective, it makes a fundamental difference. Perennial biomass throughout their lifetime requires fewer energy inputs, and prevents soil erosion, produces stable yields, supports pollinators and biodiversity. As an example, Pongamia, an oilseed producing tree, is a legume and fixes nitrogen naturally.  Pongamia also grows deep roots thereby reducing water needs and increasing the carbon sequestration.

My  favorite coming attraction: living buildings

Besides 80 solutions against climate change, Project Drawdown also introduces 20 “coming attractions”. One of them is “Living Buildings”. Living buildings answer the question: How do you design and make a building so that every action and outcome improves the world? For example, Living buildings could grow food, use rainwater and protect habitat. The Brock Environmental Center in Virginia Beach, VA, completed in 2014 produces all of its drinking water from rainfall, uses 90% less water than a commercial building of the same size, and generates 83% more energy than it consumes.

Curious and inspired by Project Drawdown? You can visit their website, read the book, and come back to tell me about your favorite solutions.

 

 

 

 

*Note: 1 gigaton of CO2 (GT) = 1,000,000,000 tons of CO2.

At ambient temperature, one ton of CO2 holds on in 559 cubic meters (19,775 cubic feet), i.e. in an 8.25 m high cube (27 ft).

 

 

 

From Inside the Pipeline: Energy & Ag in Hawaii

By Marie O’Grady, Elemental Excelerator Communications Coordinator

Exhaust poured from the truck as it came to a grinding halt at the base of a conveyor belt, delivering Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company’s last cane harvest, symbolizing the end of an era in Hawaii. As happened in Puerto Rico and Trinidad & Tobago, growing sugar in Hawaii was no longer profitable.

In early 2016, Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), the fourth largest land owner in Hawaii, announced the close of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S), the state’s last large-scale sugar plantation. Over the years, HC&S had faced controversies around water, pesticides, and field burning, and in 2015, the company incurred a $30 million operating loss.

Alexander & Baldwin announced in early 2016 that all 36,000 acres of former HC&S land would be transitioned to diversified agriculture, such as energy crops, agroforestry, livestock, diversified food crops, and orchard crops. Last month, A&B announced a new partnership with TerViva to cultivate pongamia on 250 acres of former plantation land.

EEx TerViva - orchard - 1

We believe pongamia can help diversify agriculture production on Maui while also potentially addressing our community’s need for renewable fuels. Our former sugar lands provide a great opportunity to grow more energy crops locally as they are ideally suited for large scale cultivation and mechanical harvesting.” – A&B President & CEO, Chris Benjamin

TerViva was the first ag company to join Elemental Excelerator’s portfolio in 2014. As part of their demonstration project, they are growing more than 200 acres of pongamia trees on Oahu and Maui. The oil extracted from pongamia seeds is well suited for industrial applications such as biopesticides, lubricants, chemicals, and fuels – and the residual seed cake shows promise as a feed supplement for beef cattle. Compared to soy, pongamia requires only 25 percent of the chemical and water inputs. One acre of pongamia produces 10 times more oil and 3 times more protein rich seed cake than one acre of soybeans.

EEx TerViva 3

This project is not only transformational for TerViva (it’s their first orchard in the region), but it’s also transformational for Hawaii.

  • Local farmers and agribusinesses are a critical source of economic stability for rural economies, through jobs and direct and indirect spending. TerViva is steadily growing its Hawaii-based team, and the company supports two local nurseries and a handful of contractors.
  • Pongamia is able to grow on marginal agricultural land that is not suitable for other crops. This is ideal for a place like Hawaii where the soil, which once provided resources for thousands of acres of sugarcane and pineapple, has been largely stripped of key nutrients.
  • Biofuel and biomass play a role in Hawaii’s transformation to clean energy, providing firm, dispatchable power. Hawaiian Electric’s December 2016 Power Supply Improvement Plan outlines how the utility plans to utilize biofuels in power plants to replace oil as a fuel source.

There is a growing trend in the number of new agtech companies mature enough for a demonstration project, as evidenced in Elemental Excelerator’s pipeline of applicants:

  • Since 2014, EEx had added four other agriculture startups to the portfolio of 53 startups. These companies are working to increase local beef production, increase crop yields, and help small farmers use data to reduce water usage.
  • Over the last few years, EEx has also seen a dramatic increase in applications from ag startups. This year, 10 percent of the companies who took the first step to apply were agriculture-related. That’s twice as many as last year!

After Monsanto acquired the Climate Corporation in 2013, ag tech gained significant attention. In 2014 alone, investments in ag tech grew 170%. Most innovation was focused in the areas of biotechnology and seed genetics. Today, subsectors include bioenergy, sustainable protein, decision support tech, soil & crop tech, advanced imaging & data analytics, and many others. Investment and innovation are no longer limited to players in the agriculture sector. Moreover, as concern grows over droughts, weather fluctuations, the cost of farm labor, and competition with international markets, key players such as farmers, agro-businesses, and landowners are searching for ways to grow smarter.

 

Elemental Excelerator

Elemental Excelerator helps startups change the world, one community at a time. Each year, they find 12-15 companies that best fit their mission and fund each company up to $1 million to improve systems that impact peoples lives: energy, water, agriculture, and transportation. To date, Elemental Excelerator (EEx) has awarded over $20 million to more than 50 companies. What makes EEx unique? They co-fund, co-design, and co-develop projects and strategies that improve infrastructure and sustainably enhance communities. The program is funded by a diverse coalition of utility partners, corporate partners, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Energy, state government, and philanthropic organizations, and is structured as a non-profit created in collaboration with Emerson Collective.

 

Related articles:

2015 State Ag Land Use Baseline Data, Hawaii Department of Agriculture

AgTech Is The New Queen Of Green, TechCrunch

Cultivating Ag Tech: 5 Trends Shaping The Future of Agriculture, CB Insights

Hawaii’s Last Sugar Plantation Finishes Its Final Harvest, NBC