California Powers Up Plan for Waste-to-Watts

Energy from trash and fewer catastrophic fires? What’s the catch?

A wood-burning power plant in Northern California. In 2007, "biomass" energy accounted for roughly 2.1 percent of California energy production. A new state bioenergy plan seeks to substantially increase that percentage.

Wood scraps, animal manure, household garbage and other wastes may soon fuel a sweeping “clean energy” initiative in California, if the collective vision of several state agencies comes to pass.

This week, the state announced its 2012 Bioenergy Action Plan [PDF], which promotes an array of organic materials as a large and untapped fuel source for an energy-hungry state.

“Swift action on bioenergy will create jobs, increase local clean energy supplies, and help businesses grow in California,” said resources agency secretary John Laird in a Department of Natural Resources release. Currently, the bioenergy sector employs roughly 5,000 people and contributes $575 million to the state economy; the agency estimates the new plan could create an additional 4,000 jobs statewide. Continue reading

Climate, Corn, and the Coming Market Chaos

Climate change has an outsize effect on corn price volatility

Climate change -- and the ensuing heat waves -- will create more volatility in the corn price market.

By Michael D. Lemonick

Farmers know all too well that the prices they get for what they grow can fluctuate from one year to the next, sometimes wildly. Drought or heat can reduce crop yields; so can frost and floods. For corn producers, the Renewable Fuel Standard, which mandates the addition of ethanol to gasoline, is yet another source of volatility. It puts extra demands on whatever supply there is, making corn more expensive for consumers even as it puts more money in farmers’ pockets. And overlaid on top of it all is climate change, which exerts its on push on the ups and downs of weather.

Scientists have looked at different pieces of this equation, but researchers from Stanford and Purdue have analyzed the entire equation, in a paper just published in Nature Climate Change, and determined which factor causes the most trouble: it’s climate change, and for Stanford’s Noah Diffenbaugh, that came as a surprise. “I genuinely expected that climate would be a minor player relative to these other influences,” he said in a telephone interview.

Continue reading

The Latest Breakthrough in Biofuels: Seaweed?

Berkeley scientists bring seaweed biofuels one step closer to the marketplace

Seaweed farms off the coast of Bali. According to one estimate, using just three percent of the Earth's coastal waters to grow seaweed could produce 60 billion gallons of ethanol.

The newest biofuel making a splash is seaweed.

Researchers at Berkeley-based Bio Architecture Lab (BAL) have discovered a way to genetically manufacture a microbe that can break down the sugars in seaweed, so that it can be used as a fuel source. Biofuels from sources other than corn have generated a lot of hype but so far not the large-scale production necessary for them to be considered an integral part of the U.S. energy future (see Lauren Sommer’s recent biofuels “reality check,” for KQED’s QUEST).

There are many kinds of algae. The ones that have received most attention are microalgaes that grow in freshwater ponds. The US Department of Energy has invested heavily in research on microalgaes. Defense officials are looking to oil extracted from the freshwater scum to fuel military machinery. Last week a California Report story highlighted the efforts of researchers in San Diego to scale up production of oil from algae, in order to bring down the cost and make it viable on the energy market. Continue reading

Cow Power Not Cutting It

Cows at Fiscalini Farms in Modesto, California. (Photo: Sheraz Sadiq)

Last year, as part of a radio series on methane, I drove down to visit John Fiscalini, who was building a huge methane “digester” to convert his cows’ “byproducts” into clean energy, and reduce the carbon footprint of his sizable dairy farm and cheese factory outside Modesto.  After millions of dollars in design and construction costs, Fiscalini was fed up with state air and water regulators, who he felt were pulling him in different directions. A year later, have things improved? Not so much, as Quest’s Lauren Sommer found out, when she returned to the San Joaquin Valley for an update. — Craig Miller

Three years ago, KQED’s QUEST visited a Central Valley dairy that was taking an innovative approach to its waste problem. Instead of collecting thousands of pounds of cow manure in open holding ponds, Joseph Gallo Farms uses it in a renewable energy technology known as a methane digester. Continue reading

Brower Youth Award

For the past three years, Adarsha Shivakumar has worked nights and weekends to run a non-profit dedicated to helping impoverished Indian farmers produce biofuels. He has formed an alliance with an NGO and a biotech company to ensure that growers get a good price for their product. And he has used personal funds to purchase seedlings for villagers willing to try a sustainable crop.

Not a bad resume for a 16-year-old.

Earth Island Institute

Brower winner Adarsha Shivakumar. Photo: Earth Island Institute

This week the Pleasant Hill native received the prestigious Brower Youth Award for “environmental leadership,” at a ceremony in San Francisco. He is being honored for mixing economics and environmentalism, in his efforts to aid tobacco farmers in India’s Karnataka region.

Shivakumar, who acts as though founding a non-profit is something most high school juniors do in their spare time, grew up visiting the region annually with his family. While there, he was taken aback by the hard life of the local tobacco farmers. His Indian relatives told him that the workers were at the mercy of the crop’s unstable price.

By the time he was twelve he had another realization: the farmers’ over-reliance on tobacco was leading to the slow-motion demolition of a nearby national forest.

“When we went there each year, what we noticed was that more and more sections of forest were just disappearing on the outskirts,” the Oakland College Preparatory High School student said. “This was due to tobacco growing, because what happens is the farmers have to cure the tobacco that they grow, and that requires firewood–a lot of firewood: two kilograms plus of firewood for one kilogram of tobacco.”

“It’s having a huge impact on the wildlife there. Each year…the forest is just steadily being destroyed,” he said.

So the American pre-teen decided to do something. Biofuels were big news in the United States at the time, but corn-based ethanol was getting a bad rap for causing food shortages. So he hunted around for a crop that could produce biofuel, but didn’t double as dinner for families in the developing world. Eventually he settled on Jotrapha curcas, a semi-poisonous plant that is hearty enough to survive the occasional drought and produces seeds that contain about 35% oil.

By encouraging villagers to plant Jotrapha, as well as the tobacco they traditionally grow, Shivakumar would aim to increase the farmers’ income and protect the ecologically sensitive forests nearby (Shivakumar took mild offense at a recent report on NPR about the harsh realities of Jatropha growing in Kenya. He says it’s important not to rely solely on Jatropha as a cash crop, and has learned from his time in Karnataka that, like any plant, Jatropha must be watered and cared for.)

At 13 he teamed up with his younger sister, Apoorva Rangan, and the two of them scrounged together what money they had to buy seedlings and get “Project Jatropha” off the ground. “When I was in the seventh grade I’d won the California State Spelling Bee and I got around $600 from that as a cash prize and I used that money to jumpstart the project,” Shivakumar said. “Apoorva and I had some funds that we had from baby sitting and all, and we used that as well,” he added.

The two worked with the farmers for weeks, trying to gain their trust and convince them to mix a little Jatropha in with their tobacco. In a culture where respect comes with age, Shivakumar said, this was no easy task.

But with the help of a local NGO called Parivarthana (Sanskrit for “change”) and the biotech company Labland Biotechs, he secured a deal that he hoped would make Jatropha planting profitable. Parivarthana would help teach the farmers sustainable agriculture, and Labland–which converts Jatropha into biofuel–would pay the growers for every kilogram of the crop they produced.

Shivakumar said that two years on, Project Jatropha is expanding and going strong. He still devotes hours of his days to communicating with workers in India, but said that lately much of his time has been swallowed up by media requests. He takes on these interviews, he said, to remind others that they can make a difference.

“We have to take action now–that’s the main thing,” he said. “And I hope Project Jatropha will show that it’s possible to take action and affect people in greater ways, and we hope to motivate and inspire others to take action as well.”

The Brower Youth award comes with a $3,000 prize, and it’s not hard to guess how Shivakumar will spend his winnings. “When I found out that we won, I was shocked yet very happy to say the least, because the $3000 cash prize we got is being reinvested into the project,” he said.

California is also home to two other Brower Youth Award winners. Ventura resident Alec Loorz, the youngest recipient this year, won for spreading the word about climate change. Inspired by Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 15 year old has given at least 75 presentations on global warming to more than 10,000 people.

In his spare time, Loorz founded an organization dedicated to educating young people about climate change (Kids vs. Global Warming, penned a Declaration of Independence from Fossil Fuels, and is set to launch the California Climate Council of Youth, or C3Y, an effort to bring precocious kids together to brainstorm and learn how to combat global warming.

Hai Vo, a 22 year old University of California, Irvine graduate, was honored for a project to bring more sustainable food to his college campus. He worked to bring “real” food, i.e. “ethically produced, with fair treatment of workers, equitable relationships with farmers (locally and abroad), and humanely treated animals” to Irvine, and eventually convinced the entire UC system to offer 20% sustainable food at its campus dining facilities by 2020.

This post was reported and written by Climate Watch intern David Ferry.