Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Black Gold - Terra Pretta Soil.

In 2001 a paper was published about a farmer in Acutuba who had grown crops on terra preta soils for 40 years without needing to add any fertilizer. Astonishing as this seems, these "dark earth" soils possess a remarkable vitality and fertility, and it is speculated that along the Rio Negra the large populations described by Francisco de Orellana in the Chronicles of his 1542 quest to find the mythic city of El Dorado, were sustained by terra pretta de indio - Portuguese for "Indian black earth". The Amazonian soils are notoriously poor in quality, despite the lush forest that grows on them, and in contrast the terra preta is a legacy of the Amazonian civilizations that lived there in the past.

There has been much speculation as to the origins of terra preta soil, in particular whether it was deliberately created to improve the fertility of the region, or whether it was an accident of nature or serendipitous to the way of life among the Amazonian tribes. What seems clear is that the essential component of the soil is a kind of charcoal, which may have been formed either by a kind of composting process or by burning biomass which became added to the soil, either deliberately or by chance. Consensus of view now is that the soils were formed deliberately by local farmers, who knew well the causes of its quality.

A central figure in the investigation of terra pretta is the archaeologist, James Petersen, who was murdered by bandits in a bar on a jungle road near Iranduba in the Brazilian Amazon. Petersen called the soil a "gift from the past" and he believed that understanding its composition and origins might provide a means to improve soil fertility for small farmers today and to eliminate the carbon emissions that arise when slash-and-burn methods are used to clear forest to grow crops. Betty J. Meggers, who worked in the Amazon during the mid 1900s called the region a "counterfeit paradise" since its verdant glory existed only because the plants that grew there were able to suck every drop of water and nutrient from a soil that was fundamentally unsuitable to grow much on.

The slash and burn approach is in line with this view since forests are cut-down and the cover is burned in order to provide mineral and nitrogen rich ash to nourish the soil with. However, the soil is only productive for a few years until it reverts to its original barren state. However, evidence accumulated for an advanced civilization, rather than subsisting stone age savages, whose remains were embedded in vast swathes of black earth.

Johannes Lehmann of Cornell University is of the opinion that the black earth may offer the promise of creating sustainable agriculture, and possibly to averting global warming. The vital ingredient of terra preta is thought to be charcoal - "biochar" - which is able to bind the essential nutrients N, P and K, which impedes dramatically the rate at which they are washed-way by the continual rains. Minute pores are formed in the charcoal over time which can hold more nutrients on its larger surface area and act as "condominiums" for microorganisms to grow in and so increases their density in the soil. The idea is to create "terra preta nova", or artifical terra preta by deliberately adding charcoal to soil in the aim of recreating the properties of natural Amazonian terra preta.

He says, "With a handful of biochar, you can keep many more nutrients in the soil than in a handful of mulch or compost. It is like mopping-up nutrients with a magnet that looks like a sponge - that is, it has high surface area like a spomnge but can attract a thin layer of material like a magnet."

It is likely that to produce a soil with genuine terra preta characteristics will take a number of years of "fermentation" but it has been shown that soil treated with biochar and nutrients can have an immediate effect when added to very poor soils. Lehmann goes further and thinks that pro ducting biochar on a billions of tonnes per year scale could significantly reduce and even reverse carbon emissions and global warming, by burying that carbon in a stable form out of the biological carbon cycle. I think he is overoptimistic here especially if large-scale biochar factories are envisaged.

However, a human collective of small-scale productions could lock-up almost one billion tonnes annually, with positive impacts on soil health, and a reduced demand for freshwater and nutrient supplies, worldwide.

This should, however, be compared with potential complementary methods for regenerative agriculture which depend far less on added N,P and K through growing year-round cover crops, and forest gardens, which once established are largely self-sustaining. In terms of carbon-capture the latter are predicted to meet a capacity of 40% of all human carbon emissions, which would require the creation of a lot of biochar (3.5 billion tonnes per year) if they were to be absorbed in this way.

Related Reading.
"Black Gold of the Amazon," By Michael Tennesen,

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Nuclear Plant to Bulldoze Wind Farm, but Kurdistan has Oil!

A wind farm may be bulldozed to clear a site on which a new nuclear power station will be built. This seems to me a telling sign of the future, in that wind-farms are being marginalised in favour of the tried and tested, and it must be said, far more powerful. On average, a nuclear reactor produces around 1.2 GW of electricity, which allowing for a capacity factor of 30% is the equivalent of a farm with 1,500 "2 MW" wind turbines. The "capacity factor" for a coal, gas or nuclear power station is similar at around 36%, but when a figure of say 1 GW is quoted that is the actual output, from a thermal capacity of around 3.6 GW, which is less misleading than the figures listed for wind-turbines. Unlike the wind which does not always blow, uranium always burns, so long as there is enough of it in the reactor.

Indeed, to meet EU targets, it will be necessary to build a new wind-turbine every day for 12 years, which does not seem to me a particularly realistic objective [1]. The Haverigg wind farm, located between the hills of the Lake District and the waters of the Duddon Estuary on the coast of Cumbria, is the second commercial wind farm to be built in Britain, and has run for 17 years. However, six of its eight turbines (quite a lot less than 1,500) fall within the blueprint-boundaries of the proposed Kirksanton nuclear power plant where the German RWE plans to construct "at least three" new reactors.

There is naturally a huge environmental hoo-ha, but as RWE points out, the wind farm produces 3.5 megawatts of energy while the nuclear power station would generate 3,600 MW, or enough to power 5 million homes. There is also the equally unexpected NIMBY, in that people living in the nearby village of Kirksanton have formed an action group, because the plant is only 150 yards from the village boundary. I don't blame them, but nuclear power plants are actually pretty safe in their running; it is just the issue of long term storage of nuclear waste that remains to be sorted to everybody's satisfaction. Couldn't they shift the site a little bit though, and keep both sides happy, and keep the wind farm too?

Given the amount of energy we use, and that time is of the essence, I think they should build the nuclear plant, and several others too, if only to buy some more time while we rethink our "sustainable future". Running out of juice would be a more horrendous matter than global warming, nuclear waste and all other calamities, at least in the short term.

On the matter of juice, I note an interesting development in oil exploration: namely that drillers in northern Kurdistan have identified 3 to 4 billion barrels of oil there. Now this is only enough oil to quench the world's thirst for it for around a month or so, but it is probably going to be worth $300 to $400 billion, assuming that the price of oil rises to $100 a barrel again, which it almost certainly will, and probably much more than that. The company behind the project, Heritage Oil, is doing well on the stock market with shares going for 360p per unit and 30% growth, which speaks volumes, especially in the current financial climate when 150 British businesses are going to the wall every day, and doubtless many more across the world.

Related reading.
[2] "Wind farm may be torn down to make way for nuclear site,"
[3] "Kurdistan discovery boosts Heritage," By Bryce Elder and Neil Hume,

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Governments Must Cooperate for "Power-Down" as Oil Runs Out.

It is anticipated that beyond the point of peak oil, production of the world's oil will contract by around 3% per year. Widely, this is perceived as an unquenchable and imminent disaster of planetary proportions, and the "End Times" movement, mostly Christian fundamentalists in the US, are rubbing their hands in anticipation of such "proof" that God really did tell us that the Tribulation would befall us, in preparation for the second coming of Jesus Christ, who would ultimately transform the Earth into paradise. A cynic might say that since these are mostly people who live in a nation that consumes vastly more energy, and has more cars than anywhere else on earth, such acceptance is really an act of inertia, and they would rather die than change their lifestyles to anything less energy consuming.

Being essentially an optimist by nature, I am trying to avoid falling by the wayside of apathy, although it is extremely difficult not to see things in a gloomy perspective, especially living in a country that has pledged itself to additional debts of around $1.2 trillion (£750 billion) over the next five years, and which will take so long to pay-off that the point when the balance sheet comes back into the black is really anybody's guess. If it takes 30 years, we can only speculate as to the kind of world and society that will prevail then, and having just turned 50, in all probability I won't be part of it.

There are many scary scenarios to be had, and which are gratuitously foretold, but mostly these involve wars over resources, mainly oil and also water. The two are connected inextricably in the matrix of energy and production that forms the web of globalisation, and oil-powered pumps move water around to bring desert into fecund crop-land and pasture: thus if oil fails, so does the land, and much of the food production especially in the mid-western United States, if it is no longer possible to extract water, much of which is of fossil origin, drawn up from underground aquifers, which are not refilled, but laid-down millions of years ago.

It is not worth elaborating such images of mayhem, including one where the governments are forced to bomb the inner cities to destroy the rapacious and desperate millions, before they become lawless and soulless roaming hoards, but to consider that there may be a solution, but only one, and that is for the governments of the world to unite in a voluntary and cooperative programme to reduce oil consumption by 3% per year, in line with the predicted fall in oil-output. Any other strategy will be tough, unpleasant and disastrous, and must inevitably abrade society into conflict and all-out wars between regions and between nations. In a nutshell, oil-producing nations must agree to reduce their production by 3% per year and oil-importing nations to reduce their imports by an exactly matching amount. Production will fall and must be planned to fall, while consumers take-up the slack in supply.

We need a clear strategy to gear-down our dependence on personalised transportation and on the carriage of essential goods such as food and water to the extent that should this mechanism fail, in Britain we have probably three days supply before the supermarket shelves begin to empty and the country begins to starve. To put it another way, a fall in oil provision by 3% per year means building more localised means that depend less on transport by that same figure, pro rata. Since the problem is a global one, the solution can only be found globally, and individual nations - under the leadership of their governments - must cooperate in creating an overall less fuel-dependent ideology and putting this into practice. Fuel rationing is key and a reconstruction of societies so that the means for shelter, work, food production, money and all else are not separated, but become part of the integrated hive of community.

Related Reading.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Norway Gas and Oil Needs new Development.

Norway's production of oil and gas is thought to run into trouble by the mid 2020's if currently off-limit areas are not developed. These include Nordland VI and VII and Troms II, which oil companies are currently banned from exploring since there are important fishing grounds and areas of natural beauty there. Since it can take 18 years from the granting of a license to actual onstream production, time is of the essence, especially as it is thought that the more mature Norwegian oil fields will begin to decline in 2012-2013 when Norwegian gas production will outstrip that of oil.

Norwegian North Sea oil production peaked at 3 million barrels a day in 2000 (the same output as the British peak in 1999), and is now 2.1 million barrels a day (British production has fallen to around 1 million barrels a day). Apparently under the Lisbon Agreement the EU may be able to grab oil from the UK, which is Europe's main oil and gas producer, while Norway's production remains sensibly out of EU jurisdiction. It is thought that by 2030 Norwegian oil output will be 1.6 million mpd or around 60% of current levels.

Altogether it is estimated that the areas offshore from the Vesteraalen and Lofoten archipelagos may hold 3.4 billion barrels of oil. While this is less than 6 weeks worth of oil to run the entire world on, it is a significant contribution to Norway's reserve. To do a simple R/P ratio sum, if Norway has "9 years worth of oil left" as has been said recently, then a daily output of 2.1 mbd x 365 x 9 = 6.9 billion barrels in current mature fields, so accessing these northern regions would add another half. In reality there will of course be a steady decline in production, and if production is still at 1.6 mbd by 2030, around 13.5 billion barrels of oil will have been produced by then, suggesting the reserve is far greater. On the other hand the latter prediction may prove highly optimistic.

Now the world's fifth major oil producer, Norway will continue to be a main player in the provision of oil to Europe over the next decades. It is second only to Russia in its provision of natural gas to Europe and its reserves of gas are believed to be very large.

There is the expected difference of opinion among Norwegians as to whether the fields in the north should be opened-up or not: 40.7% say yes and 35.5% no, with 23.9% undecided. The World Wildlife Fund and Bellona stand firmly on the "no" side, on the grounds that indigenous fish and birds in would be harmed by drilling in the region. For sure it would be a shame to kill-off the fish since Lofoten is a major spawning ground for cod, producing 400,000 tonnes of them per year, while other areas around the world , e.g. Cape Cod have lost much of their cod.

There are economic issues too. Those who want the exploration to go ahead are looking toward investment and the Norwegian economy and yet it is the current global recession in part that has put on-hold many such projects in Norway and elsewhere, and even if the go-ahead were to be given, is there the financial incentive for companies to start new drilling projects? It depends on the price of oil: this is now back up to $50 from $30 a barrel from a few months ago, and it will almost certainly rise again to previous levels. At $100 a barrel the incentive is probably restored, but it all takes time, especially against the relentless backdrop of world oil depletion.

We have to face the truth that we can't rely on the current level of world oil production for much longer, and then what? All these schemes are part of a general denial to that fact.

Related Reading.
"Norway Oil Industry Seen At Risk If New Areas Not Opened," by Elizabeth Adams.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

George Monbiot: Prepare for Peak Oil not Smallpox!

George Monbiot has written a cracking article which I am paying tribute to. I don't always like his take on things but this time he has it just right. He points-out that although smallpox was eradicated in the western world many years ago, the British government has produced a 122 page document of central plans to deal with an outbreak of it, and there are smallpox centres running across the country with listed staff to be drawn on in times of emergency, five Smallpox Management and Response Teams, and a Smallpox Diagnosis and Response Group in each of the nine regions of England. Naturally, all this costs millions even though other than the potential use of the disease in germ warfare, for which both the U.S. and Russia are well-provided, the odds of an outbreak are vanishingly long. However, in respect of probably the greatest single threat to humanity, there is no policy or obvious plans whatsoever, namely peak oil.

He also refers to the strange quirk of the government in its attitude to risk. For example Gordon Brown (actually "Dr" Brown as he has a Ph.D in political history from Edinburgh University) told the City of London bankers (I don't intend this as rhyming-slang) in his 2004 Mansion House speech that "in budget after budget I want us to do even more to encourage the risk-takers." We have seen in abundance the consequences of this, possibly a minor calamity in comparison with the impending oil debacle.

I am convinced that peak oil is not merely a theory. It is obvious that if western concepts about the origins of oil are true, there was only so much to go round in the first place and we have got through the first half, leaving the second installment far more difficult to wrestle from the earth. The Russian/Ukranian theory is that petroleum is formed within the earth as a mineral product, rather than by the decay of dead flora and fauna. In one respect it doesn't matter who is right, since it is the rate of recovery that is key: even if oil is produced continually, if we can't pull it out of the ground fast enough to match demand the world will descend into a supply-demand gap which I referred to recently as "gap oil". I suspect there are many different origins for petroleum, both abiotic (mineral) and biotic since hydrocarbons are energy minima and are to be expected as thermodynamically stable products of equilibrium.

The precise date when world oil production does peak is a matter of some debate, but I recently heard it was last year (2008). Other estimates are up to 2012 (an interesting coincidence with the end of the Mayan calender), and longer durations offered mainly by the oil industry. The critical information with which to anticipate the event is lacking, namely the closely-guarded figures for the OPEC nations' true reserves - a state-secret. Indeed, we will only know retrospectively when the oil did peak but all evidence is that it can be expected soon.

Thus why are there no clear plans offered by any governments, British or elsewhere, for how we are to run our societies without plentiful cheap oil, without which everything we regard as normal - our entire way of life - will collapse? Perhaps the blueprint will be forthcoming, or maybe there is no longer time to do much except let the "market forces" do their work, in this most significant of human affairs, as in all others. Perhaps, like the Emperor Nero, they are all fiddling while Rome burns?

Related Reading.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Biomass Could Release More Carbon than Coal.

Biofuels are often spoken of as "carbon neutral", meaning that only the same amount of carbon absorbed during their growth through photosynthesis is released when biofuels derived from them are burned. This is not strictly true since the fuel used to run tractors and processing machinery is not costed into this attractive but naive energy balance sheet. Furthermore, the impact of growing fuel crops on the soil itself is ignored, and a new study by the Environment Agency (EA) concludes that if pasture is ploughed over to grow energy crops, it might release more CO2 by 2030 than burning fossil fuels.

However, it is widely thought that peak oil is with us now, meaning that we will never be able to produce more oil than at the height of 2008, and by 2030 biofuels may be in demand simply on the basis of need for any fuel. Only around 20% of the nation's fuel could be provided even if all our pasture land were turned over to crop production and the amount of fuel possible is in any case limited. The only potential source of non-CO2 releasing biomass on this scale is algae, but growing it on the large scale poses considerable challenges, along with hydrothermal plants to convert the algal mass into gas and liquid fuels rather than the palaver of extracting oil from it and converting that into biodiesel by transesterfication as is done from e.g. rapeseed oil. Dried algae can be burned directly in power stations, co-fired with conventional fuel e.g. coal.

According to the EA, waste-wood and medium-density fibreboard (MDF) produce the least CO2 while willow, poplar and oilseed rape the most. This is significant because wood-burning stoves, boilers and even power-stations are seen as vital components of the system by which Brtain's renewable energy targets are to be met. The actual quantity of CO2 released was found to be highly dependent on the particular circumstances, and in the most favourable case a mere 27 kg of CO2/kilowatt hour was produced - 98% less than from coal - which could curb emissions by two million tonnes of CO2 per year. However, in other cases, the overall emissions were higher than they would be from burning coal.

The worst offenders were energy crops planted on permanent grassland, according to the report. Nonetheless, biomass is going to be essential probably well before the target year of 2030 and the efficient use of its energy by combining heat and power production is underlined, as it is a limited resource.

Tony Grayling, who is head of climate change and sustainable development at the EA said: "By 2030, biomass fuels will need to be produced using good practice simply to keep up with the average carbon intensity of the electricity grid."

Related Reading.
"Biomass 'could be major emitter'."

Saturday, April 11, 2009


There is a great website ( about carbon farming in Australia. I have mentioned before Dr Christine Jones, who features on here, in her crusade to store carbon in soil by year-round cover-cropping and other regenerative methods. I like the term "pulse-grazing", since I always think of a pulse as a powerful burst of energy of short duration; maybe fraction of a second as in scientific measurements. In the present context, the pulse is over a couple of days and involves moving grazing animals like sheep somewhere, before moving them on to do the same job on another plot of land.

The term is due to Colin Seis, in Gulgong who farms 4000 head of sheep and cereal crops including oats, wheat and lupins on ‘Winona’, an 840-hectare (2075 acre) farm in the central tablelands of New South Wales. In 1933 they were one of the first in the area to
use superphosphate fertilizer, which initially doubled wheat yields. However, in became clear to the family by the 1970s that their farming methods could not be sustained, when falling wool prices and rising superphosphate costs meant that fertilising pastures was not a long-term option. The initial benefits of adding fertilizers were no longer being recouped and plants were responding less vigorously to fertilisers meaning that increasingly larger amounts had to be added to achieve the same good yields.

Progressive dryland salinity, soil acidity and annual weeds were encroaching on their land too and in 1979 the farm was destroyed by a major bushfire. Because they didn't have enough money to simply "rebuild", Colin looked for more traditional approaches in family history records where he discovered that the original landscape of the tablelands had been grassland and scattered trees. He reckoned that the native grasslands must have had the innate ability to control ground water and not accumulate salinity.

Colin decided to combine grazing and cropping rather than considering them as separate activities and to stop using superphosphate fertilizer. He also changed from set grazing practices to a cell grazing method, i.e. "pulse grazing", where a herd of up to 3000 sheep is moved around his 51 paddocks (average size 16 hectares), to spend 2-4 days in each one before moving them on. After 3 months to allow the native grasses to recover, the ground is grazed again. Colin also took the line that it made no sense to plough a pasture to plant a crop on the land:

"It takes 6 months to prepare a paddock to grow a crop for 2 or 3 months, and then it might be affected for 10 years afterwards, all for 2 or 3 months feed," said Colin. "It’s lunacy to do that. There had to be a better way. My father always disliked ploughing up pastures to plant crops, but in his time the technology just wasn’t there to do it differently." Colin and his neighbour Daryl Cluff believed it would be possible to sow winter cereal crops directly into summer-growing native perennial pastures that were dormant through winter. The pasture could be grazed right up to the point of sowing and stock could be put back on the pasture after harvest to graze stubble and green perennial grasses. They found it works.

Sheep are put into the pasture at a density of 70-80 per hectare for up to 6 days to reduce the bulk of grasses. This is repeated 30 days later. The sheep control weeds, open the grass canopy, mulch the grass and help feed soil microbes. One week after the sheep are removed, a low rate of knockdown herbicide is applied to control annual weeds and the area is almost immediately sown with zero till seeding equipment. A one pass operation places oat seed and fertiliser in 30 cm rows with very little disturbance to the surface ground cover. Conservation cropping protects the soil flora and fauna and promotes biodiversity, i.e. it restores the health of the soil.
Colin’s intention is 100% ground cover, 100% of the time, including under crops. The Department of Agriculture found that the pasture cropping method of farming can be more profitable than traditional methods, and that the width of the profit-margin would depend on the current level of grazing overheads (such as pasture seed, pasture maintenance and casual labour).

Winona’s soils are becoming healthier as a result of the grazing and cropping methods with lower inputs of fertiliser and some crops have been grown no chemicals at all. Colin thinks that nutrients are now cycling through the soil and releasing phosphorous naturally, since 20% of the pastures are still healthy sub-clover.

"Pasture cropping and pulse grazing have dramatically increased pasture biodiversity," said Colin. "The pulse grazing definitely improves biodiversity in perennial grasses, but I was surprised to find that the pasture cropping took it to a whole new level. We had huge increases in plant diversity and numbers after just one year of sowing a crop that way. It was a spin-off that we didn’t expect at all, that the crop would actually stimulate the pasture. Looking at grasslands and soils is the key to turning salinity problems around. If we can get groundcover on the saline parts of the property, then they can actually be very productive, especially in dry times. I believe our native pastures act like huge sponges, holding water in suspension. If we can get back to that, I think a lot of our salinity problems would disappear."

"Don’t spend a cent," is Colin’s advice. "Put your animals into large mobs and start moving them around the infrastructure you already have. Focus on native perennial pastures – they’ve evolved here and obviously they are the best plants for Australia. Throw away your disc plough – if you’re going to grow crops, use zero till. Only kill the weeds that are competing with the crop, leave everything else alive. "The hardest thing to change in all of this is to change your head (thinking). Once you’ve done that, the rest is easy," he said.

Related Reading.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Germany First Fully Renewable Energy Economy... by 2050?

The Reichstag in Berlin will be fully powered by renewable energy, in the iconic intention that the rest of Germany will become the first fully renewably powered industrial nation. By projecting current momentum toward renewables, it is reckoned that by 2050, 100% of Germany's energy will be so provided. Immediately I wonder how they will get around the problem of replacing liquid fuels for transportation, or do they think they will be all-hydrogen or all-electric by then?

The total quantity of energy used in Germany is reckoned as the equivalent of 472 million tonnes of coal in 2007, which amounts to:

472 x 10^6 tonnes x 29.3 x 10^9 J/tonne (coal) = 1.38 x 10^19 J (13,842 PJ).

For some reason, in Britain we tend to cost our energy in terms of oil equivalents, rather than coal, which amounts to 226 million tonnes of crude oil, with an accepted energy content of 42 GJ/tonne:

226 x 10^6 tonnes x 42 x 10^9 J/tonne = 9.49 x 10^18 J (9,490 PJ).

Roughly the ratio of energy used in these two countries is that of their relative populations (82 million/61 million), but ca 8% more energy is used per capita in Germany, probably because of relatively more industry and colder winters.

It is planned to reduce the amount of energy used in Germany from 13,842 PJ (2007) to 12,000 PJ in 2020, and to 10,000 PJ in 2030 (a total reduction by 28%), by implementing energy efficiency strategies, which will save billions in terms of imported energy sources, the price of which is predicted to rise. Indeed it is debatable how much oil will be available let alone what it will cost by 2030, and by 2050 there may be precious little of it left, even at prices of $200 or more a barrel in today's money, as has been predicted.

In 2008, 7.3% of Germany's total primary energy came from renewables, and it is expected that this will rise to 33% by 2020, well in front of other European nations. By 2020, 30% of German electricity is forecast to be generated from renewable sources: wind energy is the principal player in the mix at 15%, with 8% bioenergy (biomass and biogas) and hydropower at 4%. It is anticipated that photovoltaics will be cheap enough by 2015 that a price parity will be achieved with other electricity sources.

Up to 10 GW is expected to be generated from wind turbines placed across the northern German coastlines and offshore wind-farms placed in the North Sea. The electricity is to be conducted from the north and east or south and west using high voltage direct current fed into a smart national grid and that by 2030 50% of German electricity generation will come from renewables, feeding into an entire European trans-continental grid.

Electric cars powered by batteries charged by electricity from renewable sources are planned to provide transport across the nation and so curb dependence on imported oil (around 40% of the total primary energy budget - about the same as in the U.K.) and its greenhouse emissions. Some of this electricity is expected to be made from biogas, derived from compost and waste, pumped into high temperature fuel cells that run at 850 degrees C. and converts the gas to electricity with an efficiency of 40 to 55%. These I presume are solid-oxide fuel cells. If the heat can be recovered too the combined thermal and electrical efficiency of the fuel cell amounts to nearer 85%.

It's a big job, but the Germans seem to be throwing all their technology at the critical issue of providing future energies which other nations, e.g. Britain are not. Good luck to the Germans - even if they only match half their energy requirements by renewables it will be a major achievement and secure stability for the country. I have my doubts about all those electric cars hurtling up and down the autobahns though, and whether enough of them will be made even by 2050, or if the supplies of liquid transportation fuel will fail long before then; before an equivalent scale of substitution can be made.

Related Reading.
"Germany: The World's First Major Renewable Economy," by Jane Burgermeister:

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Regenerative Agriculture: The Transition.

It is an illusion to think we can continue to use as much energy as we do now. No one can entirely rule-out that some extravagant technology will be forthcoming, e.g. solar power or nuclear fusion on the full-scale of 500 EJ/year as we get through now, but the particular issue of matching liquid fuels derived currently almost entirely from petroleum appears insurmountable. The "solution" is probably the collective of individual solutions, and that means adopting a completely different paradigm of human philosophy and intention. The most pressing demand is how to feed the population of the world, and how to adapt industrialised conurbations, with cities provided for entirely from external regions for their food and electricity. If oil is the most vulnerable element in the energy-mix as the life-blood of transportation, then we must aim to live with less transportation, and this includes the means and distribution implicit to modern food production.

I have spoken about regenerative agriculture and permaculture, in which most of the energy involved in running them is provided quite naturally by native soil fauna fed ultimately by photosynthesis, since the fuel for good soil derives from plants as the factories that supply carbon-rich nutrients and in a wonderful symbiosis, the living soil microbes, especially fungi can draw other nutrients and water from the soil to nourish the plants. The individual elements of life feed one another in a mutually dependent and beneficial manner.

While the two scenarios can be defined and envisaged rather clearly, the intermediate means for transition from industrial to regenerative agriculture is rather more nebulous, since it has not been done before, or at least not in the degree that necessity now demands. So how might we perform this revolution in the least painful way?

For a start, a decolinising and restructuring of present industrialised agriculture is necessary along with an appreciation and magnification of native and traditional food systems. Overall, a change in thinking and concept is required from conflict and limit to cooperation and abundance.

The scale of the transition may be compared with other milestone transitions throughout human history, such as the hunter-gatherers becoming farmers, and then modern industrial societies. It is the latter that are under threat and unsustainable, and a compromise devolution to a more localised collective of small communities (pods) is required, supplied by local farms and infrastructure with rail links between them for essential movement of goods and people. The maintenance of the Internet and electronic communications would seem desirable since ideas and knowledge can be transmitted from pod to pod and between countries and continents.

In the 1970s, there were studies done that evaluated the massive inefficiency in energy requirements for food production. It was concluded that 10 Calories of energy are expended to bring 1 calorie of food onto the dinner plate. It has been stressed that essential agricultural production is to yield food and fibre - i.e. the essential elements of biomass. One might also add-in fuel as a product, if the consideration also includes fermentation of sugars form starch into ethanol, or hydrothermal production of liquid and gaseous fuels from biomass by heating it under pressure in the presence of water.

The impending stress of "climate change" is well acknowledged, e.g. sea-level rise and the spreading desertification of formerly green lands, but its impact on agriculture is rarely mentioned by climate-modellers. However, as a for-instance, it is speculated that the Colorado River basin could dry up. It's mighty dams would then look something like the pyramids of Egypt, maybe leaving future generations to speculate as to what their purpose was, and upon the nature of the civilization that created them. As climate zones shift, it is the variability of the weather that will have greater impact than ramping "mean temperatures" on the enormous investment made by humans in agriculture. The capital outlays required for new dams, irrigation supplies and the retraining of farmers will need to be contrasted with that for flood-defences in vulnerable locations (e.g. New Orleans and the east coast of England). Most likely both cannot be supported and it may prove expedient to simply let some regions "go to the sea".

Biodiversity is a natural means for evening-out the gains and losses of of living system. It is cooperative in the sense that pests are not encouraged as they are by growing single strains of crop, and that suitably matched plants help each other to grow - the holistic whole being more robust than the simple measure of its components. The term "global village" tends to signify an interconnected unity of trade or electronic communication, while aspects of cultural diversity and biodiversity seldom enter the line of thinking. However, it is a necessity to preserve and expand the traditional food and fibre production systems that are tried and tested and whose regenerative capabilities have been demonstrated over millennia. We may adapt to or readopt cultures that have been lost, as industrial civilization has supplanted them, and it is the latter that we must seek to break away from to arrive at a sustainable future, if we are to survive as a human species that is.

If "global village" means "global supermarket", the term lends acceptance to the concomitant rule of multinational corporations. If we restructure societies to become self-sustaining, rather than dependent on inputs and indeed outputs, as they are now, we also must abandon "limited liability" and the legal designation of "corporations" as "persons" with the same rights as individual citizens. Traditional food systems are storehouses both of biodiversity and cultural diversity. It is a pity that the seedbanks around the world contain no information about the culture, economy, details of cultivation methods, flavour or other human aspects of the crops and the food they produce. Including my own musings on the topic, most commentators on the post peak oil world refer to the need to localise food systems, such that small populations are provided for locally by means of community farms. However, establishing regenerative systems to grow food and fibre must include cities too, the design of which must be analysed in terms of the natural mechanisms that interweave them.

It is mostly not realised that the rural development or redevelopment urged by the industrialised nations for the developing world are precisely those they need to adopt themselves. E.F.Schumacher's "Buddhist Economics" which he describes in the bestselling "Small is Beautiful - A Study of Economics as if People mattered", applies equally to the industrialised world as it must of needs de-industrialise, and take lessons from simpler societies which consume far less per head of population. The example of Cuba may be taken as a benchmark for progress, as it has survived and indeed thrived through implementing a system of community gardens, in the abrupt absence of cheap and plentiful oil and fertilizers gifted from the Soviet Union when its regime collapsed in 1989.

We can mention too the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock, which has acted as an iconic beacon to the environmental movement, drawing-in a range of people dissatisfied with the industrial and materialistic way of life, and who seek alternative, more natural and or spiritually rewarding lifestyles, and with less detriment to the planet and life upon it. "Gaia" is holistic in nature and is based on ecology. Rather than an indstrialised "global village" it implies a "globe of villages". Food and fibre production is one of the most important features of the transition to a post-fossil fuel era, to which the establishment of regenerative food systems is essential.

Related Reading.
K.A.Dahlberg, "A Transition From Agriculture to Regenerative Food Systems," Futures, (1994), 26(2), 170-179.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

No Water for Biofuels.

The noisy debate over fuel-vs-food is rising in volume, but there is less spoken about the water required to irrigate the land on which the crops are to be grown. It is well-recognised that China is the new industrial nation, in an unparalleled phase of its economic and social development. This might be expected to continue for as long as the West can afford to buy its cheap goods, but in the current recession, that duration is debatable. Underpinning Chinese industrial growth, as for all industrial growth, is energy, and in the recognition of peak oil, emphasis is on biofuel (and all other kinds of energy resource in China, including coal-to-liquids) as products need to be transported for sale. It is aimed that by 2020, 12 million metric tons of biofuel will be produced in China. To put this into context, this is around one fifth of the fuel used in the United Kingdom, per annum.

The fuel is to be ethanol, fermented from corn (maize) which is a relatively water-efficient starch crop. According to a recent analysis (1) to irrigate sufficient corn to produce 12 million tonnes of bioethanol a quantity of water equivalent of the annual discharge of the Yellow River would be required. 64% of China's arable (crop-growing) land is in the northern part of the country, and is already under pressure since the existing use of water exceeds its reserves and water-tables are falling (2).

We have neither sufficient land nor water to maintain the illusion that we can continue as we are, certainly not in terms of liquid transportation fuel and thus transport itself, merely by substituting declining oil and natural gas by biofuels.

Massive water demand should be anticipated in consequence of from expanding biofuel production in other countries too. For example, in India and in the western United States, water tables are also falling. In the latter case, the agriculture is maintained by draining "fossil water" - the Ogallala aquifer which underlies 8 U.S. states. It is voiced too that climate change and the shifting of the temperate regions north may impact further on the American West. In Australia too, another major producer of starch crops, water supplies are also under stress.

It has been reckoned (3) that some 5,000 - 6000 cubic kilometers (km^3) of water would be needed to water enough maize to supplant the world's petroleum based fuel by ethanol generated from corn, in comparison with the entire supply of fresh water available on Earth of 13,500 km^3 - i.e about half of it.

Other potential fuel crops, e.g. wheat, soybeans and rapeseed are even thirstier in their demand for water than corn is.

This is a salient warning and another nail in the coffin of crop-based biofuels. For instance if all the U.K.s crop-land were turned over to make biofuels and no food grown we could still match a mere 10% of our annual fuel budget. I hold out hope for hydrothermal methods, processing waste biomass and algae into liquid transportation fuels and gases, but on a far reduced scale of transportation than we are used to.

We have neither sufficient land nor water to maintain the illusion that we can continue as we are, merely substituting declining oil and natural gas by biofuels.

Related Reading.
(1) H. Yang, Y. Zhou, J. Liu. Land and water requirements of biofuel and implications for food supply and the environment in China. Energy Policy (in press)
(2) S. Khan, M.A. Hanjra, J. Mu Water management and crop production for food security in China: a review. Agricultural Water Management 2009; 96: 349-360.
(3) L.Reijnders,

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Permaculture... Revisited.

Permaculture is described as a low impact method which uses perennial cultivation methods to produce food crops in harmony with nature. This might sound a bit "new age", but since much of the energy used in mechanised agriculture is to drive processes that restrain the land from returning to its natural wilderness, if productive agriculture can be had at a minimum of this energy input it is a much more efficient and "natural" way forward. Certainly in developed nations, food is not grown locally but must be brought in from surrounding regions, or much of it imported globally. The monoculture system that is typical of modern farms drains nutrients from the land, which is fed with artificial fertilizers, and many of the natural flora and fauna no longer exist.

Such single crops are vulnerable to pests and diseases: for example, the Irish potato famine was a result of Blight disease which rapidly devastated the single species of potato which was being grown at the time and was the staple food for the poor. Previous generations grew cereal crops but since the potato was more robust to changes in the weather and produced about four times as much food per hectare, it became the crop of choice. Production of 'biofuels' is diverting more land to the growth of monoculture crops, and along with the eradication of vast swathes of rainforest, is far less 'green' as a fossil-fuel alternative than is frequently claimed. The necessary competition between growing crops to feed humans and animals or cars has also driven-up the price of staple foods like wheat and corn.

The permaculture approach resonates philosophically with the Gaia hypothesis, first voiced by James Lovelock in the 1960s. Lovelock has himself appeared less green of late, for example in his conviction that building more nuclear power stations in a must to curb fossil carbon emissions and so to ameliorate global warming. Through "Gaia" the whole earth is viewed as a single large organism with many interdependent systems that cooperate through feedback mechanisms to maintain a viable equilibrium. Human disturbance of this balance of nature is believed to have resulted in a loss of biodiversity and raised the spectra of climate change as an agent of the apocalypse.

Although it would undoubtedly mean a complete revamping of the modern lifestyle, especially in the West, it is thought possible that a population density of 6 to 10 people per acre might be supported through permaculture, and in excess of the number that our current cereal-based food economy can sustain. The word permaculture is a portmanteau that contains elements of permanent agriculture, as well as permanent culture, (and permanent "oil dearth" agriculture) as indeed does its underlying philosophy. The Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren coined the concept in the 1970s via a series of publications, in which they addressed the matter of sustainable (low-input) farming (and living) by means of careful design, to create "living spaces" that are entirely in-flow with their surroundings, including perennial agricultural systems which capture water and the growth of a diversity of species as an overall food source.

This is an entirely reasonable strategy in the sense that much of our labour and energy inputs to sustain modern lifestyles (especially in the industrialised nations) is expended to hold-back nature, and to support a bubble whose longevity is limited by the availability of cheap resources such as oil and natural gas, coal and uranium for nuclear power.Within the natural living space, all materials for living quarters and fuel are provided fully from sustainable, locally sourced materials, i.e. what can be grown within the community.

Two strands of the notion have been identified:

Original Permaculture which aims to create a Forest Garden in which plants and animals (including humans) live in harmony.

Design Permaculture which is a kind of compromise, and uses natural processes to create a sustainable living space ecosystem following ecological principles in a more structured way.

The latter is a significant and necessary adaptation of the "pure" notion, since it is unlikely that some god or God will recreate from scratch a garden of Eden (perhaps the first self-maintaining forest garden, or the idea of it) but it can be used in the less adaptive and more proscriptive integrity of a city.

Original permaculture attempts to closely replicate nature by developing food layers which closely resemble their wilderness equivalents. While the end result of Design permaculture may lack the "natural" appearance of a forest garden, the design rests on similar ecological principles. The strategy chosen is derived from observation and imitation of the natural world. Obviously, this appeals to the "back to nature" movement and its philosophy to reject the industrialised world, which it perceives as the source of all evil. In reality, it is the means for industrialisation that is rejecting us, since our immense use of energy is but a brief fling in the context of human existence. To create a permaculture (forest) garden a layer system is followed where farming is organic and the source of irrigation is rain water. The level of cultivation, including tilling is minimised, according to a minimalist use of energy, including human and animal labour.

Perennials (year round plants) provide leaves, roots (which regenerate the health of the soil) and fruit. The upper storey of tree-cover can provide a staple food e.g. fruit or nuts, while its foliage can be fed to animals or eaten by humans; within the symbiosis of flora and fauna, bees naturally pollinate flowers and provide honey in the process. If there is sufficient living space, pigs and chickens can be kept too, since this is not a necessarily vegan lifestyle. Indeed, in nature, animals and plants have a mutually beneficial relationship. By maintaining a high density of desirable plants, unwanted plants, weeds etc. are out-competed and kept down in volume. By means of a diversity of plant types, pests are reduced further by competition rather than being encouraged as they are in monoculture farming.

As two distinct examples of the success of this approach on the scale of nations, we may note Ethiopia and Cuba. The Ethiopian soil is poor and there is little rain, thus three mutual kinds (levels) of plant growth are employed, all of which provide food. The upper canopy creates a microclimate that tends to retain moisture, and the plant-roots grow at different depths, so they do not compete directly for the water in the same soil space. Cuba is a nation which was forced to adapt when the communist regime collapsed in 1989, and they could no longer rely on gifts of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and fuel for intensive farming as a reward for providing the Russians with a missile and observation base conveniently close to the United States. The fuel-shortages curtailed the transport of crops grown in the rural areas to the cities. Hence a more localised approach has been adopted using permaculture techniques, known as urban farming, in which many small land spaces and even rooftops have been turned into growing areas. Cuba is the more salient example in terms of a necessary adaptation of an industrialised society to a low-input arrangement, as is the challenge now facing the West as it must confront the depletion of reserves of cheap oil and energy per se.

It is no coincidence that modern permaculture found a voice in the 1970s, since this is the time of the first (politically driven) oil crises. It became clear that in order for people to be fed they must flee from industrialised agriculture which without large and constant inputs of cheap liquid fuels and natural gas, will collapse. Without these inputs it could not have risen to its behemoth proportions and its products of monoculture. Permaculture emphasises the exact opposite, on low-input and creating crop-diversity; a protection against putting all one's eggs in one basket... and producing only eggs.

David Holmgren is a major innovator in permaculture design, optimised to achieve the productivity of natural ecosystems, and to use renewable (nature's own) energy sources (wind, gravity, solar power, fires, wave, and so on), to satisfy human needs for food and shelter. Holmgren's zone analysis will be discussed elsewhere. Here is a useful summary of some principles of structure and design.

Layers (The Forest Garden).

In permaculture and forest gardening, seven layers are identified:

(1) The canopy.

(2) Low tree layer (dwarf fruit trees).

(3) Shrubs.

(4) Herbaceous.

(5) Rhizosphere (root crops).

(6) Soil Surface (cover crops).

(7)Vertical layer (climbers, vines).

An eighth layer, Mycosphere (fungi), is often included.

In a mature ecosystem manifold and complex interactions are established over a long time. For example in an ancient woodland there are mutual relationships between e.g. trees, understory, ground cover, soil, fungi insects and other animals and birds. Plants grow at different heights and set their roots to according different depths into the soil. This is biodiversity in action, namely that a diverse and interactive community flourishes in a relatively limited space. Also, plants come into leaf and fruit at different times of year - "Come into season" it was called before everything was available throughout the year by energy-intensive growing methods and global imports. However, I think we have lost yet more of our connection with the flow of nature. We are less aware of the changing seasons of growth throughout the course of the year, and the rich and unique bounty that each one brings.

Holmgren's 12 design principles.

These are restatements of the principles of permaculture from David Holmgren's Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability; Also see

(1) Observe and interact - By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

(2) Catch and store energy - By developing systems that collect resources when they are abundant, we can use them in times of need.

(3) Obtain a yield - Ensure that you are getting truly useful rewards as part of the work that you are doing.

(4) Apply self-regulation and accept feedback - We need to discourage inappropriate activity to ensure that systems can continue to function well.

(5) Use and value renewable resources and services - Make the best use of nature's abundance to reduce our consumptive behaviour and dependence on non-renewable resources.

(6) Produce no waste - By valuing and making use of all the resources that are available to us, nothing goes to waste.

(7) Design from patterns to details - By stepping back, we can observe patterns in nature and society. These can form the backbone of our designs, with the details filled in as we go.

(8) Integrate rather than segregate - By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other.

(9) Use small and slow solutions - Small and slow systems are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and producing more sustainable outcomes.

(10) Use and value diversity - Diversity reduces vulnerability to a variety of threats and takes advantage of the unique nature of the environment in which it resides.

(11) Use edges and value the marginal - The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.

(12) Creatively use and respond to change - We can have a positive impact on inevitable change by carefully observing, and then intervening at the right time.

Related Reading.