BioCycle March 2011, Vol. 52, No. 3, p. 6
2009 On-Farm Renewable Energy Production Survey
The number of solar panels, wind turbines and methane digesters on U.S. farms and ranches has increased significantly over the past decade, with 8,569 operations now producing their own renewable energy, according to the results of the 2009 On-Farm Renewable Energy Production Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. This was the first-ever nationwide survey assessing renewable energy practices on America’s farms and ranches. “These results indicate that farmers and ranchers are increasingly adopting renewable energy practices on their operations and reaping the important economic and environmental benefits,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, when releasing the report in late February. “This survey gives us a benchmark against which we can measure our future successes.”
Solar panels were the most prominent way to produce on-farm energy – 7,968 farm operations nationwide reported using photovoltaic and thermal solar panels in 2009. Use of wind turbines was reported by farmers on 1,420 operations across 48 states. Use of methane digesters was reported by 121 operations in 29 states. (AgSTAR (www.epa.gov/ agstar) reports about 160 methane digesters on farms in the U.S. in 2010.)
On the state level, California leads the nation with 1,956 operations producing renewable energy, accounting for nearly a quarter of the total in the United States participating in this practice. Texas, Hawaii and Colorado were the other major states where farmers on at least 500 or more operations were producing their own renewable energy. Survey data also show an economic upside to producing energy on the farm – farmers in nearly every state reported savings on their utility bills. In New York State, utility bill savings reported by respondents topped $5,000 for 2009. Full results of the 2009 On-Farm Renewable Energy Production Survey are available online at www.agcensus.usda.gov.
High School Recycling Summit
High school students from around the nation will attend the 13th Youth Environmental Summit (YES!), July 29-31, 2011, on the campus of Keene State College in New Hampshire. YES! is an opportunity to reward, challenge and encourage student recyclers and activists and will incorporate an intensive two-day curriculum filled with state-of-the-art recycling and sustainability workshops specifically designed to help students with environmental campaigns in their schools and communities. Attendance is limited to 175 student-activists with a demonstrated interest in planning and leading environmental action campaigns.
YES! is organized by a steering committee made up of involved high school students, the Association of Vermont Recyclers (AVR) and the Youth Environmental Coalition (a grassroots network of high school environmental and recycling clubs). YES! is cosponsored by the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, the President’s Council for Sustainable Future at Keene State College, the Environmental Science Department of Antioch New England and the National Recycling Coalition. Find registration materials at www.vtrecyclers.org.
Major Companies Just Say No To Landfills
General Motors announced in December that 52 percent of its worldwide facilities are landfill-free, meaning all waste generated from normal operations is reused, recycled or converted to energy. The company now boasts 76 landfill-free facilities, achieving a global operations commitment established in 2008 to convert 50 percent of its 145 plants to landfill-free status by the end of 2010. “Every site is serious about finding ways to reduce and reuse waste,” said Mike Robinson, vice president of Environment, Energy and Safety Policy at GM. In 2010, GM recycled or reused 2.5 million tons of waste materials at its plants worldwide, effectively eliminating 8.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from entering the atmosphere.
Also in December, the Procter & Gamble Company (P&G) announced that its Auburn, Maine, site became the first P&G manufacturing plant in North America to achieve zero waste to landfill. The feminine care products facility worked with both employees and suppliers to implement a process that beneficially uses 100 percent of its waste. A majority – more than 60 percent – is recycled or reused, while the remainder is converted to energy. The P&G Global Asset Recovery Purchases (GARP) team-charged with finding external partners that can turn waste and nonperforming inventory into something useful – diverted tens of thousands of tons from landfills while delivering tens of millions of dollars in cost recovery to the company in the past year alone. Auburn is the ninth P&G plant globally to divert 100 percent of its manufacturing waste to beneficial reuse and valued waste streams. The company also has set a goal to achieve less than 0.5 percent disposed manufacturing waste by 2020.
Wes Jackson Prescribes Restraint
In January 2009, farmer/writer Wendell Berry and plant geneticist and Kansas-based Land Institute founder Wes Jackson coauthored a New York Times Op-Ed piece entitled “A 50-Year Farm Bill.” The column chronicled mankind’s abuse of soil over the past half-century or more and suggested a holistic, long-view approach to fixing the problem. Recently, Jackson – delivering the keynote address at the 20th annual Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference in State College – planted similar food for thought, this time tracing the problem back much further. Jackson, whose life’s work has been to develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that of annual crops, suggested that as carbon-based creatures we’ve had a 3.45 billion year old imperative to go after energy rich carbon. “We’ve not had to practice restraint because the ecosystems in the past were sufficiently in balance.”
Once we started tilling the soil to farm the grains that continue on as our major food crops, he said, we had turned a corner that ultimately led to both the population and carbon volatilization challenges we face today. “To disturb that ground meant that the ecosystem that was in place had to be destroyed. Nature had to be subdued or ignored if we were going to eat. That’s a 10,000 year-old idea.” But, he added, “we’ve had the big brain over 200,000 years [the first record of Neanderthals]. We’ve had agriculture 10,000 years – that’s only 5 percent of our history with the big brain. We’ve become a species out of context.”
About 5,000 years later came the Bronze Age and Iron Age, where the second great pool of carbon was tapped for smelting. Then there was the industrial revolution that began 250 years ago, which introduced exploitation of coal and then oil. “It’s going fast, friends,” Jackson told a hushed crowd. “The 10-year-old has lived through a quarter of all the oil ever burned. The 22-year-old has lived through 54 percent … and I’ve lived through 99 percent of all the oil ever burned. The speed at which this is coming on is not, I think, sufficiently appreciated.” He asserted that the idea of growth at any cost must be conquered. “We have not come to terms with the need to practice restraint in the use of energy rich carbon that is not of the renewable variety in a human time span. We go around thinking that we’re going to ‘efficiency’ our way out of this problem, but the more efficient we get the more we use.”
He encouraged the audience to begin asking questions that go beyond the available answers. Fresh eyes and ears are needed to find solutions, he said, before closing with the words of T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Volunteers Plant Trees To Restore Louisiana Wetlands
Volunteers participated in a tree-planting project in early March aimed to restore 10,000 trees in Louisiana wetlands. Plantings targeted cypress forests. Large areas of the state’s wetland forests have already been lost, and more areas are highly degraded. “The restoration of wetland forests is vital to the future of the restoration of Louisiana’s ecosystems,” said Chris Allen, a Coastal Resource Scientist with the state’s Office of Coastal Protection and Restoration (OCPR). “In many places in Louisiana, these forests will not regenerate naturally and OCPR is highly supportive of efforts to reestablish forests through tree planting.” The Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana (CRCL) identified the target wetlands as ideal locations for the many planting sites. CRCL’s work was featured in an October 2010 BioCycle article, “Employing Marsh Grass And Compost To Heal The Gulf.” Bald cypress trees ranging from four to five feet tall were donated to CRCL by RPM Ecosystems, LLC and Restore the Earth Foundation, Inc. To learn more or to volunteer for the restoration project, contact CRCL at www.crcl.org or call (888) LA-COAST.