R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

The Questions I Didn’t Ask

I have been asked to submit a video question on ethanol policy that will be potentially answered in a video blog by someone who is very well-known in the energy business. I will keep the details quiet for now, including the question I did submit. (I thought I would be able to record my question with stunning Hawaiian scenery in the background, but alas it has been raining for two days).

I really had to brainstorm on exactly which question I would ask. I made a short list, and finally honed it down to one that I think is fair, but tough. But I had a number that I decided not to ask, either because I already knew how it would be answered (even if I disgreed with the expected answer) or the questions/answer to the question was so complex that it couldn’t be answered in a short video clip.

Here I discuss what I didn’t ask, but it really gets to the heart of the issues I have with U.S. ethanol policy. First, a bit of framework. I believe that I am, and have always been objective, and a realist. I don’t believe that we are ever going to have a moment where government leaders say “Let’s abandon this ethanol pathway.” We had an example of that with MTBE, but there was clear evidence that MTBE was getting into groundwater and lingering.

The issues around ethanol are more complex. Corn ethanol has been U.S. policy for the past 30 years, and it will be policy for the next 30 years. It is too embedded in agriculture policy, and I think it would be devastating for Midwestern economies if we changed direction on corn ethanol. Thus, I think we continue down that path, for better or worse.

I am not pro-ethanol nor am I anti-ethanol. In one of my earliest essays in this blog, over 3.5 years ago, I talked about some of the things I would like to see happen in the grain ethanol industry, mostly aimed at improving the energy balance. I came out in favor of the approach of E3 Biofuels, who were trying to build a highly integrated ethanol complex that minimized fossil fuel inputs. I have endorsed such approaches on multiple occasions.

My concerns are, and have always been: What are the long-term consequences? I don’t limit this to ethanol; this is a question that I ask of all energy options. Dependence on oil has some significant long-term consequences. The most serious of which, for me, is the potential for building a world that is only sustainable as long as oil production continues to expand. I see significant risk there, so it has always been my position that we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels in general.

With respect to ethanol, consider this thought experiment that I posed following one of my previous essays: Would you consume 2 BTUs of natural gas to produce 1 BTU of ethanol? I think most people would conclude that this would be foolish; that your natural gas supplies would stretch much further if instead you simply use the natural gas in CNG vehicles (acknowledging of course that there are lots of things you have to evaluate in that scenario). For those who would answer “Yes” to that question, I would argue that your view of ethanol is entirely one-dimensional. You probably only care that it is homegrown, and you don’t worry much about the long-term consequences.

Of course the truth is more complicated than the example above. It doesn’t take 2 BTUs of natural gas to produce 1 BTU of ethanol. Estimates vary, but it is still safe to say that most ethanol operations in the U.S. continue to have substantial fossil fuel inputs. That is the way they were built, and that is the way they will continue to operate. Over the long-term, there is potential to change that equation by using biomass boilers, but those are more expensive to operate than a standard natural gas boiler.

So on average the ethanol industry does still have a heavy fossil fuel dependence, albeit largely domestic coal (for electricity) and domestic natural gas – with some petroleum inputs for trucks, tractors, etc. (One thing to note is that more than 50% of our fertilizer supplies – derived from natural gas – are in fact imported). So what if the question was “Would you spend 1 BTU of natural gas to make 2 BTUs of ethanol?” If you are doing a holistic analysis, the answer should be “It depends. What are the other impacts?”

There are those who wrap U.S. ethanol policy in patriotism and the American flag, and who would rather not get into those questions. These questions are hand-waved away with clichés like “I would rather support American farmers than Saudi sheiks.” I try to look at it from the perspective of an engineer, a scientist, and an environmentalist. I want to stack the columns up and figure out what is really happening as a result of our ethanol policy and subsequent rapid expansion of corn production. I want to look at it from the perspective of “What is going to be the impact on the world my children will inherit?”

Just a few of the key questions for me are the following:

  • Are we depleting fossil aquifers as a result of the expansion of corn in areas requiring irrigation – putting future food supplies at risk?
  • Are we at risk of contaminating water supplies with herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer run-off?
  • What has been the measurable impact on our oil imports – the generally stated reason for our ethanol policy?
  • What is the long-term impact on soil as a result of erosion and pesticide usage?
  • What is the risk of major weather events impacting the corn crop, and subsequently causing a shortage of corn for ethanol and driving food prices much higher?
  • What are the other risks of closely linking together food supplies with fuel supplies?
  • In a nutshell, I want to know if we are compromising the future relative to other options, and/or relative to the status quo. These sorts of issues are generally ignored by most advocates. They believe our ethanol policy is the right thing to do, and then nothing else matters. I have debated people like this before, and they are simply not interested in the holistic picture. Often, it is because they are vested interests.

    Chief ethanol lobbyist Bob Dineen isn’t going to be at the forefront, trying to determine the answers to these questions. His job is to promote ethanol, period. He will get involved when one of these questions becomes persistent enough and loud enough, and his position will typically be that of defense attorney: Deflect the question if you can, and try to raise doubts that the question even matters.

    But I am not a vested interest dug into a bunker. If our ethanol policy is better than the status quo, then I am all for it. But you can’t know that unless you take a really comprehensive look. I would like to see an independent analysis of all of these issues, now that we are some 11 billion gallons per year into this experiment.

    The problem is finding an independent agency to do such an analysis. The ethanol lobby hires their consultants, who conclude, “It’s all good.” Big surprise there. (By the way that is the same guy who wrote a paper stating that ethanol with the energy value of 64 million barrels of oil displaced 206 million barrels of oil).

    Energy policy in general is a complicated issue, and it is wrapped up deeply in politics. I doubt we will ever get the independent review I would like to see – and even if we did the lobbyists would immediately go to work trying to discredit the study. But I hope you can see why I decided not to ask that question. It might take 10 minutes to ask it, and then an hour to answer it – and I don’t think the answer would really get into the fine details that I am interested in.

    You will have to stay tuned to see the question I did ask.

    December 5, 2009 Posted by | energy policy, environment, ethanol, farm policy, politics | 201 Comments

    A Vicious Circle

    What a vicious chain of events our politicians have set into motion. It just continues to worsen.

    It started out innocently enough. Oil prices were climbing. Our energy production was shifting to an ever greater extent to countries that are hostile to the U.S.

    So, Step 1 is to propose a solution:

    1. Subsidize ethanol production to encourage biofuels and enhance energy security.

    However, subsidies didn’t do the trick. It was still too expensive to produce ethanol. People still chose gasoline derived from hostile sources over more expensive ethanol. What we really needed was Step 2.

    2. Let’s mandate ethanol usage.

    At the point that the subsidy turns into a mandate, things change. Now, the fuel doesn’t have to be economically priced. It is going into the fuel supply regardless of the price. And this kicks off a massive expansion of ethanol capacity.

    But soon we notice that too many people are building ethanol plants. This is causing a glut of ethanol, and putting downward pressure on the price of ethanol. On the other side, it is raising the price of corn. This lowers the margins for ethanol producers, and some producers start to go bankrupt. Projects are delayed or cancelled. The solution? Proceed to Step 3 (which was entirely predictable):

    3. We need to raise the mandate for ethanol usage.

    Unfortunately this leads to more of the problems that arose from the original mandate. Corn prices go even higher. Land prices continue to climb. Land is shifted to corn production, forcing commodity prices up in other areas. Very few segments of the population are experiencing true benefits.

    The primary beneficiaries are commercial corn (and other commodity) farmers who purchased their land several years prior to the mandate. They are truly experiencing a windfall from these policies, and thus will fight the hardest to continue down this ill-advised road.

    Secondary beneficiaries are lobbyists who defend the practice, as well as those who are willing to write papers (commissioned by the National Corn Growers Association) that downplay the consequences (or even better, point the finger in another direction).

    The ethanol producer is hurt each time the overbuilding cycle occurs. They are starting to realize that the energy business is often low margin (and cyclical), and not as lucrative as they once thought. Maybe the solution is to increase the mandate again? ;-)

    The cattle rancher (like my Dad) and pig and poultry farmers get hurt from higher feed prices that cut into already razor-thin (or negative) margins.

    The person trying to buy farmland is hurt by land prices that have exploded as a result of the mandates (unless they inherit family land).

    The environment suffers as the mandated corn production means more herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer usage, some of which ends up in our waterways.

    The person who eats is hurt because higher commodity prices ripple through their food budgets, already stretched because of increasing energy costs.

    So what’s the solution to this mess that has been made? I think it is simple, really. We all need to become either corn lobbyists or corn farmers. That way we all get rich and can afford to pay the financial consequences of spiralling inflation resulting from these mandates. (I suppose we will need to be subsidized for our farm purchase, since farms have gotten pretty expensive).

    As for the impact on the environment? We can simply commission a study to show that there is in fact no impact on the environment. Ah, the aquifers. I forgot about those. Looks like I will need to commission another study.

    Problem solved.

    March 10, 2008 Posted by | corn prices, environment, ethanol subsidies, food prices, mandates, subsidies | 342 Comments

    50 people who could save the planet

    (Also, a Barack Obama discussion in the comments following this essay).

    The Guardian has just published a list of 50 people who may save us all from “stranded polar bears, melting glaciers, dried-out rivers and flooding on a horrific scale.” Some of the names certainly belong on the list, and some left me shaking my head:

    50 people who could save the planet

    It is pretty clear to me that the author couldn’t really distinguish between what is complete hype, and what may actually work. Some will get a kick out of seeing Amory Lovins on the list. Especially in light of this article in Energy Tribune. Leonardo DiCaprio is also on the list, but I think he is a guy who tries hard to walk the talk. I put him in the same category as Ed Begley, Jr. Here is what they wrote about DiCaprio:

    Combining the diametrically opposed worlds of the A-list Hollywood star and the impassioned environmentalist is a fraught, sometimes contradictory process, but DiCaprio has pulled it off, becoming one of the world’s most high-profile campaigners.

    His primary aim, he says, is to raise awareness, not to preach: “It’s not about imposing a certain belief system or a way of life on people in any economic background. It’s about just being aware of this issue – that’s the most important thing – and really trying to say, ‘Next time I vote, next time I buy something, I’m just going to be aware of what’s really going on.’ “

    The first campaigning steps were taken a decade ago after he found himself the target of angry environmentalists. During the filming of The Beach, the bestselling novel about backpackers seeking a shangri-la off the Thai coast, the production team was accused of damaging a pristine beach in a national marine park – in an attempt to make it look even more “perfect” for the cameras, some palm trees were temporarily planted and sand dunes moved. Despite the authorities giving the film-makers permission, their actions made headlines around the world.

    Evidently stung by the criticism, in 1998 DiCaprio established the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which has since collaborated with the likes of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Oceana, the Natural Resources Defence Council and the Dian Fossey Foundation to raise awareness, particularly among children, of environmental issues.

    In 2000, he was the US chair of Earth Day, the annual celebration of the environment. “Enough is enough,” he told the crowd in Washington DC. “We must set an example now and move environmentalism from being the philosophy of a passionate minority… to a way of life that automatically integrates ecology into governmental policy and normal living standards. We are entering an environmental age whether we like it or not.” But it was his Earth Day interview with President Clinton on ABC News that caused the biggest ripples: ABC journalists were said to be furious that a young, heart-throb actor had been allowed to do such an important interview. The final edit of the interview itself was fairly soft in tone, but it did include questions that now seem ahead of their time – namely, about the science of climate change, the lobbying power of Big Oil, ways to decrease the use of SUVs and how vulnerable New Orleans was to sea-level rises. There was even a lengthy exchange about hybrid cars, long before they became the car du jour of Hollywood stars.

    As DiCaprio’s acting career matured, he continued his parallel life as an environmental activist, speaking at colleges and campaigning on behalf of John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign. And for his new documentary, he has mustered the likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill McKibben, David Suzuki, Mikhail Gorbachev and Wangari Maathai (below) to take part. He limits his own appearance in the film – essentially a series of talking heads set against library footage – to that of host and narrator. Since its release in the US last year, it has been dubbed the unofficial sequel to Al Gore’s The Inconvenient Truth.

    “It was a learning process,” says DiCaprio, “and I wanted to play the role of investigator – from watching documentaries at a young age, from seeing films on rainforests in Brazil and really appreciating the beauty of our planet, and then learning more and more about human impact and wanting to do something about it.”

    His next eco-project is already in production – he’s a producer for a Discovery Channel show called Eco-Town, which records how a Kansas town devastated by a tornado in 2006 attempts to rebuild itself as a “model of green living”.

    Some other notable names on the list were Al Gore, Angela Merkel, Craig Venter, and Cormac McCarthy. You may not recognize McCarthy’s name, and I wouldn’t have two weeks ago. He is the author of The Road, which was recommended to me over Christmas. It was very disturbing.

    Vinod Khosla did not show up on the list, which was surprising to me given some of the people who were on the list. In a couple of years, I intend to be on it. :-)

    January 7, 2008 Posted by | Barack Obama, celebrities, environment, global warming | 21 Comments

    50 people who could save the planet

    (Also, a Barack Obama discussion in the comments following this essay).

    The Guardian has just published a list of 50 people who may save us all from “stranded polar bears, melting glaciers, dried-out rivers and flooding on a horrific scale.” Some of the names certainly belong on the list, and some left me shaking my head:

    50 people who could save the planet

    It is pretty clear to me that the author couldn’t really distinguish between what is complete hype, and what may actually work. Some will get a kick out of seeing Amory Lovins on the list. Especially in light of this article in Energy Tribune. Leonardo DiCaprio is also on the list, but I think he is a guy who tries hard to walk the talk. I put him in the same category as Ed Begley, Jr. Here is what they wrote about DiCaprio:

    Combining the diametrically opposed worlds of the A-list Hollywood star and the impassioned environmentalist is a fraught, sometimes contradictory process, but DiCaprio has pulled it off, becoming one of the world’s most high-profile campaigners.

    His primary aim, he says, is to raise awareness, not to preach: “It’s not about imposing a certain belief system or a way of life on people in any economic background. It’s about just being aware of this issue – that’s the most important thing – and really trying to say, ‘Next time I vote, next time I buy something, I’m just going to be aware of what’s really going on.’ “

    The first campaigning steps were taken a decade ago after he found himself the target of angry environmentalists. During the filming of The Beach, the bestselling novel about backpackers seeking a shangri-la off the Thai coast, the production team was accused of damaging a pristine beach in a national marine park – in an attempt to make it look even more “perfect” for the cameras, some palm trees were temporarily planted and sand dunes moved. Despite the authorities giving the film-makers permission, their actions made headlines around the world.

    Evidently stung by the criticism, in 1998 DiCaprio established the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which has since collaborated with the likes of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Oceana, the Natural Resources Defence Council and the Dian Fossey Foundation to raise awareness, particularly among children, of environmental issues.

    In 2000, he was the US chair of Earth Day, the annual celebration of the environment. “Enough is enough,” he told the crowd in Washington DC. “We must set an example now and move environmentalism from being the philosophy of a passionate minority… to a way of life that automatically integrates ecology into governmental policy and normal living standards. We are entering an environmental age whether we like it or not.” But it was his Earth Day interview with President Clinton on ABC News that caused the biggest ripples: ABC journalists were said to be furious that a young, heart-throb actor had been allowed to do such an important interview. The final edit of the interview itself was fairly soft in tone, but it did include questions that now seem ahead of their time – namely, about the science of climate change, the lobbying power of Big Oil, ways to decrease the use of SUVs and how vulnerable New Orleans was to sea-level rises. There was even a lengthy exchange about hybrid cars, long before they became the car du jour of Hollywood stars.

    As DiCaprio’s acting career matured, he continued his parallel life as an environmental activist, speaking at colleges and campaigning on behalf of John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign. And for his new documentary, he has mustered the likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill McKibben, David Suzuki, Mikhail Gorbachev and Wangari Maathai (below) to take part. He limits his own appearance in the film – essentially a series of talking heads set against library footage – to that of host and narrator. Since its release in the US last year, it has been dubbed the unofficial sequel to Al Gore’s The Inconvenient Truth.

    “It was a learning process,” says DiCaprio, “and I wanted to play the role of investigator – from watching documentaries at a young age, from seeing films on rainforests in Brazil and really appreciating the beauty of our planet, and then learning more and more about human impact and wanting to do something about it.”

    His next eco-project is already in production – he’s a producer for a Discovery Channel show called Eco-Town, which records how a Kansas town devastated by a tornado in 2006 attempts to rebuild itself as a “model of green living”.

    Some other notable names on the list were Al Gore, Angela Merkel, Craig Venter, and Cormac McCarthy. You may not recognize McCarthy’s name, and I wouldn’t have two weeks ago. He is the author of The Road, which was recommended to me over Christmas. It was very disturbing.

    Vinod Khosla did not show up on the list, which was surprising to me given some of the people who were on the list. In a couple of years, I intend to be on it. :-)

    January 7, 2008 Posted by | Barack Obama, celebrities, environment, global warming | 21 Comments

    My Composting Experiment

    “We stand, in most places on earth, only six inches from desolation, for that is the thickness of the topsoil layer upon which the entire life of the planet depends.” R. Neil Sampson in Farmland or Wasteland: A Time to Choose

    One of my interests, dating back 25 years to when I was a member of my local FFA land judging team, is soil conservation. I have long been interested in things like terra preta and composting because of their ability to build topsoil. But I never thought much about how difficult it can be to build up topsoil until I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy – Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars(great books, by the way). The books trace a future hypothetical terraforming of Mars, and one of the major difficulties the characters face is producing topsoil on the planet. It was then that my interest in the mechanisms for topsoil erosion and topsoil production greatly increased.

    While I would eventually like to get some experience with producing terra preta, earlier this year I got a flyer from Waste Aware Scotland for discounted composters. So, I bought one, and started to experiment. I wish I had done so years ago, because it has really been a fascinating exercise.

    My 330 Liter ecoMax

    I got the larger 330 L (87 gallon) model shown above and started dumping all things cellulosic into it. There is quite a little tropical ecosystem inside the composter. Even when it is cold outside, the waste is always steaming. And not only has it attracted numerous earthworms, but there are beetles, slugs, and lots of insects I haven’t been able to identify. Besides being an interesting science experiment, there are major environmental benefits from composting. According to the most recent newsletter from Waste Aware Scotland:

    • It reduces waste sent to landfill

    Scotland produces 900,000 tonnes of organic waste a year. That’s enough to fill Hampden Stadium more than 18 times. We could divert a large amount of organic waste from landfill by using it for home composting.

    • Reduce global warming

    Organic waste sent to landfill cannot decompose properly because it doesn’t have access to air. As a result, it produces methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

    • Your garden benefits

    Compost improves soil, so plants in your garden become healthier and more pest and disease resistant. They will produce better fruit and vegetables and more beautiful blooms.

    As I explained to my daughter, who recently told me she wants to become more environmentally responsible, there are two ways in which composting combats global warming. The first is the reduction of anaerobic digestion, which results in methane production as explained above. Because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas, this is not something you want occurring in an open landfill. But the second benefit is that home composting reduces the mass of material that would be transported (via fossil fuels) to the landfill. So home composting is much more environmentally responsible than throwing your waste in the trash.

    So, what can you compost? Again, referring back to the newsletter:

    Kitchen waste:

    ✔ Fruit scraps and vegetable peelings
    ✔ Tea leaves/bags and coffee grounds
    ✔ Egg shells
    ✔ Paper items which can include scrunched up cardboard, egg boxes, toilet roll tubes, vacuum cleaner bags, cereal boxes and paper towels

    Garden waste:

    ✔ Cut flowers
    ✔ Garden and house plants
    ✔ Grass cuttings
    ✔ Young annual weeds
    ✔ Shredded twigs
    ✔ Hedge trimmings
    ✔ Straw and hay
    ✔ Wood chippings and sawdust
    ✔ Hamster or other pet bedding

    If you start to segregate your garbage, you will find that these items make up a substantial portion of what would normally go to the landfill.

    Inside My Composter – Yuck

    In the picture above, the composter contains about 30 gallons of composting material. But I have filled it to the top at least 10 times and haven’t taken anything out of it. In other words, that 30 gallons of material was originally around 1,000 gallons. It is amazing how much the volume is reduced as it decomposes. But that also goes to show how much material it takes to produce an inch of topsoil.

    So get yourself a composter(or make one) and do a bit more for the environment. You may even find that you enjoy it.

    September 2, 2007 Posted by | composting, environment, global warming | Comments Off

    My Composting Experiment

    “We stand, in most places on earth, only six inches from desolation, for that is the thickness of the topsoil layer upon which the entire life of the planet depends.” R. Neil Sampson in Farmland or Wasteland: A Time to Choose

    One of my interests, dating back 25 years to when I was a member of my local FFA land judging team, is soil conservation. I have long been interested in things like terra preta and composting because of their ability to build topsoil. But I never thought much about how difficult it can be to build up topsoil until I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy – Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars(great books, by the way). The books trace a future hypothetical terraforming of Mars, and one of the major difficulties the characters face is producing topsoil on the planet. It was then that my interest in the mechanisms for topsoil erosion and topsoil production greatly increased.

    While I would eventually like to get some experience with producing terra preta, earlier this year I got a flyer from Waste Aware Scotland for discounted composters. So, I bought one, and started to experiment. I wish I had done so years ago, because it has really been a fascinating exercise.

    My 330 Liter ecoMax

    I got the larger 330 L (87 gallon) model shown above and started dumping all things cellulosic into it. There is quite a little tropical ecosystem inside the composter. Even when it is cold outside, the waste is always steaming. And not only has it attracted numerous earthworms, but there are beetles, slugs, and lots of insects I haven’t been able to identify. Besides being an interesting science experiment, there are major environmental benefits from composting. According to the most recent newsletter from Waste Aware Scotland:

    • It reduces waste sent to landfill

    Scotland produces 900,000 tonnes of organic waste a year. That’s enough to fill Hampden Stadium more than 18 times. We could divert a large amount of organic waste from landfill by using it for home composting.

    • Reduce global warming

    Organic waste sent to landfill cannot decompose properly because it doesn’t have access to air. As a result, it produces methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

    • Your garden benefits

    Compost improves soil, so plants in your garden become healthier and more pest and disease resistant. They will produce better fruit and vegetables and more beautiful blooms.

    As I explained to my daughter, who recently told me she wants to become more environmentally responsible, there are two ways in which composting combats global warming. The first is the reduction of anaerobic digestion, which results in methane production as explained above. Because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas, this is not something you want occurring in an open landfill. But the second benefit is that home composting reduces the mass of material that would be transported (via fossil fuels) to the landfill. So home composting is much more environmentally responsible than throwing your waste in the trash.

    So, what can you compost? Again, referring back to the newsletter:

    Kitchen waste:

    ✔ Fruit scraps and vegetable peelings
    ✔ Tea leaves/bags and coffee grounds
    ✔ Egg shells
    ✔ Paper items which can include scrunched up cardboard, egg boxes, toilet roll tubes, vacuum cleaner bags, cereal boxes and paper towels

    Garden waste:

    ✔ Cut flowers
    ✔ Garden and house plants
    ✔ Grass cuttings
    ✔ Young annual weeds
    ✔ Shredded twigs
    ✔ Hedge trimmings
    ✔ Straw and hay
    ✔ Wood chippings and sawdust
    ✔ Hamster or other pet bedding

    If you start to segregate your garbage, you will find that these items make up a substantial portion of what would normally go to the landfill.

    Inside My Composter – Yuck

    In the picture above, the composter contains about 30 gallons of composting material. But I have filled it to the top at least 10 times and haven’t taken anything out of it. In other words, that 30 gallons of material was originally around 1,000 gallons. It is amazing how much the volume is reduced as it decomposes. But that also goes to show how much material it takes to produce an inch of topsoil.

    So get yourself a composter(or make one) and do a bit more for the environment. You may even find that you enjoy it.

    September 2, 2007 Posted by | composting, environment, global warming | 25 Comments

    My Composting Experiment

    “We stand, in most places on earth, only six inches from desolation, for that is the thickness of the topsoil layer upon which the entire life of the planet depends.” R. Neil Sampson in Farmland or Wasteland: A Time to Choose

    One of my interests, dating back 25 years to when I was a member of my local FFA land judging team, is soil conservation. I have long been interested in things like terra preta and composting because of their ability to build topsoil. But I never thought much about how difficult it can be to build up topsoil until I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy – Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars(great books, by the way). The books trace a future hypothetical terraforming of Mars, and one of the major difficulties the characters face is producing topsoil on the planet. It was then that my interest in the mechanisms for topsoil erosion and topsoil production greatly increased.

    While I would eventually like to get some experience with producing terra preta, earlier this year I got a flyer from Waste Aware Scotland for discounted composters. So, I bought one, and started to experiment. I wish I had done so years ago, because it has really been a fascinating exercise.

    My 330 Liter ecoMax

    I got the larger 330 L (87 gallon) model shown above and started dumping all things cellulosic into it. There is quite a little tropical ecosystem inside the composter. Even when it is cold outside, the waste is always steaming. And not only has it attracted numerous earthworms, but there are beetles, slugs, and lots of insects I haven’t been able to identify. Besides being an interesting science experiment, there are major environmental benefits from composting. According to the most recent newsletter from Waste Aware Scotland:

    • It reduces waste sent to landfill

    Scotland produces 900,000 tonnes of organic waste a year. That’s enough to fill Hampden Stadium more than 18 times. We could divert a large amount of organic waste from landfill by using it for home composting.

    • Reduce global warming

    Organic waste sent to landfill cannot decompose properly because it doesn’t have access to air. As a result, it produces methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.

    • Your garden benefits

    Compost improves soil, so plants in your garden become healthier and more pest and disease resistant. They will produce better fruit and vegetables and more beautiful blooms.

    As I explained to my daughter, who recently told me she wants to become more environmentally responsible, there are two ways in which composting combats global warming. The first is the reduction of anaerobic digestion, which results in methane production as explained above. Because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas, this is not something you want occurring in an open landfill. But the second benefit is that home composting reduces the mass of material that would be transported (via fossil fuels) to the landfill. So home composting is much more environmentally responsible than throwing your waste in the trash.

    So, what can you compost? Again, referring back to the newsletter:

    Kitchen waste:

    ✔ Fruit scraps and vegetable peelings
    ✔ Tea leaves/bags and coffee grounds
    ✔ Egg shells
    ✔ Paper items which can include scrunched up cardboard, egg boxes, toilet roll tubes, vacuum cleaner bags, cereal boxes and paper towels

    Garden waste:

    ✔ Cut flowers
    ✔ Garden and house plants
    ✔ Grass cuttings
    ✔ Young annual weeds
    ✔ Shredded twigs
    ✔ Hedge trimmings
    ✔ Straw and hay
    ✔ Wood chippings and sawdust
    ✔ Hamster or other pet bedding

    If you start to segregate your garbage, you will find that these items make up a substantial portion of what would normally go to the landfill.

    Inside My Composter – Yuck

    In the picture above, the composter contains about 30 gallons of composting material. But I have filled it to the top at least 10 times and haven’t taken anything out of it. In other words, that 30 gallons of material was originally around 1,000 gallons. It is amazing how much the volume is reduced as it decomposes. But that also goes to show how much material it takes to produce an inch of topsoil.

    So get yourself a composter(or make one) and do a bit more for the environment. You may even find that you enjoy it.

    September 2, 2007 Posted by | composting, environment, global warming | 25 Comments

       

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