California’s role as an emerging world leader in the development of green energy technologies offers the state’s farmers the opportunity to diversify their cropping systems and increase their income.
Sacramento lawmakers have given the California Energy Commission an annual budget of $100 million to support the development of alternative and renewable low-carbon fuels. In addition, the State Alternative Fuels Plan set goals of reducing petroleum dependence by 15 percent and increasing alternative fuels use by 20 percent by 2020. These efforts are meant to help meet the growing fuel demands of the world population while reducing greenhouse gas emissions in California to 1990 levels.
“With the new mandates, there are new opportunities for using agricultural waste and dedicated energy crops for biofuels, but we’re not yet sure exactly what form it will take,” said UC Cooperative Extension alfalfa specialist Dan Putnam. “I would always encourage growers to experiment with the crop, but I wouldn’t jump in whole hog unless I had a buyer lined up.”
U.S. ethanol production in January 2010 was 818,000 barrels per day, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The United States uses about 20 million barrels of oil per day. If the EPA allows up to 15 percent ethanol blends for all vehicles, then the 10 million barrels per day of oil used by cars and trucks could allow ethanol and biofuels to make up 1.5 million barrels per day.
Cellulosic biomass is the only known resource for the sustainable production of liquid transportation fuels on a large scale and at low costs, according to UC Riverside environmental engineer C. W. Wyman. Cellulosic biomass includes agricultural residues such as corn stems and leaves, forestry residues such as sawdust and paper, landscape waste, herbaceous plants such as switchgrass and sorghum, and woody plants such as poplar trees.
Since a dry ton of cellulosic biomass could provide about three times as much energy as a barrel of petroleum, the cellulosic biomass would have three times the value as a barrel of petroleum. That means cellulosic biomass would be worth about $200 per dry ton when crude oil sells at $65 per barrel.
“To utilize this abundant resource, we must develop low-cost technologies for transforming biomass into fuels that can compete with petroleum,” Wyman wrote in a California Agriculture article “Cellulosic biomass could meet California’s transportation fuel needs.”
Current and potential biomass crops include the grasses switchgrass and miscanthus, other perennial grasses, plus high biomass sorghum, alfalfa and other crops.
Across California, University of California scientists are studying potential biofuel crops. Putnam has four research trials under way, testing varieties from Ceres and Mendel Biotechnology, Inc. He said switchgrass and miscanthus the top contenders so far in his trials.
“The yields of switchgrass under irrigation have been quite high,” Putnam said. “It is an efficient crop for converting solar energy into biomass under warm weather condition.”
Switchgrass does have relatively high water needs. Putname said scientists are looking into whether the crop can be grown under deficit irrigation to save water and still produce the biomass.
“The key issue with biofuels is not necessarily the total water requirement, but the water use efficiency and amount of biomass produced per unit of water,” Putnam said. “Even if a crop has high water use, if it produces a large amount of biomass, it may still be the best option.”
Steve Kaffka and UC Cooperative Extension advisors are involved in research on winter annual oilseeds such as canola, camelina and meadowfoam as potential biofuel feedstock crops.
“Recent economic modeling we have done suggests that at current market prices, canola is a competitive crop in California, but outlets have not yet developed for the seed,” Kaffka said. “Currently, petroleum prices are too low to support the use of canola for biofuel feedstocks, but that is changing rapidly. “
The director of the UC Kearney Research and Extension Center, Jeff Dahlberg, sees opportunities for California production of sorghum as a biofuel crop.
"Sorghum is one of the few crops that span all the different renewable fuel options," he said. "You can use the grain to convert into ethanol. We have sweet sorghum, a specialty sorghum which is very similar to sugar cane. You can press the juice out and convert it into ethanol. And, we can produce a lot of biomass."
Dahlberg previously served as research director for the National Sorghum Producers and the research director for the United Sorghum Checkoff Program in Lubbock, Tex. He currently is lead investigator on a $984,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant to study the composition of sorghum and its potential for cellulosic conversion to biofuel. In addition to continuing this research at Kearney, Dahlberg is interested in developing a center for on-farm green technologies at the Central California research station.
Jeffrey Mount, a UC Davis geology professor and the Roy J. Shlemon Chair in Applied Geosciences, was included in “The Sacramento 100” — Sacramento News and Review’s 2010 round-up of the most influential, important and interesting people in Sacramento.
He was joined by an eclectic group of “interesting” characters, so whether being named on the list makes him notorious or famous is up to interpretation.
In any case, Mount was aptly described as “the man who knows everything about rivers in a region that owes its existence and continued survival to its rivers and Delta.”
As a local watershed expert and founding director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, Mount was frequently called upon in the aftermath of the devastating levee breaks in New Orleans to estimate odds of a similar massive levee failure in the Delta.
The odds aren’t encouraging — Mount predicts a 64 percent chance of massive failure in the next 50 years. And some recent reports from the California Department of Water Resources suggest that is an optimistic estimate.
The strong late December storms sweeping through California had Mount keeping one eye on the levees and another on his kayak. So far this season, Californians have been lucky. But Mount doesn’t expect that luck to hold indefinitely.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta supplies irrigation water for more than a million acres of agriculture in the Central Valley — some of the nation’s most productive farmland — and drinking water for two-thirds of California’s residents. But the levees that hold the Delta together are old and in crisis.
The 1,100-mile system of earthen embankments was built in the late 1800s and early 1900s to reclaim Delta marshland for farms. This creaky system of levees desperately needs a major overhaul. Over time, erosion, seepage and animal burrows have taken their toll. The levees have also been weakened by the gradual sinking of land behind the levees. Many of the Delta islands are now 25 feet below sea level.
Any major levee breach due to storm or earthquake could pull brackish ocean water into the Delta, contaminating irrigation and drinking water supplies and stopping the flow of water to the south and the Bay Area. Infrastructure such as rail lines, highways and gas pipelines would also be impacted.
The big picture of what could go wrong in the case of massive levee failure is scary if you stop and think about it, which has given Mount the name Dr. Doom in some circles. But Mount isn’t one to candy coat the situation. He was once quoted by a reporter that “New Orleans has lost the battle with the inevitable, and we will do the same.”
Jones Tract Flooding, 2004
Flooding in Mossdale, 1997
Ten years ago, a California family's food-processing business was booming -- so much so that it was in danger of drowning in its own success. A new idea out of UC Davis helped them stay on top.
In 1983, Gills Onions had been asked by La Victoria Salsa to provide large quantities of high-quality, fresh-cut onions when no automated equipment and processes existed. With typical farmers’ "can do" attitude, brothers Steve and David Gill and their 16 employees developed a system to peel, slice, dice and deliver the first fresh-cut onions in the food processing industry.
By 2000, the Gills and their 400 employees were processing millions of pounds of sliced and diced onions weekly for restaurants, salsa makers and grocery stores. They had become the largest fresh-cut onion processor in the nation.
But they were being buried in onion waste -- the unused tops, tails and skins, which account for about 40 percent of the original onion mass.
Previously, their solution had been to truck these onion leftovers from their Oxnard processing plant to surrounding farm fields and plow them into the soil as compost. But now they had so much waste – up to 1.5 million pounds every week - that this solution had become too costly and environmentally unsustainable.
So they went looking for new ideas. They found them in the bright minds and laboratories of UC Davis research scientists and students.
UC Davis engineering professor Ruihong Zhang, a leading innovator with a passion and genius for turning food waste into energy, determined that onion juice was very good food for methane-producing microbes. With her research data, Gills’ engineers and contractors developed an anaerobic digester system that turns their leftover onions into electricity.
They squeeze the onions, feed the juice to the microbes, and use the methane that the microbes excrete to run a fuel cell that makes electricity.
Today that electricity powers the Oxnard processing plant. This year, they expect to save $700,000 on power bills and $400,000 on trucking costs. (They even sell the squeezed-out onion pulp, as a high-quality cattle food.)
Thanks to Professor Zhang and the University of California, Gills’ waste problem is now an energy source and new product line. The firm expects to make back its $9.5 million capital investment in six years.
And they are famous in the produce and energy industries. People come from all over the world to learn from their experience. They are winning engineering and environmental awards. (They are especially proud of beating the Dallas Cowboys' new $3 billion super-high-tech football stadium in a competition by the American Council of Engineering Companies.)
The help Gills Onions needed with their business problem was available to them, and the rest of the world, in part because California's public research universities get financial support from the private sector. In Ruihong Zhang's UC Davis lab alone, in the seven years she has been perfecting waste-to-energy technology, six donors (including Gills Onions) have given $221,000 to pay graduate student researchers' stipends, tuitions and fees; pay postdoctoral scholars; and purchase bioreactors and laboratory supplies. They also have donated $305,000 worth of equipment.
In fact, California's public colleges and universities have done more to make this state an international agricultural powerhouse than most of us realize. Yet state funding for public universities is unpredictable, and when universities seek philanthropic support, they risk criticism that they are privatizing or selling out – even though private support remains a small percentage of public university budgets (at UC Davis, it’s less than 7 percent).
The University of California needs California businesspeople to support its programs -- with their influence and their wallets. What sector of the state has more to lose if the new ideas dry up?
(Photo: Karin Higgins, UC Davis)
When the great outdoors is your research laboratory, gathering data can be a challenge. To get a broader perspective on the extent of damage caused by sudden oak death, a UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension geographer is using crowd sourcing to enhance her research on the disease that has killed over a million of California’s iconic oak trees since 1995.
Maggi Kelly, UC Berkeley Cooperative Extension specialist, started collecting data from community members through her OakMapper website in 2001. Now she has a mobile application for smartphones
While out in a park or forest, iPhone users can use the new OakMapper mobile app to report sightings of trees killed by Phytophthora ramorum, the plant pathogen that causes SOD. Onsite, participants can note the symptoms they see, such as seeping, bark discoloration, crown discoloration, dead leaves, shoot die-back, fungus, beetle frass and beetle bore holes.
The OakMapper app, created by scientists in the UC Berkeley Geospatial Innovation Facility, uses the phone's built-in GPS to identify the participant’s location when the data is submitted.
They also can describe the environmental setting, such as residential landscape or natural forest.
“Many of the challenging natural resource problems that we face today – like invasive species, fire, climate change – are large in spatial scale and impact diverse public groups,” said Kelly, director of the UC Berkeley Geospatial Innovation Facility. “Addressing these challenges often requires coordinated monitoring, efficient data collection, and increased communication and cooperation between scientists and citizens.
Science can benefit from your powers of observation. We all benefit by becoming informed about problems such as sudden oak death.
If you are like me, a person who sometimes doesn’t recognize coworkers outside the office, you may choose a spectator role. You can use the app to look at the maps to see where SOD is taking down trees.
For more information about OakMapper and its app, visit oakmapper.org. The OakMapper app can be downloaded for free from the iTunes app store.
I’ve heard of two other apps developed at UC to collect natural resources-related data from other scientists and interested members of the public.
You can use UCLA’s What’s Invasive apps to report locations of top invasive plants and animals, which compete with California’s native fauna and flora. By submitting location data and setting up top invasive lists for your area, you can assist scientists monitoring the spread of the destructive invasive plants and animals. Images and brief descriptions in the app help with identification. The apps are free and available for the Android and iPhone.
Soon you will be able to report roadkill sightings on your iPhone. The UC Davis Road Ecology Center has submitted to the iTunes store an iPhone app for reporting roadkill. Until the app becomes available sometime in January, you can report your observations to the California Roadkill Observation System via the Web at http://roadecology.ucdavis.edu/CROS.html.
Another cool app has been developed by the UC Davis Soil Resource Laboratory to deliver information to scientists, growers and gardeners about the properties of their soil. While standing in the field, the user can receive location-based information on a GPS-enabled cell phone. The app is available for free for iPhone and Android OS platforms.
Which science-related apps are you using? You can share them in the comments section or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A new wireless data collection system deployed at Duncan Peak, located near the town of Foresthill on the Middle Fork of the American River basin, is part of a new water information system for California. This extensively distributed sensor network will allow for better characterization on the amount of water stored in the snow and the soil throughout the watershed.
This wireless system is part of the research being conducted by University of California researchers as part of the Sierra Nevada Adaptive Management Project (SNAMP) to investigate the impacts of fuels treatment projects on water quality and quantity and how water is routed through catchments. Information collected from these wireless systems includes measurements of snow depth, temperature, relative humidity, soil moisture, and solar radiation. The data will also be integrated into models which will extend the results to areas where no measurements are being made.
UC Professor Roger Bales and a meteorological station data collector.
Using one base station to log all the measurements and broadcast out over the landscape, it connects wirelessly to sensors up to 350 feet away, a distance that can be extended multiple times by placing “hoppers,” or signal relays, between the sensors and base station. This ‘mesh network’ insures multiple readings so no data is lost during transmission. Twenty more base stations are planned for instillation in the American River Basin.
The wireless system is made possible by the development of ultra-low power radios that can run on two AA batteries for up to two years and which can transmit data over long distances using the same technology as a home internet wireless network. This mesh radio network comes from DUST Networks. Researchers Steve Glaser and Branko Kerkez from UC Berkeley, working with Prof. Roger Bales at UC Merced, have also installed a sensor network at their Critical Zone Observatory research site near Shaver Lake to monitor the same hydrologic variables as in the SNAMP sites. If the wireless system drops out due to extreme conditions, such as a snow storm or other malfunction, no problem! Each sensor also logs to a USB stick, from which the data can also be easily retrieved.
Low power computer components used in the snow depth wireless sensor network.
More precise estimates on water storage within a basin will lead to increasingly accurate predictions of water availability for use in hydropower, irrigation, habitat and household consumption.
Duncan Peak meteorological station.