Study: Urban planning can reduce city’s energy usage by 25%

Des Moines is the most populous city in Iowa with 203,433 residents according to the 2010 Census (Jason Mrachina/Flickr)
Des Moines is the most populous city in Iowa with 203,433 residents according to the 2010 Census (Jason Mrachina/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 30, 2015

A study released earlier this month found that efficient urban planning and more emphasis on public transportation can help cities to reduce energy usage by about 25 percent.

The study – which was conducted by researchers from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Yale University, and the University of Maryland – examined 274 cities around the globe and concluded that if sustainable development and infrastructure is not implemented, the world’s energy usage will triple by 2050. Sustainable development is most important in the Middle East, China, and Africa where populations are expected to rise at the fastest rate.

The researchers also pointed to findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which found that cities consume 76 percent of the world’s energy and are responsible for approximately three-quarters of global CO2 emissions.

The study’s authors conclude:

“The results show that, for affluent and mature cities, higher gasoline prices combined with compact urban form can result in savings in both residential and transport energy use. In contrast, for developing-country cities with emerging or nascent infrastructures, compact urban form, and transport planning can encourage higher population densities and subsequently avoid lock-in of high carbon emission patterns for travel. The results underscore a significant potential urbanization wedge for reducing energy use in rapidly urbanizing Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.”

According to the 2010 Census more than 80 percent of the U.S. population live in urban areas while more than half of the world population lives in cities, a number that is expected to rise to 66 percent by 2050.


EPA faces lawsuits for animal confinement air pollution

A pig at St Werburghs City Farm in the United Kingdom. (Ed Mitchell/Flickr)
A pig at St Werburghs City Farm in the United Kingdom. (Ed Mitchell/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 29, 2015

Two lawsuits were brought against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday alleging that the group isn’t doing enough to prevent air pollution caused by large animal confinement facilities.

The lawsuits filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. were brought about by a coalition of eight groups including the  Environmental Integrity Project, the Humane Society of the United States, Center for Food Safety, Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, Clean Wisconsin, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, and the Association of Irritated Residents (represented by the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment). The coalition says that the lack of regulation by the EPA has allowed factory farms to pollute the air and threaten public health.

Specifically the lawsuits pertain to petitions filed in 2009 and 2011. The 2009 petition was filed by the Humane Society of the United States and called for concentrated animal feeding lots – or CAFOs – to be categorized as a source of pollution under the Clean Air Act and for new standards to be enforced on new and existing CAFOs. The Environmental Integrity Project filed the 2011 petition and sought health-based standards for ammonia emissions. The lawsuit asks for the EPA to respond to these petitions within 90 days.

A spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said that beef producers have made efforts to reduce pollution without government intervention and between 2005 and 2011 were able cut emissions in water by 10 percent and greenhouse gas production by 2 percent. However, Iowa Pork Producers and an Iowa State University professor say that the link connecting CAFOs to health hazards is inconclusive.

When it comes to climate change information, farmers trust scientists most

A combine sits in an Iowa field (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
A combine sits in an Iowa field (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | January 28, 2015

The best way to reach farmers and agricultural workers who are skeptical of human activity’s effect on climate change may be direct connections to climate scientists, according to one Iowa State University sociologist.

A 2012 survey conducted by ISU’s J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr. found that 66% of Midwest farmers believe climate change is occurring, yet the respondents were mixed on whether or not human activity played a role. More than half said climate change either occurs naturally or is equally affected by human and natural factors. Only about 10 percent agreed that “climate change is occurring and it is caused mostly by human activities.”

Some of that skepticism may come from a general distrust of the mainstream media; the MSM was listed as the least trusted source of environment-related information. Given farmers’ dependence on scientific advances in crop development, it’s not surprising that the most trusted source of environmental information was scientists themselves.

This has important implications for anyone discussing climate change with agricultural professionals. In an interview with ClimateWire, Arbuckle recommended using language of adaptation to unpredictable weather events over explicit mentions of greenhouse gas emissions. More than half of the respondents believe it’s necessary to be prepared for more frequent high precipitation events like heavy rainstorms, even though many remain uncertain that increased atmospheric moisture due to higher emissions is to blame.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking steps to bring current research on changing weather trends and adaptive practices to farmers around the country. The USDA’s eight “climate hubs” focus on communicating strategies for reducing risk and reducing the costs related to variable weather by connecting researchers to farmers on the ground. One of these climate hubs is in Ames, Iowa.

2015 Cover Crop Conference coming to West Des Monies

This farmer in South Dakota utilizes a cover crop combination of crimson clover, oats, common vetch, radish, and New York style turnip. (USDA NRCS South Dakota/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 27, 2015

The 2015 Iowa Cover Crops Conference will be held in West Des Moines on February 17 and 18.

The annual event is hosted by the Soil and Water Conservation Society, Conservation Districts of Iowa , and the Midwest Cover Crops Council. This year’s event will include a presentation from Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey as well as farmers and other agribusiness professionals.

Cover crop usage in Iowa has gained momentum in recent years with just 10,000 acres planted in 2009 and more than 300,000 acres by 2013. Cover crops are one of the techniques outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy as a way of minimizing fertilizer runoff which pollutes waterways. Approximately 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus in the Gulf of Mexico dead zone came from the Mississippi River.

A report by the international consulting firm Datu Research last year found that 23 percent of Iowa farmers reported utilizing cover crops. The report found that Iowa farmers are also practicing no-till and minimum tillage techniques as well as crop rotation, all of which can reduce runoff and improve soil health.

An ongoing study by researchers at the University of Illinois suggests that the use of cover crops does not increase yields but it does “increase the amount of sequestered soil organic carbon.” However, research by scientists at Purdue University has found that cover crops can improve corn stover yields which can be used as a biofuel.

The cost of next month’s event is $99 for those who register before February 16 and $125 for those who register onsite.

On the Radio: Soil conservation gains popularity among farmers

An Iowa farm in early Summer (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
An Iowa farm in early Summer (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
January 26, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a recent report that shows Iowa farmers are increasingly turning to environmentally friendly soil conservation practices. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Soil Conservation

Cover crops, crop rotation, and other soil conservation practices are gaining in popularity with Iowa farmers, according to a recent report.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The international consulting firm Datu Research released the 53-page report in December which found that 23 percent of those surveyed reported that they planted cover crops on their farms. Eighty percent of respondents said they alternate their fields between corn and soybeans each year while 70 percent of farmers said they practice minimum or conservation tilling practices.

These techniques improve soil health and help to regulate moisture content. This allows soil to retain more nitrate and phosphorus, saving farmers on fertilizer costs while also reducing nutrient runoff which is a major cause of water pollution in Iowa.

Agricultural runoff accounts for approximately 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that enters the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi River.

For more information about this report this

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

$48 million donation aims to assist states with reducing emissions

Emissions billow from the smokestacks of a facility in Heilbronn, Germany (dmytrok/Flickr)
Emissions billow from the smokestacks of a facility in Heilbronn, Germany (dmytrok/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 23, 2015

Two charitable groups have donated $48 million so that in can be used in helping states reduce carbon emissions over the next three years.

The plans were announced earlier this week with half the money coming from Bloomberg Philanthropies and the other half from the Heising-Simons family, a California couple devoted to reducing the impact of climate change. This project will provide technical assistance, economic forecasting, and legal analysis to a dozen or so states pursuing clean-energy initiatives. The money will not go directly to the states – which are each responsible for developing their own emissions reduction plans – and will instead go to groups like Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council which will advise states on strategies for cutting emissions.

“The science on climate change makes it abundantly clear that carbon pollution poses a deep threat to society, to agriculture, and to nature—and that early action is required to avoid these threats,” Mark Heising said in a press release. “New technologies ensure that the solutions to climate change can be cost-effective.  This initiative is designed to accelerate those solutions.”

The money is expected to be used to help create renewable energy systems which cause less pollution in the land, air, and water and therefore can improve public health. This donation coincides with President Obama’s Clean Power Plan which he announced in June of 2014 and which allows each state to set its own standards for reducing emissions from fossil fuels

Ecopolis Iowa City event focuses on solar energy

Warren McKenna - general manager for Farmers Electric Cooperative - presented during the Ecopolis Iowa City forum on January 21. (Photo by Jeff Biggers)
Warren McKenna – general manager for Farmers Electric Cooperative – presented during the Ecopolis Iowa City forum on January 21. (Photo by Jeff Biggers)

Nick Fetty | January 22, 2015

Nearly 100 local politicians, students, and area residents attended Wednesday night’s Ecolopis Iowa City forum which focused on solar energy.

Iowa City attorney Rockne Cole was the first to speak at event explaining that the group formed about 60 days ago in a coffee shop and has gained quite a following in that time. He described Ecopolis Iowa City as a group of “doers” dedicated to renewable energy and sustainable development in Iowa City.

Warren McKenna – general manager of the Kalona-based Farmers Electric Cooperative – was the first of four presenters to take the podium Wednesday night. McKenna – who was named CEO of Year by the Solar Electric Power Association last year – said that his company has installed $3.6 million in solar systems since 2008, which includes solar arrays at Iowa Mennonite School and Washington Township Elementary. He has traveled from New York to Las Vegas and even as far as Germany to promote solar energy.

Troy Miller –  Director of Power Purchase Agreements for North Liberty-based Moxie Solar – was the next to present.

“Your local government is doing a great job of stepping up and taking the bull by the horns with solar,” he said.

Miller was referring to the Johnson County government which has partnered with Moxie to install solar panels on the roof of the county’s new secondary roads building project. This project makes Johnson County the first county in the state to utilize a Power Purchase Agreement for a solar project. For this project, the county put zero dollars down and agreed to pay a higher rate for electricity over the next ten years. After the first ten years the county will own the system outright and is expected to save $255,000 over a 25 year period.

“This is just one building,” Miller said. “The county has more than one building. That’s the good news.”

Troy Miller - Director of Power Purchase Agreements for Moxie Solar - discussed a recent collaboration between Moxie and the Iowa City Community School District during the Ecopolis Iowa City forum on January 21. (Photo by Jeff Biggers)
Troy Miller – Director of Power Purchase Agreements for Moxie Solar – discussed a recent collaboration between Moxie and the Iowa City Community School District during the Ecopolis Iowa City forum on January 21. (Photo by Jeff Biggers)

Miller also discussed a recent partnership between Moxie Solar and the Iowa City Community School District. He analyzed more than 700 electricity bills at more than 26 school locations to help the district determine its options for installing solar panels at the schools. In addition to helping the schools, Miller said he plans to launch a six-part “Common Cents Solar” webinar series which will individually focus on schools, cities, counties, churches, agriculture, and commercial entities. Miller also encouraged local non-profits to contact him ( and send 12 months worth of electricity bills which he will use to conduct a free solar analysis.

Iowa City realtor and developer Kevin Hanick was the last one to present on Wednesday night. Hanick has been practicing real estate in Iowa City for over 30 years but admitted that he knew very little about solar energy until recently.

“I’m a mutt in this whole game but I’m learning,” he said.

Iowa City developer  (Photo by Jeff Biggers)
Iowa City developer Kevin Hanick discussed plans for installing rooftop solar panels for an upcoming project during the Ecopolis Iowa City forum on January 21. (Photo by Jeff Biggers)

Hanick discussed a project he is currently working on which will be constructed near the intersection of South Riverside Drive and West Benton Street in Iowa City. The project will recieve tax incriment financing (TIF) which requires that it is constructed with photovoltaic solar panels on the rooftop. The 28,000 square-foot rooftop on the building is expected to fit approximately 700 solar panels.

“It struck me early on we should be constructing an energy efficient project,” he said, adding that he supports the idea of requiring developers to install solar panels on all future TIF-funded projects.

At the end of the event, Hanick was awarded the Tesla Award for Renewable Energy Innovation by the Ecopolis Forum to recognize his efforts.

On Saturday January 24 at noon, Ecopolis Iowa City will host a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Ecopolis Center at 1000 South Dubuque Street. The group will host its next monthly forum at the Iowa City Public Library on Saturday February 21 at 10 a.m. where they will focus specifically on Iowa City’s proposed Riverfront Crossings District.

For more information about Wednesday night’s event, check out this piece by Jeff Biggers for the Huffington Post Green blog.