Researchers find ways to preserve farmland with prairie

Tyler Chalfant | March 26th, 2020

Researchers are finding ways that prairie grasses could help make farming more sustainable. At Kansas State University’s Konza Prairie Biological Station, located near Manhattan, Kansas, scientists are studying the natural prairie habitat that once covered most of Iowa and its neighboring Midwestern states. 

Iowa Public Radio recently interviewed researchers at the Konza Prairie Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) Project. Jesse Nippert, a professor at Kansas State and the lead scientist for the Konza Prairie LTER Project, explained that controlled burns can help ecosystems survive the effects of climate change. “Without fire, the grasses would lose their dominance,” he said. Other types of plants, such as shrubbery and eventually trees will eventually take root. 

Precipitation events are predicted to grow both larger and more infrequent in this region as a result of climate change, meaning that both drought and flooding will become more common. This is a perfect setup for soil erosion, and which prairie grasses can help prevent. 

Scientists are studying what these drought conditions could look like by recreating the extreme conditions of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. After much of the region’s soil, torn up by unsustainable farming practices, blew away, the natural ecosystem recovered within 20 years. “The species that live here in the Great Plains, these native species, are tremendously resilient,” Nippert said. 

Planting prairie strips near cropland is one way to limit soil runoff. Another option may be perennial crops, which don’t need to be planted every year. Researchers have developed perennial strands of wheat and rice. If widely implemented, perennial crops would decrease damage to the soil, as well as the amount of carbon released into the air.

Virginia sets targets for 100% clean energy

Image result for virginia clean energy
Photo from Piqsels

Tyler Chalfant | March 24th, 2020

Earlier this month, Virginia became the first southern state to set a target for 100 percent clean energy. The Virginia Clean Economy Act requires the state’s two largest investor-owned utility companies to produce exclusively carbon-free electricity by 2050. 

Utility companies will also be required to reduce overall energy demand in the next five years, increasing energy efficiency and cutting back on costs for consumers. In a further effort to protect low-income consumers, the law creates the Percent of Income Payment Program, capping the amount consumers pay for electricity based on income.

Through the state’s new renewable portfolio standard, the utility companies must also increase their energy storage capacity, build offshore wind turbines, and inform their customers on how to save money through solar power. The cap on net metering will be raised from one to six percent.

The bill also instructs state agencies to develop a carbon cap-and-trade program, and for the state to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a regional cap-and-trade program that most northeastern states have joined. Advocates for the new law say that Virginians will reap $69.7 billion in net benefits, and see up to 13,000 new jobs per year in the state.

COVID-19 outbreak impacts U.S. biofuel industry

Photo by photolibrarian, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | March 20th, 2020

As the 2019 novel coronavirus outbreak has cut down on Americans’ travel, many transportation industries, including producers of biofuels, are hurting. Earlier this week, the airline industry asked for over $50 billion in assistance from the federal government. 

As fuel demand has fallen, many U.S. ethanol plants have lowered fuel production or idled entirely. Renewable Fuels Association Chief Executive Geoff Cooper called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to grant small refineries waivers from the nation’s biofuel mandates. 

The industry employs about 350,000 workers at roughly 200 plants across the country, which produce just over 1 million barrels of ethanol per day. 44 of those plants are in Iowa, which leads the nation in ethanol production, creating nearly 30% of the nation’s ethanol. Margins on ethanol refining in the Corn Belt fell to as low as -11 cents on the gallon earlier in March, and had risen to 10 cents on the gallon as of Thursday, March 19th.

Some ethanol producers have tried to shift focus. Hand sanitizer, which has recently seen a surge in demand, can be made using ethanol.

New report outlines goals to reduce transportation emissions

Photo by Jeff Turner, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | March 19th, 2020

The Environment America Research & Policy Center and Frontier Group released a report last month outlining goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation in the U.S.

The groups call transportation “climate enemy number one,” in the U.S., given that the transportation system produces more emissions than any other sector of the U.S. economy, and accounts for 4% of global emissions on its own. Nearly three-fifths of those emissions come from light-duty vehicles, such as cars, pickups, and SUVs. 

Americans drive more than 3.2 trillion miles each year in vehicles that are bigger and less efficient than those of most other countries. Factors encouraging Americans to drive so much include:

  • Direct and indirect subsidies on fuel and transportation
  • A lack of access to public transit
  • Infrastructure that is dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists
  • Land-use patterns including low density and single-use zoning that separate homes from workplaces

The report outlined three goals to reduce transportation emissions over the next 10-15 years:

  • Phasing out fossil fuel-powered light-duty vehicle sales by 2035
  • Electrifying transit and school buses by 2030
  • Double the number of people who walk, bike and take transit by 2030

Communities around the country have already implemented local strategies and policies to make low-carbon transportation options safer, more convenient, and more affordable.

Mining company makes second proposal to export water from Iowa

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Tony Webster

Tyler Chalfant | March 16th, 2020

In a letter last week, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources asked a mining company for “specific information” about where it plans to send 34 million gallons of water from the Jordan aquifer. Pattison Sand Company, located near Clayton, Iowa, is working with the Oregon-based company Water Train to export the water from two wells on its property to drought-stricken Western States. 

This proposal is the company’s second attempt to export water, after the state said it intended to deny its first proposal back in February, saying that sending such a large amount of water out of the state would have “a negative impact on the long-term availability of Iowa’s water resources.”

The company’s current permit allows it to draw 1.6 billion gallons annually from the aquifer, which is a source of water for 500,000 Iowans and considered stressed in some parts of the state. According to the state, Pattison would have to apply for a new permit for this use of the water, as well as providing more specific details about the intended use. 

How COVID-19 impacts climate change

Airborne Nitrogen Dioxide Plummets Over China
Image from NASA

Tyler Chalfant | March 13th, 2020

As the 2019 novel coronavirus, now considered a pandemic by the World Health Organization, has impacted several businesses, including air travel, emissions and air pollution have fallen significantly around the globe. Satellite images of China show how air pollution has fallen drastically due to a fall in economic activity as the country responds to the outbreak. According to an analysis from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, China’s carbon emissions have been reduced by 25%. 

However, environmental watchdog and activist groups have warned that these effects are temporary, and may even be harmful in the long run, as an economic slowdown replaces policy and clean energy investment as the means of reducing emissions. Zeke Hausfather, the director of climate and energy at the Breakthrough Institute, told Wired that “the only real times we’ve seen large emission reductions globally in the past few decades is during major recessions. But even then, the effects are often smaller than you think.” In 2008, for instance, emissions fell globally by 3%, but returned to normal and continued to grow after a few years.

As COVID-19 stalls infrastructure projects, that will likely include large clean energy projects. On Thursday, analysts from Bloomberg New Energy Finance lowered forecasts for new solar energy projects this year by 8%, predicting that electric car sales will likely fall as well.

Another impact of the outbreak is a dramatic fall in oil prices, which can slow electric car sales and discourage people from looking for clean energy alternatives. However, travel bans and fears of the virus mean that the rise in travel that usually accompanies a drop in oil prices isn’t likely to happen. Furthermore, the sale of electric cars is being driven by regulations in places like Europe, China, and California, as well as falling battery prices, which may also mean that cheaper oil won’t have as significant an impact this time.

The social, economic, and health impacts of COVID-19 are continuing to develop on a daily basis. Be sure to follow the latest information from the CDC here.

After a dry winter, Iowa DNR says flood risk remains high

Image result for iowa flooding 2019
Photo from Jo Naylor, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | March 12th, 2020

This February has been warmer and drier than usual in Iowa. As a result, streamflow conditions have generally decreased, but the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says that the risk for flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers remains high for this spring. 

Though severe drought has impacted other areas of the country, there have not been drought conditions in Iowa. In total, December, January, and February saw about 3 inches of snow, which is 0.33 inches less than normal, improving stream levels across the state. 

Last year saw historic flooding in both river basins, with over 200 miles of compromised levees, and 81 of Iowa’s 99 counties put on flood warning last spring. This resulted from heavy rainfall accompanied by an unusually high amount of snowmelt from Minnesota. The Iowa Policy Project released a report warning that such flooding events are likely to become more frequent and severe as climate change makes weather patterns more difficult to predict. 

2019 was the third wettest year for the Missouri River Basin on record, meaning the basin is going into 2020 with wetter-than-normal soil. Runoff this year is expected to be more than 140% as much as normal, which would place this year in the top ten for the basin.