Farming Wind Versus Farming Corn for Energy

keywords: wind power, wind turbines, corn ethanol, ERoEI

corn field with wind turbines
Farmers can plant crops right to the base of wind turbines (photo: Warren Gretzl, NREL)

If a farmer has 1,000 acres of land, and he/she planted it with corn for making ethanol and erected wind turbines for generating electricity, how much energy will the farmer produce and what are the economics?

Wind Power

A typical wind farm will have about 15 wind turbines per 1,00o acres. Each wind turbine will generate about 500 kW of power (assuming 33% capacity factor). Electricity retails at about 12¢ per kW hour. So 1,000 acres will produce 15 x 500 x .12 = $900 of electricity per hour, which equates to about $8,000,000 per year, representing about 224 trillion BTUs of energy.

Corn Ethanol Power

A typical 1,000 acre corn farm will produce about 7,500 pounds of corn, yielding about 340,000 gallons of ethanol. Ethanol retails at about $1.80 per gallon. So 1,000 acres will produce 340,000 x 1.8 = $612,000 per year, representing about 26 billion BTUs of energy.

Energy Returned on Energy Invested

It takes energy to produce energy. The Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) for wind turbines is an impressive, state of the art wind turbines are providing ERoEI of over 50:1.

It takes a lot of energy to produce corn ethanol, which yields a far lower ERoEI of between .8 and 1.65 (see Ethanol’s Energy Return on Investment: A Survey of the Literature 1990-Present by Roel Hammerschlag).


Side-effects of Wind Power and Corn Ethanol Production

Wind turbines are often perceived as an eyesore, marring the land with imposing manmade structures. Flying creatures such as hawks and bats are often killed as they pass through the turbine blades. Wind turbines are noisy, and are best located in rural areas, or at sea. Wind power needs to be located near power transmission resources, it that infrastructure will need to be built.

Corn ethanol yields just a bit more energy than it takes to produce it. It takes about 1,700 gallons of water to produce each gallon of corn ethanol. Corn used for ethanol production is corn not used for food production. As food corn supply is reduced, corn-based food prices rise.


Given 1,000 acres of land, planted with corn and a typical density of wind turbines, the table below summarizes the annual economic and energy value of corn ethanol fuel and wind turbine electricity.

Wind Power Corn Ethanol
Retail Value $8,000,000 $612,000
Energy Yield 224 trillion BTUs 26 billion BTUs
ERoEI 50:1 1.5:1

Recommended Reading: The Coming Famine

Keywords: Julian Cribb, The Coming Famine, food, water, population, climate change

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that we track several core issues that we believe will have profound impact on us all – rich and poor, individuals, communities, business, and government. They are population, energy, water, food, climate change and healthcare. In a sense, food interrelates to all the other issues – it takes tremendous energy and water to produce our food, climate change will reduce food production, and food choices affect our health.

An excellent new book has just been published that clearly and concisely lays out the global food challenges unfolding around us and details what to do about it. The book is The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It by Julian Cribb. The NY Times has an excellent excerpt and leads with this compelling quote:

Lo que separa la civilización de la anarquía son solo siete comidas.
(Civilization and anarchy are only seven meals apart.)

—Spanish proverb

Food, water, shelter and security are the fundamental building blocks of  a persons survival. When those basics are removed, even for a few days, a civilized population can move toward anarchy in a heartbeat.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - from thrive to survive

Rather than highlight the NY Times excerpt, I think it is worth looking at the solid concise description Cribb provides, of the main drivers challenging the supply and demand sides of food production. If you read nothing else in this book, read this and remember it as you  try to make sense of the news stories realted to food that will become more common as the crisis deepens.

Excerpt of The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb

To see where the answers may lie, we need to explore each of the main drivers. On the demand side the chief drivers are:

Population. Although the rate of growth in human numbers is slowing, the present upward trend of 1.5 percent (one hundred million more people) per year points to a population of around 9.2 billion in 2050 — 3 billion more than in 2000. Most of this expansion will take place in poorer countries and in tropical/subtropical regions. In countries where birth rates are falling, governments are bribing their citizens with subsidies to have more babies in an effort to address the age imbalance.

Consumer demand. The first thing people do as they climb out of poverty is to improve their diet. Demand for protein foods such as meat, milk, fish, and eggs from consumers with better incomes, mainly in India and China but also in Southeast Asia and Latin America, is rising rapidly. This in turn requires vastly more grain to feed the animals and fish. Overfed rich societies continue to gain weight. The average citizen of Planet Earth eats one-fifth more calories than he or she did in the 1960s — a “food footprint” growing larger by the day.

Population and demand. This combination of population growth with expansion in consumer demand indicates a global requirement for food by 2050 that will be around 70–100 percent larger than it is today. Population and demand are together rising at about 2 percent a year, whereas food output is now increasing at only about 1 percent a year.

These demand-side factors could probably be satisfied by the world adopting tactics similar to those of the 1960s, when the Green Revolution in farming technology was launched, were it not for the many constraints on the supply side that are now emerging to hinder or prevent such a solution:

Water crisis. Put simply, civilization is running out of freshwater. Farmers presently use about 70 percent of the world’s readily available freshwater to grow food. However, increasingly megacities, with their huge thirst for water for use in homes, industry, and waste disposal, are competing with farmers for this finite resource and, by 2050, these uses could swallow half or more of the world’s available freshwater at a time when many rivers, lakes, and aquifers will be drying up. Unless major new sources or savings are found, farmers will have about half of the world’s currently available freshwater with which to grow twice the food.

Land scarcity. The world is running out of good farmland. A quarter of all land is now so degraded that it is scarcely capable of yielding food. At the same time, cities are sprawling, smothering the world’s most fertile soil in concrete and asphalt, while their occupants fan out in search of cheap land for recreation that diverts the best food-producing areas from agriculture. A third category of land is poisoned by toxic industrial pollution. Much former urban food production has now ceased. The emerging global dearth of good farmland represents another severe limit on increasing food production.

Nutrient losses. Civilization is hemorrhaging nutrients — substances essential to all life. Annual losses in soil erosion alone probably exceed all the nutrients applied as fertilizer worldwide. The world’s finite nutrient supplies may already have peaked. Half the fertilizer being used is wasted. In most societies, up to half the food produced is trashed or lost; so too are most of the nutrients in urban waste streams. The global nutrient cycle, which has sustained humanity throughout our history, has broken down.

Energy dilemma. Advanced farming depends entirely on fossil fuels, which are likely to become very scarce and costly within a generation. At present farmers have few alternative means of producing food other than to grow fuel on their farms — which will reduce food output by 10–20 percent. Many farmers respond to higher costs simply by using less fertilizer or fuel — and so cutting yields. Driven by high energy prices and concerns about climate change, the world is likely to burn around 400 million tonnes (441 million U.S. tons) of grain as biofuels by 2020 — the equivalent of the entire global rice harvest.

Oceans. Marine scientists have warned that ocean fish catches could collapse by the 2040s due to overexploitation of wild stocks. Coral reefs — whose fish help feed about five hundred million people — face decimation under global warming. The world’s oceans are slowly acidifying as carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels dissolves out of the atmosphere, threatening ocean food chains. Fish farms are struggling with pollution and sediment runoff from the land. The inability of the fish sector to meet its share of a doubling in world food demand will throw a heavier burden onto land-based meat industries.

Technology. For three de cades the main engine of the modern food miracle, the international scientific research that boosted crop yields, has been neglected, leading to a decline in productivity gains. Farmers worldwide are heading into a major technology pothole, with less new knowledge available in the medium run to help them to increase output.

Climate. The climate is changing: up to half the planet may face regular drought by the end of the century. “Unnatural disasters” — storms, floods, droughts, and sea-level rise — are predicted to become more frequent and intense, with adventitious impacts on food security, refugee waves, and conflict.

Economics, politics, and trade. Trade barriers and farm subsidies continue to distort world markets, sending the wrong price signals to farmers and discouraging investment in agriculture and its science. The globalization of food has helped drive down prices received by farmers. Speculators have destabilized commodity markets, making it riskier for farmers to make production decisions. Some countries discourage or ban food exports and others tax them, adding to food insecurity. Others pay their farmers to grow fuel instead of food. A sprawling web of health, labor, and environmental regulation is limiting farmers’ freedom to farm.

The collapse in world economic conditions in late 2008 and 2009 has changed the prices of many things, including land, food, fuel, and fertilizer — but has not altered the fact that demand for food continues to grow while limits on its production multiply. Indeed, the economic crash exacerbated hunger among the world’s poor, and has not altered the fundamentals of climate change, water scarcity, population growth, land degradation, or nutrient or oil depletion.

As Cribb astutely points out, as developing nations become more affluent, they consume more protein, in the form of fish, meat, milk, eggs, etc.

Meat Protein Consumption in US and China
(source: US Department of Agriculture)

That protein is produced with grain, and it is an inefficient process:

  • It takes 1,ooo tons of water to produce a ton of grain
  • It takes about 15 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef
  • It takes about 5,200 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef

Thinking about the Butterfly Effect – the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world, changing patterns in the air, can cause a tornado in another part of the world – we can see that famine in one part of the world becomes a kind of super butterfly. All nations – rich and poor – will feel the impact.

Cripp summarizes the challenge and frames the solution:

To sum it all up, the challenge facing the world’s 1.8 billion women and men who grow our food is to double their output of food — using far less water, less land, less energy, and less fertilizer. They must accomplish this on low and uncertain returns, with less new technology available, amid more red tape, economic disincentives, and corrupted markets, and in the teeth of spreading drought. Achieving this will require something not far short of a miracle.

Yet humans have done it before and, resilient species that we are, we can do it again. This time, however, it won’t just be a problem for farmers, scientists, and policy makers. It will be a challenge involving every single one of us, in our daily lives, our habits, and our influence at the ballot box and at the supermarket.

It will be the greatest test of our global humanity and our wisdom we have yet faced.

Chew On This

Keywords: chew on this, Eric Schlosser, Charles Wilson, fast food nation, fast food, food for kids, school food programs

Dear reader,

My name is Gabrielle. I’m eleven.

Chew On This
reading in the chicken coop

I recently read a book called Chew On This, by Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) and Charles Wilson.

The saying ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover‘ applies here. The cover shows pretty nasty fast food, but as you go further into the book it doesn’t just tell you all this bad stuff about fast food, it gives you information – about the employees and how they treat them; about what’s in the food you’re eating; about junk food, about how they treat the animals they process into the food; about people who are overweight and want to change; and mostly about change – how much we have changed and how much we need to change.

And one of the things we need to change is our schools. Many of our nations schools sell junk food and items off many of the menus of McDonalds, KFC, etc. Kids of all ages are losing protein and vitamins and need to get them back. Kids used to drink twice as much milk as soda, now kids drink twice as much soda as milk (fact from book).

Parents are giving toddlers and babies soda which, as you can guess, is not good. I recommend this book to everyone – kids and adults (but if you are squeamish, I would highly recommend skipping the meat chapter). If you eat at McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and other fast food joints regularly, please do yourself a favor and read this book before you go there again. I may only be eleven, but after reading this I’ll think twice before eating any fast food burger ever again. It changed my life. It could change yours.

Thank you for reading my blog and please take my advice – read this book: )

Climate Change, Food, and Wildfires

Price of WheatAn article in the New York Times (Russia, Crippled by Drought, Bans Grain Exports) details Russia’s struggle with severe drought. Though any particular instance of drought can’t be directly linked to climate change and global warming, the world is warming, and instances of drought and associated wildfires, water shortages and crop loss are trending up.

The article highlights the tight coupling between food, water, and a warming world. It also shows how one countries problem affects us all, for example, Russia’s ban on grain exports has doubled the price of wheat worldwide.

For more on climate change and impact on food, see:

NOAA: June, April to June, and Year-to-Date Global Temperatures are Warmest on Record

State of the Climate: Hottest Decade on Record

Water Scarcity in the US

Climate Change May Reduce Protein in Crops

Highlights of the article – Russia, Crippled by Drought, Bans Grain Exports

  • Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin on Thursday banned all exports of grain after millions of acres of Russian wheat withered in a severe drought, driving up prices around the world and pushing them to their highest level in two years in the United States.
  • Russia is suffering from the worst heat wave since record-keeping began here more than 130 years ago.
  • The export ban was widely seen as one of a series of populist moves by Mr. Putin to address rising resentment over the calamitous heat wave and the fires it has spawned.
  • Wheat prices have soared by about 90 percent since June because of the drought in Russia and parts of the European Union, as well as floods in Canada, and the ban pushed prices even higher. Exports from Ukraine, another major exporter, are down sharply this year.

Interactive Climate Map from Google Shows Future Impact of Climate Change

Using Google Earth, the UK Foreign Office (FCO) and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) have released an interactive climate map that provides insight on the impact of climate change around the world.

The Google Earth map shows how the world would be affected by a global average temperature increase of 4C. It illustrates rising water levels and reduced crop yields in different parts of the world if temperatures are not curbed by cutting greenhouse gases.

The map service is directed at a global audience; it details the work of the scientists working in countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa. It uses Met Office data, and will also feature Foreign Office’s own work on the economics of climate change that it has been doing with the likes of the Asian Development Bank. The map is interactive, allowing you to roam the planet and explore projected impact and view video providing climate scientists and researchers discussing impact details.

Articles detailing the project can be found at The Telegraph and the Financial TImes.  The online map is available here. If you don’t have Google Earth installed, you can download a copy here.
Climate Change Impact

NOAA: June, April to June, and Year-to-Date Global Temperatures are Warmest on Record

Climate change news from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

15 July 2010

Last month’s combined global land and ocean surface temperature made it the warmest June on record and the warmest on record averaged for any April-June and January-June periods, according to NOAA. Worldwide average land surface temperature was the warmest on record for June and the April-June period, and the second warmest on record for the year-to-date (January-June) period, behind 2007.

The monthly analysis from NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, which is based on records going back to 1880, is part of the suite of climate services NOAA provides government, business and community leaders so they can make informed decisions.

Scientists, researchers and leaders in government and industry use NOAA’s monthly reports to help track trends and other changes in the world’s climate. This climate service has a wide range of practical uses, from helping farmers know what and when to plant, to guiding resource managers with critical decisions about water, energy and other vital assets.

NOAA Temperature Anomalies June 2010
(source: NOAA National Climatic Data Center)

The Guardian did a nice job of going deeper into the story. Here are highlights from their article:

  • The figures released last night by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggest that 2010 is now on course to be the warmest year since records began in 1880.
  • Scientists expressed surprise that the June land surface temperature exceeded the previous record by 0.11C (0.20F). “This large difference over land contributed strongly to the overall global land and ocean temperature anomaly,” said John Leslie, a spokesman for NOAA.
  • Separate satellite data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado shows that the extent of sea ice in the Arctic was at its lowest for any June since satellite records started in 1979.
  • In a further possible sign of a warming world, the Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier, one of the largest in Greenland, lost a 2.7-square mile chunk of ice and retreated one mile between 6-7 July – one of the largest single losses to a glacier ever recorded.
  • The glacier, a tongue of the Greenland ice sheet, has retreated six miles since 2000 and more than 27 miles since 1850. It is believed to be the single largest contributor to sea level rise in the northern hemisphere.
  • Greenland’s ice sheet, a vast body of ancient ice covering 1.7 million sq km, is melting today more rapidly than only a few decades ago. Since 2000, the ice sheet is calculated to have lost about 1,500 cubic kilometres of water– enough to raise global sea levels by 5mm . If the entire ice sheet melted, the world’s oceans would rise by over 23 feet.
  • Glaciologists expressed surprise at the speed of the break-up of the glacier: “This is unusual because it occurs on the heels of a warm winter that saw no sea ice form in the surrounding bay … it lends credence to the theory that warming of the oceans is responsible for the ice loss observed throughout Greenland and Antarctica,” said NASA scientist Thomas Wagner.

Present concentration of carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere is 31 per cent above pre-industrial levels.

Referring to the chart below, current emissions are tracking above the most intense fossil fuel emission scenario established by the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios-SRES (2000).

Global Carbon Emissions 2010
(source: EIA, CDIAC, Raupach et al. 2007, Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences)

Referring to the chart below, NOAA has modeled change in seasonal mean surface air temperature from the late 20th century (1971-2000 average) to the middle 21st century (2051-2060). The left panel shows changes for June July August (JJA) seasonal averages, and the right panel shows changes for December January February (DJF). The simulated surface air temperature changes are in response to increasing greenhouse gases and aerosols based on a “middle of the road” estimate of future emissions. As we can see from the chart above, we are exceeding “middle of the road” substantially.

surface air temps change 2050
(source: NOAA - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Red areas on the map represent a 20 degree increase from averages in the late 20th century. This has major implications for food production, water, and energy, not to mention business as usual.

For a hint of what to expect, look at the infamous 2003 heat wave that struck Europe for just 7 days:

  • 30,000 heat-related deaths, 14,802 in Fance alone.
  • Extensive forest fires (10% of Portugal forests burned).
  • Temperatures ranged from 104 ºF to 118 ºF (40 ºC to 48 ºC).
  • Melting glaciers in the Alps caused avalanches and flash floods in Switzerland.
  • Extensive crop loss of wheat across Europe (13% to 80%).

Here’s a picture of the temperature anomaly across Europe during the heat wave. (N.B. Red indicates +10 ºC, +18ºF anomaly)

2003 European heat wave
(source: NASA)

For related articles and books, see:

Climate Change May Reduce Protein in Crops

Recommended Reading