Plants and Crops to Star in New Roles in the Future

In the next few years, could the state's Energy Office help irrigators, environmentalists and power companies reach the water use goals that are an essential part of the Kingsley Dam relicensing? Or possibly help others in parts of the state such as the Republican River Valley where water use is or may become restricted?

Such a scenario could easily happen because of an obscure change in one of the many programs operated by the federal Department of Energy.

Five Become Seven

For the past several years, the federal energy department has spent millions of dollars to finance research and improvements in what the agency called, "Industries of the Future." The industries were limited to just five aluminum, chemical, glass, metal and steel. The goal of the multi-year effort is to reduce energy costs and prevent pollution through the development of improved industry-specific technology.

Currently, these industries of the future use more than 80 percent of the energy consumed by industry and produce 90 percent of the waste by all industries in the United States.

In January of this year, the list of industries was broadened to include forests and agriculture, under the banner of "plant/crop-based renewable resources."

Earlier this year, the Energy Department awarded nearly $2.5 million for future industrial projects in 17 states. Millions of dollars of additional research funding is invested separately in specific industry competitive grants.

The approaches used in Industries of the Future partnerships bring national energy laboratories and educational institutions together with industries to advance technological techniques and develop new ways to use resources more efficiently.

Agricultural scientists and farmers are developing new ways to improve methods to save water, soil, money and energy. For example, a large expense for farmers in Nebraska is irrigation and the energy needed to power it.

One of the goals of this effort is to replace fossil fuels with plants as the main chemical building blocks to meet the needs of society. Corn could become just such a building block of the future. According to researchers, there is more carbon in a barrel of corn than in a barrel of oil. But today, we cannot technologically tap into the corn carbon as we do with the carbon in oil.

In September, more than 100 scientists and others including Nebraska Energy Director Bob Harris got together to chart the near-term direction of plant research so the goal to unlock carbon in plants could be achieved. The group hopes that within 20 years, ten percent of all petroleum-based chemicals will come from plants, and that by 2050, half of the chemicals used will come from plants. Today, chemicals from plants replace only two percent of fossil fuels used for these purposes.

Achieving these goals could utilize from one to five billion bushels of corn annually. According to a September forecast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the 1998 corn harvest is estimated at 9.738 billion bushels. If the Industry of the Future 20-year goal becomes reality and corn harvests remain unchanged, about ten percent of the nation's corn production could be diverted for use as chemical feedstocks.

Projects in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska

Farmers are saving money by increasing energy efficiency and converting or replacing irrigation systems and water pumps.

Irrigation systems with energy efficient pumps also save water by lowering evaporation and runoff by watering crops only as much as needed and providing the water with less wasted energy. Converted pumps run at 80-90% energy efficiency and substantially lower operating costs.

Surging to Savings

Another money and energy saver for agriculture is surge irrigation. This type of irrigation sends controlled pulses of irrigation water down the crop furrows. In one project currently underway, the controlled pulses are created by using inexpensive photocells. These photocells allow for surges of water to be alternated between sets of furrows and at alternate times.

Previous studies by universities in Utah, Texas and Colorado found water use from surge irrigation can be reduced by 12 to 50 percent. An additional advantage is surge irrigation has significant cost savings over installing a new low-energy precision application system. According to a Texas A&M study, a surge system cost $48.83 per acre while a new low-energy precision application system was $238.72 per acre.

The Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service estimates furrow irrigation is used on more than half the acres in the state. While some farmers are switching from furrow irrigation to center pivots to reduce labor and improve performance, surge irrigation might be a better option for some farmers. The water savings from surge irrigation result in reduced pumping costs. Studies have indicated that for each inch of water saved, pumping cost savings may exceed $150 for a quarter section of a crop. Surge irrigation has other advantages as well elimination of tailwater and reduced leeching of pesticides and fertilizers. The use of photocells in the three-state project might increase even those substantial savings.

For more information about Industries of the Future or the agricultural projects across the nation, contact Doug Faulkner, phone 202-586-2119, email

Information about the irrigation projects that are underway in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska can be obtained from Conrad Bauer, Energy Conservation for Colorado Agriculture, phone 970-332-3173; Bob Zebroski, Colorado State Soil Conservation Service, 1313 Sherman Street, Room 219, Denver, Colorado 80203, phone 303-866-3351; or Ron Scheier, High Plains Pilot Project, 210 West 10th, Goodland, Kansas 67735.

For information about irrigation system options in Nebraska, contact Laverne Stetson at 402-472-2945 or Paul Jasa at 402-472-6715.


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