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Drought, water and energy

September 5, 2012

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s prediction of 14.5 billion bushels of corn has been slashed to around 10.5 billion bushels as a result of the summer drought. (Photo courtesy of extension.entm.purdue.edu)

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

By the time this column is published, we will have a better idea how much rain the drought-stricken Midwest will receive from Hurricane Isaac.

The rain is too late to improve corn and soybean yields. It should benefit fall wheat, improve pastures, increase hay production, lower river and lake temperatures, and add to the water table.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s prediction of 14.5 billion bushels of corn has been slashed to around 10.5 billion bushels. Cattle, milk, chicken, hog and turkey producers are hard-pressed with corn prices at around $8 per bushel. Cattle and milk producers suffer from poor pastures and the lack of hay. The release of land in the CRP program was of limited benefit, as those plants were also damaged by the drought.

Gene Logsdon does not blame all the drop in production on the weather. His guess is that some yield reduction comes from farmers who planted too early, too shallow and too densely for this season’s weather.

Nine states have called for a suspension of the U.S. ethanol mandate as corn used for ethanol competes with food production. In an interview on NPR, Jason Hill, a professor at the University of Minnesota, said that nearly half of this year’s corn crop could go to producing ethanol. Yet, ethanol only provides 5 to 6 percent of the nation’s fuel consumption.

With corn at $8 per bushel, some ethanol plants closed down while others operate below capacity. Ray Baker, general plant manager at Adkins Energy in Lena, Ill., indicates they are operating at about 80 percent of their capacity.

The drought also adversely affects water supplies used for energy production. According to the water footprint calculator created by Dutch professor Arjen Hoekstra, biofuel production is the largest consumer of water of any energy source.

The amount of the cooling water discharged from a nuclear power plant is roughly double the amount discharged from a coal or natural gas plant. In a drought, water levels in rivers used for cooling may drop too low, and power plants will switch to underground supplies or cut power production.

As temperatures rise in water bodies into which discharges are permitted, the amount of oxygen in the water can fall below the level in which most fish can survive. According to the state, official fish kills in Illinois rivers and lakes are reaching record levels, primarily because of the drought and high water temperatures.

Under state law, 90 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature limit for power plant discharges to water bodies under normal conditions. Variances were granted in Illinois this summer for four coal-fired plants and four nuclear-powered plants as a result of increased electrical demand and the resulting higher temperatures of the water discharges from the plants.

If power production is cut back, the power producers lose income, citizens experience discomfort and financial loss, and some may die if they are exposed to prolonged excessive heat.

Many of these problems could be avoided if non-water-consuming methods of meeting our energy demand were widely implemented. Conservation, energy efficiency and renewable sources are readily available alternatives.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Sept. 5-11, 2012, issue

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