Energy and sustainability experts from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, industry, universities and the federal government recently identified key focus areas to meet the challenge of successfully decarbonizing the agriculture sector, as well as scientific resources that the U.S. Department of Energy’s national laboratories can bring to the table.
The challenge is significant. Agriculture is responsible for emitting 10% of the nation’s greenhouse gases, some 629 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions per year, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Key sources for those emissions are agricultural soil and livestock waste management, crop cultivation and fuel combustion largely related to farm equipment.
The ORNL Virtual Summit on Decarbonizing the Agriculture Sector featured three topic areas in breakout sessions in which the challenges and potential technology- and practice-based solutions were discussed. These solutions included soil health, nitrogen production and fixation, and agricultural equipment and operations.
“We had exciting and engaging discussions with about five dozen participants from ORNL, academia and industry about key barriers to decarbonization in the ag sector,” said Brian Davison, summit organizer and chief scientist for systems biology and biotechnology at ORNL. “Broadly, there is a lot the United States can do now in this area, but to reach the maximum needed impact, we will need new technologies and assessment tools.” The summary report can be found here.
David Sholl, director of ORNL’s Transformational Decarbonization Initiative, was also optimistic about the event, saying, “The agricultural sector has great potential to make large contributions toward the nation’s decarbonization goals and, at the same time, improve the livelihoods of the numerous people who depend on agriculture. This summit was a great example of the diverse set of stakeholders that will need to work together to make progress in this important area.”
Valerie Reed, director of DOE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office and keynote speaker for the event, opened the summit by saying, “The urgency to address climate issues has never been stronger nor more widespread throughout government.”
She noted that DOE intends to work closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies in an all-hands-on-deck effort to tackle climate change. “We have just begun the incline of what I call the first hill of a very exciting roller coaster ride, and we’re all in it together,“ she said.
U.S. is well positioned to help decarbonize agriculture: Reed
Reed highlighted how the United States is already well positioned to meet the challenge of agriculture sector decarbonization. “We have a growing solar and wind industry. We have world-class geological reservoirs for capturing carbon. And we have immense agriculture and forestry sectors that produce large amounts of biomass. Forty million acres of that land, or 10% of overall agricultural producing land, are devoted to biofuels production already. Additionally, we manage a forest carbon sink that already sequesters 700 million metric tons of CO2-equivalent per year.”
In some key areas, technologies that have long been under development across DOE can make an impact, Reed said, citing the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s technology suite from its renewable power, energy efficiency and sustainable transportation pillars. “We will be looking for solutions that will impact energy use and CO2 emissions across all of agriculture.“
Some of those possibilities include utilizing knowledge from DOE’s water power program to make irrigation technologies more efficient; siting solar energy resources on farms, dubbed “agro-voltaics,” along with wind power resources; using methods to lower the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from existing biofuels production and encourage the future use of ethanol in sustainable aviation fuels; and developing community organic waste management solutions.
Additionally, efforts are already underway at DOE Bioenergy Research Centers, such as the ORNL-based Center for Bioenergy Innovation, to develop new plant cultivars that require less fertilizer and water; and research at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy program that aims to produce plants that can significantly and economically reduce CO2 concentrations.
Farmers must be incentivized to engage with new technologies and practices, Reed noted. Confidence in innovative farming practices “will be built if farmer communities receive direct compensation for the improvements that they make, and more and more innovative solutions can be adopted.”
Gunars Platais, summit panelist and Fellow at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Sustainability Innovation Lab, said that encouraging sustainable agriculture has numerous benefits downstream and should be viewed as essential to economic success. In his previous work over 20 years at the World Bank spent encouraging sustainability, Platais noted that although he typically met with ministers of agriculture and those of other sectors, his most important meeting was often with the minister of finance. This in recognition that typically the decision-making language is one of finance and economics.
In stark terms, “the world is set to lose 18% of gross domestic product just from climate change if we take no action. That is a striking number, and something everyone will want to avoid. Even with meeting the Paris Accord target, we are still looking at a 4% drop in GDP. Most countries don’t even grow GDP by 4% a year,” Platais said. The good news is that the private sector has started to recognize the issue and take action, he added.
Developing clean technology breakthroughs for farm equipment
DOE user facilities such as the National Transportation Research Center at ORNL provide the opportunity for national lab researchers to partner with industry for clean energy solutions for hard-to-electrify sectors such as heavy-duty farm equipment. These opportunities include solid-state batteries that store more energy in smaller, lighter weight stacks, fast wireless charging that can reduce the scale of battery systems required and research into how to efficiently operate heavy-duty equipment on hydrogen and other clean fuels.
“Farm operations require a range of machinery and vehicles with different operational demands,” said Robert Wagner, director of the Buildings and Transportation Science Division at ORNL. “Through a combination of electrification and hybridization with net-zero carbon fuels and precision agriculture, we have a significant opportunity to reduce the carbon footprint of farm operations.”
At Deere & Company, farm equipment electrification efforts are well underway as one solution to decarbonizing the ag sector. The company is also testing and demonstrating how sensors and computational power can result in powerful data sets that can drive more efficient crop and nutrient management.
At the summit, Deere Chief Technology Officer Jahmy Hindman described the newly launched systems that can be installed on sprayers and other farm equipment to capture data about plants. These data enable more efficient application of herbicides and potentially chemical fertilizers. The result is not only less waste and less runoff, but the resulting data can be used over seasons and years to guide future planting and crop management decisions.
“Technology vectors like onboard compute capacity on farm vehicles … increased connectivity like 5G and higher bandwidth transmission … advanced algorithms for vision recognition … and sensing that allows us to collect data with every pass of the field … are nothing short of astounding,” Hindman said. “The mission of the machine is no longer to just to accomplish the agronomic job; it’s also to collect data that makes the next step in the production system better.”
The technology can also be applied to dose seeds with fertilizers as they’re being planted, cutting down on mass spraying of fields, he explained. “The capability to dose nitrogen on the seed as it’s planted at a very specific amount based on the yield and productivity information from previous seasons helps reduce the amount of leaching, runoff and volatilization of nitrogen. None of that happens without data.”
Farmers are eager to make the best use of their land — their most valued asset, Hindman said. But they often lack access to the best information and technology. That’s where innovation and education can step in.
“Farmers make thousands of decisions each season, to the best of their ability with the information they have in hand, and the decisions are time-sensitive,” Hindman said. “In the last mile of this, to really impact agriculture, you can’t forget the education of the farmer. They universally want to do the right thing. We have to provide farmers with an understanding of how the changes they’re making might impact their business.”
“At the end of the day, this is their livelihood and it has to work for the farmer. That’s the goal at Deere: to drive those insights to get farmers the best information possible to make the best decisions for their land,” Hindman said.
Identifying impact areas and next steps
As the summit concluded, ORNL identified three areas where, based on the current state of the science and expertise, DOE can have a significant impact: soil health and carbon sequestration, agricultural vehicles and operations, and low-energy nitrogen input and releases. These areas offer opportunities to reduce emissions and increase carbon sinks and system productivity.
“If the United States is to reach its 2050 emissions goals, it will need to consider the significant decarbonization potential in the agriculture sector and it will need to use multidisciplinary scientific expertise and frontier technologies. At the same time we must engage academia, industry, and federal agencies in assessing, improving, and deploying decarbonization technologies,” ORNL’s Davison said. “We will also need methods to value and validate agricultural decarbonization approaches, which will be a widely distributed effort with multiple stakeholders.”
The summit allowed the participants to begin to develop working relationships. But more effort is needed to build effective teams, Davison said.
UT-Battelle manages ORNL for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. The Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit energy.gov/science.