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Opinion: Why ‘Green New Deal’ would be raw deal for Missouri farmers

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Suppose the “Green New Deal” – endorsed by several presidential contenders – becomes the law of the land. How would a law that banned fossil fuels touch the lives of real people in Missouri? To take just one example, how would it affect Missouri farmers?

Under this plan, the federal government would commit to a 10-year crash program to achieve the goal of meeting “100 percent of power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, zero-emission energy sources” by the year 2030.

If called upon to do so, would Missouri farmers be ready to switch to electric tractors, combines and other farm machinery in order to reduce their carbon footprint to the vanishing point?

We can answer that question with an unequivocal, “No.”

First of all, there are no Tesla-like, battery-powered farm vehicles on the market today that could begin to replace today’s machines in doing the heavy-duty, energy-intensive work of ploughing, seeding, weed control and harvesting. Electric-powered substitutes for today’s diesel-power machines do not exist – and even if they did, other problems would prevent instant and widespread use.

There would be no way to efficiently charge such farm machines and keep them charged, short of rebuilding Missouri’s entire electrical grid to allow for the fact that every farm with a fleet of one tractor, one large planter and one combine or cotton-picker would consume electricity on the same scale as a small town or factory.

To understand the physics, consider a conservative estimate of the electrical requirement of a hypothetical electrical combine that replaces a typical 15-ton grain combine that consumes 15 gallons of diesel fuel per hour. It often uses about 16 hours a day during harvest, with an engine that delivers just under 250 kilowatts of power of continuous power.

To do the same work, the electrical combine would have to carry the equivalent of 3.5 Tesla batteries (4,400 pounds) for every hour of continuous use, or 28 Tesla batteries to go eight hours without recharging. The combined weight of all those batteries would be 17 tons, making the electric combine significantly heavier than the piston-driven combine.

Since the recharge time has to be short (a farmer bringing in a harvest can’t afford to waste time), suppose the electric combine “fast charges” in 20 minutes, an optimal time suggested for electric cars. The charging station and related infrastructure (i.e., power generation and distribution) would have to supply in the vicinity of 6 megawatts of power during the recharge period.

In short, to recharge a single combine on one of Missouri’s 100,000-plus farms would require the same power output as three of today’s 2-megawatt wind turbines. To put it another way, the infrastructure needed to recharge a single combine equals the capabilities of supplying electrical power to about 4,500 homes.

The “gift” of heavily subsidized – and just plain heavy – green machines would leave Missouri farmers much poorer than they were before. They would be saddled with machines that bog more easily in the mud because of the extra weight of carrying a multitude of Tesla-like batteries. That’s not all. Barry Bean, a large cotton-grower in the Missouri Bootheel, shudders at the thought of long lines of farmers with their tractors and cotton-pickers at the end of a long day: “We all work the same hours, and we’d all be coming in at the same time.”

Here is a final consideration – a final irony. How does Missouri get its electric power? Three-quarters of our electrical energy comes from burning coal and another 5 percent comes from natural gas-fired plants.

So, even with the electrification of agriculture, we would fall back on fossil fuels to provide a good deal of additional electrical generating capacity.

Andrew Wilson is resident fellow and senior writer at the Show-Me Institute in St. Louis, and James Seeser is a St. Louis-area philanthropist and physicist with degrees from University of Missouri and Drury University.

Comments

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Rich Horton

Did the authors of this column even read the proposal? The text regarding farms is as follows:

"(G) working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible, including—

(i) by supporting family farming;

(ii) by investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health; and

(iii) by building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food"

These type of hyperbolic columns are what keeps us from having real solutions to real problems. I'm not saying that the Green New Deal is or isn't the answer, but let's try to have fact based discussions for the common good.

Thursday, February 28
Tony

IIRC, Rudolph Diesel originally invented his engine to run on peanut oil. He had witnessed farmers using fossil fuels to run their equipment and were getting gouged on the price of fuel. The price, somehow, always seemed to spike around planting time and harvest time. By making his engine capable of running on farm products, he envisioned a day where a farmer could devote some small portion of their land to producing "fuel crops," then use the fuel to harvest another, larger, cash crop. Stored, self-produced fuel could be used for planting in the spring. If the farmer could have multiple crops maturing at different times, less fuel would need to be stored, as production would be happening coincident with demand.

What do most modern, powered farming implements use as the prime mover? A diesel engine.

I would agree that a battery-powered tractor or combine isn't practical, certainly not with current battery tech. I would also agree that powering such a beast from our mostly-coal-fed grid would not be net-zero-emissions. A farm would need to add a significant solar array, or windmills, to make such a beast net-zero-emissions. At current prices for such infrastructure, that idea is a non-starter. At some point, Missouri will be installing more solar and wind and retiring the pollution-belching coal plants. Today is not that day. Gotta work with what we have, now and in the near-term.

Increased use of biodiesel is, most definitely, practical. If you can get the yield of your "fuel crop" up while reducing inputs (fertilizers and pesticide, frequently made from natural gas), biodiesel can reach zero-net-emissions standard.

Some of the older processes and equipment fall short but newer ones are as much as 3.7:1 in terms of energy out:in (so, already financially practical) and are approaching net-zero-emissions status. If it was produced at the farm, instead of needing to be shipped all over the place, we would get there a lot faster.

Getting farmers to use more bio-sourced fuels would satisfy the principles of the "Green New Deal" while reducing demand for petroleum. Biodiesel tends to produce less pollutants than petroleum, so the crops would be exposed to less pollution, during harvest. That results in a healthier product. What's not to like?

It's not that the authors of the column didn't read the proposal. They're part of a Libertarian-leaning think-tank. They need to find some, worst-case-scenario they can pitch as to why this can't (or shouldn't) be done. By "anchoring" the debate in "not practical" territory, they're hoping to convince people that the "Green New Deal" is a non-starter. We need to pull it back into "practical" territory by exposing the flaws in their argument and showing how it COULD be done.

Friday, March 1
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