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Next-generation energy farms

When writing about the future of energy, it’s been easy to tumble into pessimistic gloom and doom. Writing in 1979 in the height of the Cold War and an energy crisis, the legendary science fiction and popular science writer Isaac Asimov couldn’t help but worry. He wrote in A Choice of Catastrophes: “We must ask ourselves whether, within the space of this generation, the supply of available energy, which has been rising steadily all through human history, will finally peak and begin to decline, and whether that will carry down with it human civilization, bring about a desperate last-ditch nuclear war over the waning scraps, and so end all hope of human recovery.”

How things have changed in just a few decades. In 2013, America finds itself in the middle of an energy boom. Natural gas has been a game changer for our energy demands and has rippled out with prosperity across a wide variety of industries from railroads, shipping, local economies, and farming. The trend continues for the next decade, according to market research and analysis firm Frost & Sullivan, the futuristic business consulting firm. It sees shale gas contributing up to 49% of the 25.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas produced by the U.S. in 2020. 

Falling Behind

Richard Sear is Frost & Sullivan’s vice president of visionary innovation. He’s a bit of a futurist himself.

“Since mid-2008, the monthly price for natural gas has lost 70% of its value and has dropped 23% over the last year due to significant expansion of U.S. natural gas production,” he explains. “This is bad news for the average commodity trader but great news for fertilizer producers and other agriculture industries.”

Looking to the future, Sear sees a very different future for America’s energy needs.

“Shale gas won’t last forever,” he says. “It’s a limited resource. We see five areas that are particularly interesting: biomass and waste-to-energy, wind, geothermal, solar, and third-generation biofuels. These together could account for a sizable percentage of the country’s energy needs by 2020, and they’re all tied to farms and agriculture.

“We have to be careful not to let this current shale-gas boom lull us into falling behind,” he finishes gravely.

Sear is particularly worried that the U.S. lags in third-generation biofuels technology. Just as the first-generation biofuel crops like sugarcane, corn, wheat, and sugar beets are losing market value, Frost & Sullivan forecasts the same cycle with second-generation cellulosic products.

(First-generation biofuels are made from edible feedstocks; second-generation biofuels are made from nonedible cellulosic, waste, and other biomass sources; third-generation biofuels are algae-based cultured feedstocks.)

“At the moment, we don’t see the U.S. or the EU investing in the third-generation production like Asia. There’s a lot of work to be done with sensors, precision farming, and technology that needs to begin before we slip too far behind,” Sear says.

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Farm of the Future

Farms have a long history of alternative energy – from solar-powered electric fences and windmill-powered water pumps to supplying the crops to feed the massive biofuels market. How might we radically reimagine what a farm could be in the future?

With renewable and alternative energy garnering a larger and larger share of the U.S. electricity production, could farms produce not only their traditional crops but also energy?

In 10 to 15 years, better sensors and computers could manage the production, usage, and storage of energy that gets sold back to the grid. Matched with increased efficiencies and better environmental sensors to reduce waste and increase yield, farms could become self-sustaining and local producers of energy, too.

To test the feasibility of my idea about a new generation of energy farms, I asked Dan Sellars, an independent consultant to the financial industry, for his thoughts.

“Makes sense,” he said after hearing me out. “They could not only sell back to the grid and the power companies, but I can imagine them selling to other individuals or businesses, as well. It’s happened time and again on the Internet. You just have to start thinking of the grid and energy production more as a marketplace, facilitated by computers. It’s like an eBay or an Amazon marketplace, but for electricity and power.”

A new vision for the future of the farm and energy production begins to take shape. It is a landscape not just dotted with grain elevators and dairy barns. In a few years, I see more farmland blooming with wind turbines and flowering with solar panels, or algae crops. The bins aren’t just filled with corn and wheat; electricity is being locally grown, too.

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