Interest in the Agricultural sector is growing after the acquisition of Climate Corporation by Monsanto for $1B. The company co-founded by a former Google executive packaged its advanced weather prediction service into a crop insurance for farmers worldwide. Underserved for several decades, Agriculture is facing first-hand the impact of climate change, from more frequent storms to reduced supplies of water.
The future can be grim for some, but today challenges represent an opportunity for innovation for others. Four of the seven category prizes at the Cleantech Open last month went to new business ideas for Agriculture. That is a strong departure from last year when Transportation got most of the attention. Some of the most cutting-edge technologies, data science for instance, are applied to arguably the biggest challenge of our generation: how to feed 9 billion people by 2050 while managing limited water and energy resources?
The size of the undertaking cannot be understated. Fresh water reserves are coming down at an alarming rate. In developing countries, Agriculture uses or rather abuses water with more than 70% of the water supply. In the US, irrigation is still the second biggest user of water. What is first? Energy generation. And that is the scary part…
It roughly takes 25 gallons of water flow to generate one kilowatt-hour generated in a traditional thermal electric plant (coal, nuclear, etc.). That is why thermo-electric plants consume almost half of the water suppplies in the US (see picture below, courtesy of USGS). If natural gas is hailed as a reasonable and temporary solution to curb carbon emissions, the media fail to mention its devastating impact on water. A gas plant uses the same thermal electric process as coal and nuclear plants.
It is actually a vicious circle: the more we use energy the more we use water, and the other way around too. As temperatures rise and droughts become more frequent, we have to dig deeper to find fresh water. We also have to transport it further, from areas that do have water to areas that do not. For the same amount of water, that means more energy. In the State of California, more than 20% of the energy is now used to move water.
The spikes in power usage in rural areas of California are actually causing more frequent brown-outs according to PG&E. Peak usage occurs indeed in the summer when farmers pump water the most. The aging distribution network cannot keep up with the demand in a relatively low revenue market. That is why diesel generators are common on farms despite tighter air control regulation. There is no real alternative today to get back-up power.
What about solar onsite generation? Well, solar generation is currently tied to the grid. If the grid goes down, the solar inverters shut off. There is hope, however. The energy consumption on farms is pretty well correlated to the amount of sunshine. So integrating energy storage and solar generation with water pumping and other processes on a farm is attractive. It can both reduce the amount of carbon emission and the water foot-print because renewable energy sources do not need water to generate electricity.
But it takes innovation in load prediction and energy storage management to manage what amounts to a micro grid on a farm.There is no silver bullet. It will take all the innovations in micro-grids, smart irrigation, and more efficient food processes to get to where we need to be in ten years. And that will require an incredible amount of data crunching, from predicting weather on a mile radius, to detecting anomalies in irrigation, and ultimately to closing the loop by measuring plants part of the Internet of Things. And that requires energy on site whereas most of the farms still use surface irrigation such as flood irrigation.
The good news is that smart irrigation has been succesfully deployed before, in Australia and Israel for instance. Farmers in California are testing new technologies. Imagine H20 has a business plan competition focused this year on the Agriculture and Food sectors. The challenge is to make it scalable and accessible to farmers worlwide. With better access information thanks to sensors and computers, yields can increase while water usage decrease.
To net a positive impact, integrating renewable energy is what can turn the vicious circle into a viruous circle: saving water to save energy, saving on traditional energy generation to save water. The first generation of solar powered pumps (picture above) use water as a flexible stoarge mechanism. It is difficult to integrate renewable energy at an industrial scale because solar is intermittent and business operation need an important and reliable flow of water.
How to make sure that a farm will have energy and water when it needs it the most, and use it optimally to generate the best yield? That is where we go back to data science. A little known fact is that the field of data science in the US started in 1966 with… Agriculture. North Carolina State University was the primary investigator for a project sponsored by USDA and NIH to help southern universities (picture below, courtesy of SAS). It was selected as the lead because the campus had a mainframe computer, which was rare at the time.
The researchers developed Statistical Analysys System, and later founded SAS. It is only then that the statistical analysis took off in the healthcare and insurances sectors. So we are "back to the future" when it comes to Data and Agriculture... this time, we have to make it simple for the farmers. We can' expect them to become data scientists to make the right choices.