“We are only limited by our lack of investment and interest.”
What is needed to feed a population of 100,000 – 250,000 people? How much does it cost to produce electricity, clean water and food? Can this all be done in a sustainable fashion without fossil fuels? 21st Century technology is doubling its efforts to supply a rapidly growing human population.
Current techniques for fresh water extraction and food production has exacerbated aquifers, rivers and lakes to the point of no return. For agricultural purposes, humans are extracting more water from wells and aquifers than is being replenished naturally by the water cycle. The unfortunate consequence of over-exploitation is that humans only start thinking of alternative methods of fresh water, food and energy production when natural sources have been depleted.
In order to understand how technology is helping with sustainability, we must look to places where fresh water is scarce, but the sun and wind are plentiful. Places like Israel, Spain, Libya, Saudi Arabia, California, Australia and China have shortages and droughts of fresh water for human consumption and the agriculture industry.
I will briefly describe some of the costs affiliated with creating a system that is relatively eco-neutral in that less atmospheric contamination is produced and water is conserved and recycled more so than current methods.
The CIA world fact book is a database that includes specific information about each country ranging from natural resources, electricity consumption, military capacity, geography, to imports and exports. It is a reliable source to compare data between countries. It currently states that 75.3% of all electricity in the United States of America is produced by fossil fuels, 9.7% from nuclear, 7.6% from hydroelectric, and only 5.3% from renewable sources. The renewable sources of electricity production include wind power, solar power and geothermic power. It is no secret that Americans consume more energy, more food, more water, and contaminate more than any other people on Earth (though the United Arab Emirates is catching up). It is said that if the whole world lived like Americans, we would need 4 Earths!
“I think we have all come to the realization that America consumes way more of the world’s “stuff” than the people we account for. Americans make up for roughly 5% of the world’s population, but we consume much more than that. We use 20% of the world’s energy, eat 15% of the world’s meat and create 40% of the garbage on Earth” – Jason Jeffrey Semon
Not all geographical locations are the same, nor have the availability of natural resources, but countries like Nicaragua, Germany, Spain, Iceland, Denmark and Portugal all produce between 20% – 40% of their electricity using renewable resources. Germany, which receives significantly less sun per year than the USA, produces more solar energy and exports more solar panels to countries weening themselves from fossil fuel-based energy sources.
An ideal and sustainable society is very complicated, but we can ameliorate atmospheric contamination and over-exploitation of fresh water by including new techniques to the energy and agricultural industries. For coastal cities in arid or semi-arid territories, a desalinization plant is a great way to preserve underground aquifers. Over-exploiting wells can cause environmental disasters that include sinkholes and salt water intrusions.
In the southeast part of Spain, in a city called Carboneras, is where the largest desalinization plant in Europe is located. The province of Almería, where Carboneras is located, is one of the driest places in Europe. It is also home to the largest concentration of greenhouses in the world. The province is home to a ¨sea of plastic¨, greenhouses that cover over 80,000 acres of land and exports food to a number of European countries. The province is also home to more than 640,000 people, all of which need electricity, food and fresh water in the desert.
The desalinization plant at Carboneras, Almería cost about 121 million euros to construct ($158,768,335 Sept. 2, 2014). It provides water for 7,000 hectares of greenhouses (17,297 acres) and a maximum of 200,000 residents. The desalination plant uses a lot of energy. The figures range from 1kwh/m3 – 2kwh/m3 (per cubic meter) of water. The electricity for converting brackish water into fresh water is currently generated by a coal-fired plant. The plant converts sea water into fresh water using a reverse osmosis method, which uses a membrane to physically “strain” the salt water. Price estimates vary from 0.50 euros – 1.0 euros per m3 for consumption. Coal and petroleum-fired plants are clear sources of atmospheric contamination, and are subject to fluctuating international price markets of import and export of fossil fuel.
A cheaper and cleaner way of generating electricity for a desalination plant would be wind, solar, or even wave power (using ocean waves to do work). Roscoe Wind Farm in Texas has 634 wind turbines that produce enough energy for 250,000 homes. This wind farm was once the largest in the world and cost about $1 billion to install. It produces about 781.5 MW (megawatts) of electricity.
Above: Andasol solar power plant in Guadix, southern Spain.
A revolutionary solar power station located near Guadix, Spain, called Andasol Solar Power Station is a parabolic trough solar power station. This solar farm uses a parabolic mirror to focus solar energy onto a tube, which in turn, heats water flowing through it. The heat or steam can then be used to power machinery or move a turbine. It also contains a system that is able to generate energy during the night using salt water. Andasol Solar Power Station cost 900 million euros ($1.1 billion) and can produce 165 million kilo-watt hours of electricity each year. To put it in perspective, about 450,000 people currently benefit from the energy produced by this station. It will reduce carbon emissions by 150,000 tonnes per year when compared to coal-fired energy plants. This is a significant victory for clean and renewable energy industries for future endeavors.
In agriculture, intensive greenhouse horticulture is becoming more popular, more sustainable and more profitable than conventional agricultural methods. Popularity comes from the agriculturist’s ability to have more control over aspects of cultivation ranging from wind, humidity, nutrient absorption, water use, temperature and pests. They have been able to reduce or eliminate chemical pesticides for pest control by using simple sticky paper, insects, arachnids and other arthropods that eat fungi or other insects. New substrate and hydroponic systems allow for agriculturists to recycle water and use less fertilizer. In a hydroponic system, the water is continuously recycled in a closed system and the water solution does not seep into the soil. This prevents fertilizers from entering the local water table, which can provoke unwanted environmental reactions like algae blooms. A water recycling system also reduces water use in that it is not “lost” through the soil.
Above: Campo de Dalías, El Ejido, Almería, southern Spain. Part of 100,000 hectares (247, 105 acres) of greenhouses overlooking the north Mediterranean coast.
Intensive agriculture projects like those in Campo de Dalías and Campo de Níjar in the southeast corner of Spain is said to also reduce global warming because of its design. The greenhouses are painted white, a technique used in southern Spain, especially with housing, to reflect the solar intensity away from buildings. The glimmer of the greenhouses in the Almería province helps to reduce the overall temperature of the plants it harbors as well as the surrounding territories. Compare the white, energy-reflecting greenhouses to the vast and expansive black-top parking lots in the United States that absorb so much energy. If they would only equip all American parking lots with sun-shade solar panels – not only will it keep your car cool from the hot summer heat, it will produce enough energy for the building you are about to walk into.
As new technologies and cost-effective materials are tested, the increase in food consumption and human population does not necessarily have to degrade our environment. In traditional farming, soil is the primary medium from which crops grow. In monoculture farming, each year more fertilizer must be applied and depending on the water source, salt deposits begin to accumulate, which causes a reduction in crop yield. To avoid the environmental and production risks to crop yield, intensive agriculturalist have turned to substrate materials. Substrate is a growth medium, either organic or synthetic that replaces soil. Hydroponic growth substrate varies from place to place and is still being developed to produce the cheapest, but most effective growth medium. Some greenhouses in Spain and other parts of the world use grow bags, rockwool, perlite, vermiculite, sand, and coconut fiber. Coconut fiber is great because it is organic and is usually a bi-product, or waste product of the coconut industry. What was once “garbage” is now a viable medium for the agricultural industry.
These techniques must be embraced if we are to ensure our food, water and energy needs in the present and in the future.
“The world is less than 40 years away from a food shortage that will have serious implications for people and governments”
“For the first time in human history, food production will be limited on a global scale by the availability of land, water and energy,” Dr. Fred Davies
So in the end, how much money will it cost to produce enough food, electricity, and fresh water for 250,000 people in a semi-sustainable way? I would estimate about $3 billion. At about $1 billion for each industry, $1 billion for solar/wind power, $1 billion for desalinization plants, and $1 billion to produce tens of thousands of acres of greenhouses that can sustain perhaps an even larger population than current methods. Implicating this three-pronged system can do wonders for impoverished areas of the world that struggle to survive from international donors. It has been studied may times that international aid to places like Africa have actually made things worse. Places like Algeria, Nigeria, Angola, South Africa, Congo and Ethiopia are well endowed with natural resources like petroleum, natural gas, minerals and metals, but the profits from these industries cannot support their current populations. They must harvest alternative energy in order to change the political, social and economic landscape of the continent. They must, in addition to meeting electricity needs, convert to clean energy for agriculture, so that, the African continent can industrialize, engage in infra-continental agricultural trade, and maintain its status as the least contaminated continent in the world.
International paternalism restricts the local economy from developing in that it gets flooded with international products, which are sold at a cheaper price than local products. $3 billion is a lot to develop wind parks, solar parks, desalinization plants and thousands of acres of greenhouses, but it is far cheaper and more effective than the $50 billion in international assistance the continent receives each year. The more international aid that goes to the African continent, the more impoverished and more destitute the people become. The wind, sun, and ocean are three resources that are renewable and ecological sources of energy that will eventually triumph over fossil fuels, therefore, it is best to begin now before the wells dry up. We are only limited by our lack of investment and interest.
Only through environmentalism and social ecology can 21st century humans be able to meets our energy and sustenance needs, which in effect, reduce our impact on the climate and environment.
By: Opton A. Martin