Project Title: Life-cycle Environmental Benefits and Financial Resilience of Integrated Food-Energy Systems; closing the loop on nutrients, water, and energy
Integrated food-energy systems (IFES) produce and use renewable energy on farms. Designed well, IFES can improve economic viability of farms by maximizing sustainable use of nutrient and energy streams. Anaerobic digesters, one type of IFES, create economic opportunities through off-site sale of electricity and conversion of agricultural materials into marketable products. However, IFES adoption is challenging because benefits may not outweigh large investment and human capital costs associated with operating new technologies and developing new products; and adopters face risks from shifting energy markets, regulations, environmental changes and technological expertise. To understand how IFES adoption affects financial resilience and environmental performance of farms under future policy and environmental changes, this project uses an interdisciplinary approach to study 50 dairy farms in Vermont and New York, including farms that have: adopted anaerobic digesters; “intensified” integration by adding new marketable products or closing more nutrient and energy loops; and have not adopted IFES. Using input-output and technology-specific data collected from interviews with farm owners, agricultural engineers, regulators and utility experts, the team will create biophysical and engineering cost models; perform life cycle inventories (LCIs) of energy and material inputs, product outputs, and environmental releases; and assess financial performance of different anaerobic digester configurations. Results will then be combined with scenario analysis to assess how adopting and intensifying an IFES might affect farm financial viability and beneficial environmental outcomes under future technological, institutional and environmental changes. Model results will be uploaded into an online IFES database to support related collaborative research projects.
Funders: This project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).