New research will explore renewable energy, water treatment, ammonia production to bolster rural resilience

LAWRENCE — Farming communities across the U.S. are struggling. They face challenges such as low prices for agricultural products, high prices for energy and fertilizer, pollution from runoff and waste, and depleting water supplies. They also have opportunities such as the ability to produce large amounts of energy locally using new technologies and to harvest renewable energy like wind and solar. To maintain local economic vitality and food security for a growing population, and to build a resilient society, pathways to resilient agricultural communities are critical. Yet delayed action is reducing possible alternatives and increasing the eventual cost of adaptation.

To craft solutions to this challenge, Mary Hill, University of Kansas professor of geology, and a team of researchers have been awarded a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. NSF’s Innovations at the Food, Energy, Water Nexus program and the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research are funding the project “FEWtures: Innovation Analysis Framework for Resilient Futures, with Application to the Central Arkansas River Basin.”

The researchers will explore the economic viability of using renewable energy to increase usable water resources by treating degraded and unused water supplies, and produce ammonia that can both store energy and be used as fertilizer. They will study the potential of these innovations to create a multifaceted economic system able to sustain small town and rural (STAR) communities and maintain needed agricultural production.

“We look forward to working with stakeholders throughout the region,” Hill said. “Together we will envision and evaluate ways that local renewable energy can be viably used to solve local agricultural problems, such as water degradation and depletion. We will evaluate the circumstances under which this approach can invigorate the local economy and supply food for the world.”

Key to accomplishing these goals is a decision-support framework that the team will develop and test in the Central Arkansas River Basin, an arid region that covers parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The Central Arkansas River Basin is an ideal test case because of its risk of high nitrate contamination, high salinity, declining groundwater resources and, on the positive side, high potential for renewable energy. It is already experiencing the effects of climate change in the form of extreme weather events and changed timing of the annual high streamflows produced by snowmelt in mountains to the west.

The project will engage farming, livestock, water and energy organizations in the region, ranging from the Future Farmers of America to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and electric cooperatives.

For the FEWtures project, the team chose water treatment and ammonia production uses of energy (called “energy loads”) in part because they have production characteristics that complement the typical variable generation characteristics of wind and solar energy. However, there are two challenges with this approach. First, transporting water is expensive, so it’s necessary to treat water at the well field or the distribution point, and that means the process depends on local electric grid capabilities. Second, during production, ammonia needs a fairly even level of electric input, and it takes a few hours to stop and start ammonia production.

The team will evaluate the economic feasibility of balancing this second issue with ammonia’s capability as an energy storage mechanism. For the overall proposed systems of energy supply and loads to work, the team has determined that new approaches are needed to develop an electric microgrid for renewable-energy powered local-scale water treatment and ammonia production. The impact of these advances on the resilience of local and larger-scale regional and global systems will be evaluated.

The team seeks to establish a stakeholder-driven process and to increase usable water resource availability, mitigate agricultural runoff and waste, promote resilience in the agricultural systems, improve natural resources, and diversify and stimulate STAR community economies. The process is intended to develop a framework for food, energy, and water system innovations and measure their impact in terms of resilience, equity and social capital.

Hill’s team includes researchers from across the U.S.:

  • Peter Pfromm, ammonia and membrane specialist and professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering, Washington State University
  • Vincent Amanor-Boadu, decision support framework specialist and professor of agribusiness economics & management, Kansas State University
  • Hongyu Wu, microgrid specialist and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, Kansas State University
  • James Bloodgood, business innovations specialist and professor of management, Kansas State University
  • Robert Barron, global resource specialist and assistant professor of industrial engineering and engineering management, Western New England University
  • Benjamin Gray, stakeholder engagement specialist and postdoctoral researcher, department of society and conservation, University of Montana.

In addition to Hill, five KU faculty members are involved in the project:

  • John Symons, professor of philosophy, will relate social norms and governmental structures to resilient communities based on his experience with the National Security Agency.
  • Andrea Brookfield and Sam Zipper, assistant professor of geography and assistant scientist, Kansas Geological Survey, will quantify water resource availability and quality.
  • Ted Peltier, professor of civil, environmental & architectural engineering, will evaluate the potential that water produced as part of oil and gas development could be treated for use in agriculture.
  • Susan Stover, retired from the Kansas Geological Survey, will share her vast knowledge of farming and farmers in Kansas to establish stakeholder engagement in the project.

The project will train at least five doctoral students and 10 undergraduate students, and it will include a workshop for the KSU-based Kansas Youth Water Advocates.

KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research supported Hill’s proposal to the NSF — this is her first award from the foundation — and will help manage the award.

“I started attending the IPSR luncheons about three years ago and began talking with then-director Steven Maynard-Moody and others about my ideas. I felt very welcomed by this community,” Hill said. “Nancy Myers in their research development group was persistently supportive in our proposal efforts with the NSF INFEWS program. Her efforts rise well above any reasonable level of expectation — she was outstanding. Doug Bornemann of KUCR helped with editing, and Bob Rummer’s enthusiasm as the initial idea was developed was much appreciated. I am incredibly grateful for the support of both IPSR and KUCR. A 2017-2018 Research Excellence Initiative (REI) award was also instrumental to the success of this grant.”

Hill will be presenting on this research at an IPSR Research Luncheon at noon March 20, 2020. To attend the luncheon, contact Carolyn Caine.

Thu, 10/17/2019


Carolyn Caine

Media Contacts

Carolyn Caine

Institute for Policy & Social Research