NiSE research initiatives are developed collaboratively by practitioners and researchers, designed to develop cutting-edge methods and reflect the information and decision-making needs of key stakeholders. By bringing together the best resources from academia and practice to tackle sustainability challenges, NiSE initiatives accelerate change toward new sustainable enterprise models.

FoodsCube Initiative

Most work aimed at increasing the sustainability of food systems focuses on the bookends of the systems — environmental and social impacts of high-input commercial agriculture on one end, and availability of and access to healthy, affordable calories on the other. Efforts to improve coordination across the food supply chain (producers, processors, distributors and retailers) are less well understood and occur with little insight into the overall system. NiSE’s FoodsCube initiative harmonizes economic, biophysical and geographic data across the food supply chain to better assess the risks and opportunities associated with changing climate and growing demand.

Working with practitioners and stakeholders, FoodsCube is developing decision support tools to link upstream production and processing impacts to downstream product consumption. The project’s early work has focused on mapping supply chains associated with corn production and processing as inputs for ethanol, beef, chicken and pork production. The corn supply chain model links products with the farms that supplied the corn and calculates the environmental impacts of the corn – revealing a previously hidden relationship within the supply chain and identifying where opportunities may exist to make improvements.

Future work will improve the spatial characterization of the corn supply chain, expand to additional commodities, and produce an interactive tool that will allow the user to manipulate sourcing decisions to achieve impact reduction targets.

For more information, contact Andrew Goodkind, Taegon Kim or Jennifer Schmitt.

Energy Demand Management

Demand response programs let electricity users save money by changing their electricity consumption in response to changing prices. While demand response programs are managed by states mostly through utilities, demand response has not yet been implemented to its full potential in the Midcontinent Independent System Operator electricity markets. NiSE researchers conducted an empirical analysis of price responsiveness in retail and wholesale markets and compared the retail electricity market, in which consumers do not observe real-time price changes and pay a predetermined flat rate, with the wholesale electricity market, in which buyers are able to alter their electricity purchases based on real-time price changes. Results suggest that the observed price responsiveness of demand across market levels and subregions is associated with demand response program adoption and that future program design at the retail level could benefit from considering this subregional variation. Researchers are extending this analysis by focusing on specific energy users and modeling electricity consumption planning for large energy-consuming manufacturing plants.

Changes in electricity demand may also affect electricity generation. Future work will focus on the impact of hourly price elasticity of demand on whether  and where price elasticity in wholesale markets influences the emissions from power plants. NiSE researchers also plan to examine the impact of real-time pricing on emissions change in accordance with on-peak and off-peak hours, collect more granular industrial electricity usage data, and employ dynamic spatial analysis in the MISO region. This work contributes to a better understanding of the hourly electricity generation mix and the potential impact of reducing the peak demand on the environment.

NiSE researchers consult and collaborate with MISO market operators and researchers at different institutions to improve economic and environmental analyses.

For more information, contact Mo Li.

Sustainable Bioeconomy

NiSE’s sustainable bioeconomy initiative focuses on two main areas of renewable material utilization.

The first explores the effectiveness of state policies in encouraging renewable power and heat generation/consumption. Understanding what makes an effective state renewable energy policy helps policy-makers develop state renewable energy capacities, reducing environmental impacts and increasing energy security.

The second area explores the sustainable development of biorefineries, which utilize plant materials to produce biofuels, biochemicals and other types of biobased products. The environmental preferability of biobased fuels and products depends on a variety of factors, including type of plant materials used, manufacturing processes, and co-products produced. NiSE researchers are evaluating these factors to identify the most environmentally favorable and profitable pathways. Partners include the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, University of Washington, Washington State University, University of Oregon, University of Montana, Gevo, Weyerhauser, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative.

For more information, contact Luyi Chen, Rylie Pelton or Lloyd Riviera.

Sustainable Procurement

This initiative focuses on developing decision support tools organizations can use to more quickly and effectively reach their sustainability targets and objectives for carbon (CO2e) and water use in their supply chains. The tools use life cycle assessment methods to prioritize products and points in the supply chain that have the biggest impact on the environment and identifies product attributes (e.g., recycled content, biobased, organic) that are most effective at reducing climate change and/or water use impacts. Partners for this initiative include The Sustainability Consortium, the Global Environmental Management Initiative, Climate Earth and the University of Michigan.

For more information, contact Mo Li, Rylie Pelton or Jennifer Schmitt.

Waste Not: Food & Organic Waste Utilization

In developed countries, food production has been mechanized and streamlined, minimizing farm and transport spoilage. However, waste at the retail and household level can be significant. Almost 30 percent of all food grown and produced in the United States is lost due to spoilage (e.g. mold, pests, inadequate climate control), shrinkage and food waste from the supermarket downstream to the household. And food waste across the United States makes up 14.5  percent of waste going into landfills. This waste produces methane, a greenhouse gas, when it could be providing value instead as animal feed or fuel.

This project is looking for opportunities to re-engineer food and other organic waste in Minnesota. NiSE researchers are looking at where food and other organic wastes originate across the state in relation to areas of possible uses. The initial focus was on mapping and estimating food waste from grocery stores based on population densities. Researchers have also focused on mapping large food processors as organic waste sources and feed mills and hog farms as waste demand sites.

NiSE’s work on organic waste utilization is part of the University’s MNDrive Global Food Ventures grant program awarded in 2014. Faculty and researchers spans five departments, two colleges and the Institute on the Environment. This group also has collaborators at the University of Toronto and a technical advisory group that includes experts from the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, Met Council, Minnesga Inc., Lund Food Holdings and Superior Process Technologies.

Institute on the Environment