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Biowaste Electrical Generation; the bad, the ugly, and the alternative: Gasification/Biochar

 
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The subject of biowaste electrical generation has come up in a variety of ways over the past few years (I'm no fan), as well as in another recent thread, and I thought that it would be better to have the discussion around that as a specific thread, and so I have created this thread to have that discussion with those posts included.  The following quote mentions a movie that is also mentioned in the included posts. This quote pretty much sums up my opinion of the technology as it has been implemented to date:


   Biomass is a massive con trick that has been hailed, like nuclear power, as a “green” alternative to fossil fuels. Planet of the Humans does not attempt to address the scandal of nuclear power, but it does tackle biomass head on as the fake solution it is – in most cases spewing out more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the coal plants it may have replaced.



As mentioned in this quote, the movie does tackle that one topic, and does an alright job of it, however, in my opinion, Biowaste has been tackled much better elsewhere.  And, apart from a few scatterings of positive information here and there in the movie, I wasn't much of a fan of its content.  Besides,The thought debunking in this article from Massachusetts Peace Action (which also mentions a link to a better film about biowaste) I'll leave that to others to form their own opinion.

Bruce Fine initiated the discussion of Biowaste Electrical Generation in the other thread, and I wanted to acknowledge that now so the context of some of the posts below will reflect the fact that this thread did not originate here.

Edited to add quote and link


 
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I don't know how many of you are aware of what is going on with biowaste electrical generation. but it looks pretty ugly to me. giant swaths of forest are destroyed to feed the power generation stations and environmental groups are endorcing it. in my mind after learning about what is going on seems almost to be a perversion of environmentalism.

very interesting video here

 
 
Staff note (Roberto pokachinni) :

Bruce, and all Permies, here is another quote from the critique I mentioned in my first post: "It is hugely disingenuous, and frankly misleading, to hide in the credits at the end of a movie the fact that two of the leading organizations being damned in the movie for their support of biomass as a “green” energy source (350.org and Sierra Club) do not, in fact, support biomass any more. Bill McKibben deserves an apology for being misrepresented in this film, even if he was a supporter of biomass at one point in his career and equivocal about it at other points since then."

 
Roberto pokachinni
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The most frustrating part of the biowaste situation is that the whole process could be so much greener.  The plant could be producing biochar, capturing all its emissions, and it's heat while producing electricity, AND it could be fed with material from coppiced or pollarded revegetated woodlands.  This process could be used to build stability and water holding capacity in places like Alberta, where they still burn coal.  Areas of depleted soil reserves could be completely reversed and ponds dug to hold water and increase wildlife all around the cities.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Hi Bruce,

I agree with everything that you said about Biowaste Electrical Generation, and the destruction of forests to feed these machines.  Thank you for mentioning this practice in the thread I started on B.C.'s Old Growth Forests.

As you can see, I've split this thread for the potential discussion of Biowaste Electrical Generation.  I created an opening post for the thread to give a bit of context, and now this one to give you context of why I did that.

Clearly, we have differing thoughts on the movie you posted about, and I'd rather not discuss those here; however, if you do want to discuss that movie, please go to This Permies thread about it about it, and post about the specific things about the movie that you find appealing.   Others who are reading here and are interested in that discussion can take part there.  

I personally find it better when a thread has a specific topic and sticks more or less to it.  The biowaste issue could have stayed in the original thread from which this was split but, again, the context would have been weird as it was attached to your references to the movie, which apart from the biowaste issue, has little to do with that particular thread.  So that is why I decided to separate it.  

Biowaste Electrical Generation is a big deal, and it is nasty, and that we do agree on fully, and I figure that it is best to separate these things so that the discussion doesn't go off on any more tangents unnecessarily.

Edited to add link
 
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Roberto pokachinni wrote:The plant could be producing biochar, capturing all its emissions, and it's heat while producing electricity ...


That would be a neat trick. I'm curious, do you know if someone has actually designed such a thing in detail? A concept that sounds good is often grounded by devilish details when it comes to implementation.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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There are technologies all over the world in the development to do just that., Douglas.  In fact, right in my own valley, there is a biocarbon plant that is processing mill and logging waste into biochar and capturing its emissions for biochemicals for other uses (such as wood vinegar), recycling it's excesses to power itself once it is running and producing power.   Here's an article in the local paper about it:  Mcbride's Secret Refinery, Biochar Plant

I was thinking of, somewhere near Edmonton Alberta, a vastly scaled-up version of this, processing agricultural and animal husbandry wastes (straw, chaff, manure, barn bedding), as well as coppiced willows and poplars around rehabilated water features (which have been ploughed under all over the prairies), with the addition of municipal sewage waste and turning this to char...  

 
Roberto pokachinni
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This is the website of the biocarbon plant  BC Biocarbon. I know the two guys who are in the article.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Thanks. The BC Biocarbon article was interesting. Essentially, it's a new iteration of a very old technique -- destructive distillation of biomass. They don't produce electricity, though; it's an external input to their process.

The "farm waste" concept is a mystery to me -- they must mean straw. I certainly haven't seen it as
a problem material. It either goes directly back on the land, finely chopped during harvest, or is bought and sold as bedding etc. and eventually put back on the land. Maybe 50 years ago there was systematic burning, but none that I'm aware of now. So honestly a centralized facility doesn't seem to make sense to me. In the big picture (either carbon emissions or economics), I suspect that the transportation element would sink such a venture.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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I don't think I mentioned systematic burning at all.  Primarily the excesses would be in the form of manure, and straw.  Cattle farms and feedlots at abattoirs, in particular, often struggle with dealing with their excesses.  If spread directly on the fields, which is often the case as you mentioned, the potential for groundwater contamination is very high.  Composting manure is not easily done as it packs anaerobically by itself and needs to be mixed with other things.  If, on the other hand, half of this manure produced is turned to biochar, and used to compost the other half (or very toxic and expensive to treat municipal sewage used for the char that is then used to enhance the composting of the high-quality and less toxic animal manure), then we are really making progress.  The char would help aerate the piles while locking up many of the toxins  The resulting char and compost could then be safely applied to the fields, and become a much more valuable resource and revenue stream.  Gasified powered vehicles (widely used in Germany during the second world war due to the allied boycott of oil imports) could be used to transport it in a carbon-neutral manner from farms to the biochar plant which sits at the edge of and replaces the city's sewage plant.  Maybe it's just a pipe dream, but I think that it has merit.  It's just a matter of thinking outside the box and applying known technologies in different ways toward beneficial ends.  Ben Peterson's gasifiers were able to produce electricity, so I don't think it's out of the question that such a plant could do so as well.  I'm talking about something big enough to replace at least some of the power of a coal plant (and offsetting the rest with rooftop solar, and wind farms), so that's a pretty substantially large project with lots of inputs needed.  There has to be something to replace that energy demand once the coal becomes too scarce to be economical.  Holistic farming, with silvopasture on keylines (along with the pond rehabilitation I mentioned), could provide perpetual coppice sources of willows, maples, and others while holding water in the landscape soils and blocking wind erosion; something that is sorely lacking in most of the praries.  The production on the land increases dramatically while producing real energy crops (wood for power plant fuel, and for gasification char).  Transportation is a potential issue, but train tracks went to a lot of these locations in the past to load from the grain silos...
 
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I've been reading the book, "Burn - using fire to cool the Earth" by Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper, and it's interesting how biochar made of different materials and produced at different temperatures are better or worse for using for special uses in industry as opposed to just adding back into the soil. Much of the book's focus is on using biochar to substitute for other products that are currently being made either out of fossil fuels, or by the energy of fossil fuels.

Pg. 140/41: "...CalForest has become a resilient carbon cascade. Sawmill waste that might otherwise be burned in open bonfires or trucked to landfill is pulverized and fed to a biochar retort. The heat from the retort is ducted through the greenhouses, where conifer seeds are sprouting, while the gases are captured and fed to a large internal combustion engine that turns an electricity generator. The retort produces neither smoke or ash, just tons of biochar..."  Although the book has a lot of references at the back, this particular section doesn't have a link to more information, and it's really too vague to gauge just how much electricity is being produced.

A few pages further, it talks about the benefits of carbonizing invasives. The very nature of a plant that gets that label is that it generally grows quickly and out-competes plants that have lived in that niche for a much longer period. (Reality is more complicated - many plants given that label are responding to human activities which allowed it to get a toe-hold in the first place, such as high nutrient run-off from artificially fertilized fields, but that's an aside.) There is an example from Cuba on pg 147/48: "...Cubans found they were up against a formidable adversary - Dychrostachys cinerea. Marabu, also called sickle bush, is a woody weed, really a small tree, with long needle-like thorns. It has jumped from the sugar fields to the surrounding areas and today covers 18% of Cuba, or 20,000 square miles (51,800 km2). Because it spreads by rhizome, the more the farmers cut it out, wading in with machetes and chain saws, the faster it grows back. By the late 1990's, the weed had become a very large thorn in the entire nation's side.
It was then Cuba switched from viewing the weed as a problem to seeing it as a resource. Slowly at first, but then with greater momentum, they began converting invasives into investments. Farmers int eh provinces of Cienfuegos, Camaguey, and Granma cut the trees down and carbonized them by slow burning. The charcoal was shipped to Spain, Greece France, and Germany where it is used for cooking. By 2011, maribu charcoal exports brought Cuba [$5.8 million] in needed exchange....

... But now Cuba has another idea... Juventud Rebelde, a researcher of the University of Camaguey, said, "With each hectare generating 35 tons of marabut biomass, we can produce up to 13 megawatts from the harvest of 10 hectares (25 acres) daily."

Now the problem I find with books like that rears its ugly head - they've used square miles/square kilometers in one spot, and acres/hectares in another spot, so 10 hectares = 0.1 square Km. Now also, they say, "we can produce up to 13 megawatts" - but is this +/-1%, 20%, or only on a good day once/decade. This is my problem with books like this. The ideas are there, I believe they're actually doing some/much of this stuff, but the devil is in the details. They carry on to say that 3 tons of marabu are roughly the equivalent of 1 ton of crude oil. I tried getting that math sorted out by searching, but I got a comparison in megawatt hours which is not the same thing at all, so I'm still left wondering if the math is right or wrong, and my brain's too tired to try to figure it out.

The take away is that, certainly we can produce electricity from wood, that we *don't* need to kill trees to do it, that it's waaayyy... more effective if you stack functions, using the excess heat for homes, businesses or greenhouses, making biochar to support the coppiced trees in the process, and possibly to make some other useful byproduct also. However, it does take a pile of land so I suspect to make it work, step 1 will still require people to find more efficient ways to live so that less electricity is needed to live a comfortable life.
Staff note (Jay Angler) :

For people wishing to discuss other parts of the book I'm quoting from, there is a thread started here: https://permies.com/t/150657/Book-BURN-fire-Cool-Earth

 
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I've been reading the book, "Burn - using fire to cool the Earth" by Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper, and it's interesting how biochar made of different materials and produced at different temperatures are better or worse for using for special uses in industry as opposed to just adding back into the soil. Much of the book's focus is on using biochar to substitute for other products that are currently being made either out of fossil fuels, or by the energy of fossil fuels.

Pg. 140/41: "...CalForest has become a resilient carbon cascade.


The take away is that, certainly we can produce electricity from wood, that we *don't* need to kill trees to do it, that it's waaayyy... more effective if you stack functions, using the excess heat for homes, businesses or greenhouses, making biochar to support the coppiced trees in the process, and possibly to make some other useful byproduct also. However, it does take a pile of land so I suspect to make it work, step 1 will still require people to find more efficient ways to live so that less electricity is needed to live a comfortable life.



I too am reading the Burn book, and just got to the Calforest part last night at bedtime.
Thank you for sharing that Jay.  Definitely reducing consumption and increasing lifestyle efficiency is a must if we are to utilize such a process to it's best.  It is no magic bullet, but (to use an analogy mentioned in the book) it is a part of the buckshot of silver units that can form parts of the transition.  

I looked into the Calforest a bit, online, but couldn't get a lot of info.  I did find some reference to Tom Jopson (and Calforest) in This Interesting and Related Article on a gasification pioneer who helped get Tom going.  Lots of info there about wood generating power, and, later, also producing biochar...  also, quite interestingly for biochar/ag is the comparison photos of the tree seedlings grown with and without char, (1/3 to halfway down the article), stacking functions at that nursery.  

I can imagine deep keyline ripping (not tilling and/or disking and flipping) in the prairies, while incorporating biochar and compost. Here is a link  to Richard Perkins building 25 cm of soil in three years (15:02-19:28minutes), although he does use biochar I don't think in this case he was using biochar, just ripping and then having cattle and chickens holistically grazing which increases the root activity of the grazed plants. I imagine if compost/biochar was introduced at this time, as well as the seed of deep-rooted plants like alfalfa and perennial rye, he would have had even more dramatic gains in the depth of living soil over three years.  So much prairie topsoil has been lost due to poor management, and this could be a huge step to rebuilding it.

Here, a gasifier that sits on a pallet kicks out up to 20KW of electricity ! !  
 
Roberto pokachinni
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I have been doing further reading online and in the Burn book.  Here is a 2014 white paper submitted by the Pacific Institute For Climate Solutions.  Here are a couple of relevant takeaways from that.

In BC, excess available biomass waste feedstocks are around 10 million tonnes per year, mainly from forest operations and mills. If this was converted at a 50 percent yield, five million tonnes of biochar could be produced. If all of this were to be used for coal substitution, for example, it would account for 270 percent of BC’s internal coal usage, including cement production and industrial steam generation. In relation to GHG reductions, if BC were to also substitute a portion of all stationary combustion of fossil fuels with biochar, this could reduce provincial emissions by 22 percent.

The production of biochar itself offers another opportunity for energy generation. During production, 50 to 70 percent of the original potential energy of the feedstock is retained in the biochar. The remainder is expressed in the byproducts of heat and gases. This energy could be usefully captured by coupling biochar production with electricity generation or heat generation. For example, in remote areas, off-grid diesel electricity generators can be replaced with a biochar producing facility, with the byproduct gases being used to run the generator instead of diesel. The resultant biochar could then be used as a local heating fuel or exported for added value.



It should be noted, also, that some people are worried about the burning of biochar in coal plants, thinking that this will release CO2.   The released carbon, however, is minimal in comparison to the alternatives: burning coal, or burning the wood in slash piles in the forest, or converting the wood to pellets and burning it, or biowaste electrical generation.  The amount of CO2 released by burning the biochar is approximately equated to the amount that would naturally occur if the woody waste decomposed, and without the methane, (which is 84X more potent of a Greenhouse Gas).

 
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Cincinnati gets cold in the winter and also has a fair amount of forest waste to deal with.
Our hills are covered with greenery, but mostly it's honeysuckle.
The original trees are long gone,  denuded from the landscape when this was the frontier.
The city contracts with Rumke to take away yard waste and compost it.
We can by it back if we want!
At one point the Cincinnati/Hamilton county water workswas trucking human waste across town and then burning it!
Just drying out the treated human waste takes a lot of energy.
A system that turned forest waste into heat, char,  and electricity could be tied into the county  waste treatment system.
Biogas,  biochar,  cogeneration, fertilizer,  food waste disposal,  yard and forestry waste, bringing it all of it together would be amazing.
But not so likely.

Because of that I'm into individual solutions as much as anything.
I love the idea of space heatingwith biochar producing stoves.
Of the designs out there the TLUD mass heater seems the most in reach for a poor man like myself
A load of wood chips could last a few years as fuel,  and become a carbon sequestering soil amendment as well.
Or,  that char might run a generator via the simple-fire method.
Selling it in a soil mix would pretty much  guarantee sequestration.

The biggest thing I can imagine doing myself would be running a business turning yard waste into biochar.
It would need to be in a rural or an industrial area,  commercial or residential districts would be too strict.
What to do with the heat?
Baking  would be neat but  distilling, steam juicing , dehydrating and such have durable, transportable  results.
Selling hot water to adjoining businesses could work, if there are any.
Offering store fronts with free heat and hot process water might be enticing.
A greenhouse,  could work,   limited by season of course
Commercial laundry with an environmentally friendly pedigree.

The smoke has its own range if products,  pairing the wood vinegar with a distilled water seems like possible niche.
The tars and other products,  I think I would mostly divert immediately  back into creating heat, as storing and processing them seems like one complication too much for a small business.
-Collecting and disposing of yard waste
-Producing char and compost
-Producing distilled water
-Producing liquid smoke.
 
Jay Angler
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William Bronson wrote:

bringing it all of it together would be amazing.
But not so likely.

Because of that I'm into individual solutions as much as anything.

I totally hear you! I could try to get the local Municipal Hall people to pay attention to what we could be doing to sequester carbon while improving local soil and providing raw material for local industries, but it's "not their job" to build the thing, but it *is* their job to regulate it and one would need a *lot* of commitment to get through all the hoops at all the levels to make it happen.
So I, too, am looking back at, "what can I do realistically on my farm with my resources" and then hoping that my example will spread.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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A system that turned forest waste into heat, char,  and electricity could be tied into the county  waste treatment system.
Biogas,  biochar,  cogeneration, fertilizer,  food waste disposal,  yard and forestry waste, bringing it all of it together would be amazing.
But not so likely.


Perhaps.  Perhaps not. The way I see it is that it wasn't very long ago in the past, even in my relatively young memory, that there was no municipal water was going straight into natural water systems without treatment (this is still happening in Victoria (my province's capital)  Municipal yard waste, composting, recycling... all was being landfilled, or burnt in sites outside of town, and in some regards and in some locations this is still happening.  where no central landfill existed, farmers or landowners buried it on their land.  I've found two dumps buried in my property.  I also remember all that quite strongly as my dad owned a disposal business and I worked for him on the weekends while I was in high school, and later he became one of the team running an improved wastewater system.  But now, like with the oxygenated ponds at that treatment facility, the entire waste stream has changed.  Landfills no longer accept certain items, or they are in the same location but different sorted piles to be put to use.  Public and government awareness has changed significantly, and the paradigm is set to shift and is shifting further still.  I see possibilities in that the resource is there, and energy demand is not going away, but instead is increasing, while fertility in the soil has decreased alarmingly.

I agree that small neighborhood businesses should also take up the cause.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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I totally hear you! I could try to get the local Municipal Hall people to pay attention to what we could be doing to sequester carbon while improving local soil and providing raw material for local industries, but it's "not their job" to build the thing, but it *is* their job to regulate it and one would need a *lot* of commitment to get through all the hoops at all the levels to make it happen.

 The economic bottom line of the municipality to pay to fuel the heaters for recreation centers, meeting halls, fire departments, et cetera, may, before long, make it their job to make sure the embodied energy of all this biomass gets put to more productive use, offsetting the drain on finances, as natural gas becomes scarcer and more expensive, and electrical rates continue to rise.
 
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I personally think the Achilles heel of any of this may be in the future people (especially the logging industry) will be legislated to waste less and thus, with other markets competing for resources, (like fuel pellets) the total amount of available excesses will be greatly reduced.  I think though that because of the product streams and benefits of gasification and biochar especially if people wake up to the reality of its full carbon sequestration possibilities, the pellet industry will fall by the wayside.
 
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I've heard this happened  to DIY biodiesel and grease mobile enthusiasts .
The oils that had been a waste  became a commodity.
 
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William Bronson wrote:I've heard this happened  to DIY biodiesel and grease mobile enthusiasts .
The oils that had been a waste  became a commodity.

Yes, I have two friends that do this. One simply filters it and puts it in his truck. The second does a more complicated treatment of it which generates certain wastes that he's still not dealing with effectively, and gives off fumes which are not healthy to be breathing, but this guy is part of a Biodiesel Co-op and the end product has to me "more diesel" rather than "just used fry oil".  Apparently there is a method based on enzymes, but that's not available on the small, local level he's working at and is also more expensive and already they can't compete with cheap "real diesel".

I see similar issues ahead for biochar in its variety of forms. The "Burn" book mentions the benefits of adding biochar to animal feed. But at some point, people abused that, using the biochar to cover up moldy, bad feed, so adding biochar to animal feed was banned (at least in the USA). Any time something new and good comes along, there tends to also come people who are willing to abuse it, steal it, steal feed stocks for making it, etc, etc. Trying to get this into operation on many different scales will be the challenge, but as Roberto mentioned - attitudes to many things have shifted in the last 20 years and it is time to encourage them to shift farther and faster if we want to save our soils!
 
William Bronson
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The production of Portland cement  mentioned up-thread made me think of char as a substitute for the sand that goes into conventional concrete.
Charcoal is very soft by comparisonto sand , but it turns out people are already thinking of this:

https://medium.com/@shreyasvmore/the-green-charcoal-at-the-future-of-architecture-and-building-biennale-e1cdf702b82c

These bricks are very cool but rather high tech.
I'm wondering if "charadobie" or char cob(chob?) exists.
In the past I've made whitebread into charcoal,  mostly because the chickens wouldn't eat it.
Now I'm wondering if it could be made into a mushroom infused paste that holds a biochar brick or planter together.

 
William Bronson
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I've looked into it, apparently mushrooms hate white bread too...
 
Jay Angler
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William Bronson wrote: I've looked into it, apparently mushrooms hate white bread too...

That statement made me laugh, but it's a sad sort of laugh - we feed this to our children??? and chickens and mushrooms are smart enough to refuse it!!!
I'd never thought of bio-charring it - brilliant!

Back on topic - the Burn book that Roberto and I are reading talks about tests on substituting char for sand. What the feed-stock is and the percentage substituted needs a lot more research. However, it's also being added to plaster and in plaster it helps absorb air pollution and moderate humidity. The book suggested that if it's used in the bottom layers, the surface layers can be made without so you don't have to have really dark rooms.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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I have a friend who runs his entire tree planting company oof of biodiesel. There is a lot less competition in a rural place like this, and he drew up contracts with his suppliers.  he produces biodiesel and 1/2 the cost of regular diesel, which is a significant saving for his company. this is an old (2010) article in the paper about it before he got a much bigger machine and greatly expanded production.  

The comparison of biochar to biodiesel, in this regard, is not really kosher with me though.  With biodiesel, the supply is limited to frier oil from restaurants.  With biochar, there is a massive amount of feedstocks that can be utilized.  In my province of British Columbia, an area of forests about the size of Vermont and Delaware combined is clearcut every year, and that is removed from the equations for carbon capture for at least 13 years following planting.  The combined emissions from having all of these trees removed from the growing landscape Exceeds British Columbia's Total Fossil Fuel Emissions I'm pretty sure we have enough area to create some coppiced tree farms (of birch, poplar, alders, and willows) that can perpetually produce all the biochar that we need.  It's just a matter of political will or a combination of that and popular pressure.    
 
William Bronson
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Creating an economic incentive to conserve carbon capturing assets like forests seems like a good idea to me.
On the other hand,  ethanol subsidies also seemed like a good idea to me at one point.
Roberto,  what does the book your reading say about a carbon tax and trade marketplace ?
I think making each of us responsible for our own carbon emissions might have an impact.


For example I once was a plumber with a company that pumped out septic tanks.
I never did the job,  but I did sell the service.
Most of the cost to the customer was the fee for having the contents of the truck treated.
The drivers told me that some fly-by-night pump truck companies had been caught dumping in creeks or even opening the valves a little and driving down the highway till the tanks got low...
Most people can understand being  responsible for not pooping on the street or in the watershed.
If the processes that release carbon are treated the same way,  having a carbon neutral city could be  like having a city with clean tap water, sewage treatment, refuse collection or paved roads.
 
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Interesting discussion. If I recall near the top of the thread, there was mention of turning agriculture waste into char and electricity and if I recall correctly it was mentioning the Prairie like Alberta. My question is: what is defined as agriculture waste in relation to the Prairie crops? The reason I ask is in central Alberta a company has plans of building an mdf plant to turn wheat straw into mdf. This isn’t the first time this idea has been tried in the Prairies but it has failed for two reasons. The first is they wouldn’t pay enough to cover the cost of baling the straw. The second and most important reason why they failed is even if they paid enough, farmers found more value of that agricultural waste going back into the soil than selling it.
On a different note Of the same subject, there was an article I believe last year, that the City of Swift Current was going to build a small power plant. The plan is to take cardboard and turn it into char and I think to use the gasses to make electricity. Now why not just recycle the cardboard? Evidently there isn’t a huge demand for cardboard to recycle ( flooded market) and so anything that isn’t high grade cardboard gets taken to the nuisance ground and buried. My town has single stream recycling bins which end up going to Swift Current and that is what happens with the cardboard. My solution to giving my cardboard for free so my tax dollars can pay to have it trucked for two hours and have another city burn it and sell electricity and char is to heat my own place with my waste cardboard. I have a heater which I put a retort in it and I make my own char, and heat my place. For my needs cardboard makes pretty poor biochar so use it instead to heat the retort.
IMO for my community I think it would be better if someone could turn said waste into fuel pellets and as such cut down the number of recycling Bins the taxpayers Are renting. Would give some jobs to some people, alternative heating fuels, cut down the expense for a cash strapped village.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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William Bronson wrote:

Creating an economic incentive to conserve carbon-capturing assets like forests seems like a good idea to me.
On the other hand,  ethanol subsidies also seemed like a good idea to me at one point.

 Ethanol never seemed like a good incentivized cropping idea to me, but I get your point, William.  I think keeping forests intact as much as possible and allowing as large a portion of mature forest to proceed to old-growth age, would be a very good thing to incentivize, especially considering how much of our primeval old tall forest lands have been leveled, and much of that has been exported and huge amounts of biomass have been burned in slash piles, or left to decompose at more rapid rates than would be natural in the same setting.  

In regards to the coppiced deciduous groves I was mentioning earlier, these would be gaining carbonaceous nutrients (every time a top section was cut for coppice, some of the roots die, and then there is a huge bloom of life as the tree regains leaf matter when the tree regains top growth), and these groves could easily be planted with seedlings of other species [like fir, pine, spruce, cedar, etc], or just allowed to transition at any time back to the wild forest, which would thrive in the extra nutrients provided.  

If I was in charge of designing the system, I would take certain clear cut areas that are near towns, near abundant spring snowmelt streams, and which were relatively flat for mechanical harvesting.  After the grove to be coppiced reached a certain level of maturity, I would allow a biochar plant to harvest it but only with the promise to put a certain tonnage of compost/char mix back on the grove the first two years of any part of the grove's harvest (that would be incentivized).  The local snowmelt, which would normally mostly rush by proceeding to larger rivers to the sea, or straight to the sea (properly calculated as to what is excess water), could be piped and fed into keyline drips {made out of sturdy reusable materials) on a parallel pattern {for ease of access routes}, boosting the potential of the forest to make the best use of the annual available water.

Roberto,  what does the book your reading say about a carbon tax and trade marketplace ?
I think making each of us responsible for our own carbon emissions might have an impact.

 I haven't read the whole book yet, and they haven't got into it yet as far as I remember (the book si so full of ideas and ongoing projects, and studies, and programs, I have a hard time keeping all the info in my head.  I got the book out of the library system so I'm sure you can order it in too!  If I do come across it in there I will mention it here.  that said, I think carbon accountability is long overdue.  Instead of that, we have been subsidizing our largest polluters,  Frustrating!  At the same time, my province has done a lot in regards to putting a price on carbon in a few different ways, but it means that fuel is expensive and where I live there is no public transit options.  

   
 
Roberto pokachinni
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My question is: what is defined as agriculture waste in relation to the Prairie crops? The reason I ask is in central Alberta a company has plans of building an mdf plant to turn wheat straw into mdf. This isn’t the first time this idea has been tried in the Prairies but it has failed for two reasons. The first is they wouldn’t pay enough to cover the cost of baling the straw. The second and most important reason why they failed is even if they paid enough, farmers found more value of that agricultural waste going back into the soil than selling it.

 Hi, Steven McKraken.  Thanks for joining the discussion!  You are probably right about that; most farmers I know are pretty set in their practices and it is very human to resist change and/or new ideas, however, if the same farmers were shown repeated demonstrations of the boost to growth that a fraction of that straw material (made into biochar) would produce when added in the fields in trial strips, then I think the convincing might be a little easier.  On a slight tangent to that, I'd mention that on a good hay year, semi-trailer truckload after truckload goes by me on the highway between Alberta and B.C.  If it's cost-effective to do that, then I think it wouldn't take much for those areas to be incentivized to plant and grow crops specifically for carbonization.    

My solution to giving my cardboard for free so my tax dollars can pay to have it trucked for two hours and have another city burn it and sell electricity and char is to heat my own place with my waste cardboard. I have a heater which I put a retort in it and I make my own char and heat my place. For my needs cardboard makes pretty poor biochar so use it instead to heat the retort.

Great! I'm glad to hear that you are on this!  If a large percentage of people were doing that we would greatly reduce the home energy demands in a lot of communities!

IMO for my community I think it would be better if someone could turn said waste into fuel pellets and as such cut down the number of recycling Bins the taxpayers Are renting. Would give some jobs to some people, alternative heating fuels cut down the expense for a cash strapped village.

 In Jasper Alberta, where I was today, there is no curbside pickup for recycling.  Everybody drops it in community-scale bins that are then cabled onto trucks and hauled away.  So, the same could be done with cardboard, right at the plant that you mentioned (people in a town could drop it off when going about other business), and there is no reason why any of the trucking couldn't be fueled by retort syngas anyway.  Fuel pellets made of biochar are, as far as I can tell, by far the best way to do this, as far as emissions and efficient conversion of heat units.  
 
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I will say a lot of the farmers in my area are always changing to more cutting edge technologies. There are some further east that I believe are playing with biochar. I would say the biggest challenge to get farmers to use char is the fact that the University of Saskatchewan has done trials and the conclusion was that has very limited benefits in our Saskatchewan climate and soils. I think it might help a little bit but... where there seems to be progress though is in the dairy and possibly in other livestock sectors. Feed the char to the cows and eventually the char infused manure will make it to the soils.
Especially in my area where things are fairly dry, we want as much of the straw go back to the soil as there is very little organic matter. For example north of me a few miles away had a big fire 3 years ago, the farmers were disappointed because 20 years of soil building was destroyed. The char would have to bring in massive yields to convince these guys to give up their straw. Hay on the other hand is a valuable commodity that will get shipped. Straw is dirt cheap often time’s not even worth the time and money spent into it.
The exception I see to this is flax straw. Once that is harvested, the straw is gathered in piles and burned. Some guys bale it to burn in bale burners. If a person could design a system to char flax straw and dump it right back into the soil that would be wonderful. But I think the limiting factor is the volume.
There is a company In Saskatchewan that takes old dead Pallets, grind them up and makes char out of them. I think if we could set things up like they are doing where waste can be turned into valuable agriculture product and use the heat to make electricity, heat buildings, heat greenhouses would be great, which I think is the intent of the thread.
While of the subject, I remembered I was looking at wood heating system that caught my eye but I just don’t have that kind of money. It was called the BioBurner. Send any feedstock you want like hammermilled straw, wood chips, etc. And it would burn and heat water for water heating. And make char.
If farmers can be convinced to add char to the soil this would probably be the method. That and if they have cattle, feed the char to their cows.
I hope I don’t sound to critical. Hope this discussion helps! I am using my own char in my garden which is very poor soil. I have no idea if it is helping but it is one of the tools I use to build up the soil. I do hope it will help retain water so I don’t have to water to much.
 
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I would suggest that biochar, like everything else, has pros/cons and benefits/detriments.
Steven McKraken wrote:

University of Saskatchewan has done trials and the conclusion was that has very limited benefits in our Saskatchewan climate and soils.

I have heard that soils in areas with high rainfall which can leach nutrients out of the soil show the best benefits from biochar. That said, farmers are trading off between the *known* benefit of the straw on the land vs less-clear long-term benefit of biochar, and at least in the short term, some of the no-till poly-culture soil building coupled with mob-grazing being used on some farms may build the soil faster and generate enough extra bio mass that as you said later, can be fed to animals to be distributed by them in fancy packaging designed to attract worms and manure beetles.

And wrote:

For example north of me a few miles away had a big fire 3 years ago, the farmers were disappointed because 20 years of soil building was destroyed. The char would have to bring in massive yields to convince these guys to give up their straw.

I hear you - and I've also read somewhere that char on the surface of the soil can make a fire worse. Using a "key line plow" type of system to make sure the biochar ends up below the soil line without increasing the damage done by surface tilling, might work.

And wrote:

Hay on the other hand is a valuable commodity that will get shipped.

And Joel Salatin would say that's a "bad thing" - he tries to make sure that hay removed from any field he has control over, goes *back* on that field in some way - finished compost from the animals that ate it for example. This is where the whole premise of "Big Ag" farming where each farm concentrates on "just crops" or "just animals" hurts the long-term productivity of the soil.

And wrote:

The exception I see to this is flax straw. Once that is harvested, the straw is gathered in piles and burned.

I'm sure I've read somewhere that flax straw is a bugger to deal with. I believe the article actually suggested that some farmers were changing to growing fiber flax even though that generated a smaller seed crop because the straw was then a desired output for linen production. There is increasing interest in some sectors for natural fiber clothing other than cotton due to the ecological damage cotton is causing and the lack of recycling options for artificial fiber clothing. That said, I'd guess that a Kon Tiki type kiln would do a great job of turning flax straw into char. If that char was mixed with bedding in a CAFO lot (as much as I'd prefer the CAFO lot didn't exist), it would go a long way to filtering out nasty run-off before it reached waterways. The "Burn" book Roberto and I are reading talks about using bags of biochar anywhere run-off from artificially fertilized fields can make its way to the water system in an effort to hold those nutrients where they could be used beneficially. You may feel that in your area, run-off just isn't an issue, but I've read in other books that even a small wet-land to use reeds and cattails to absorb nutrients and generate biomass from field run-off is value added in so many ways.

And wrote:

While of the subject, I remembered I was looking at wood heating system that caught my eye but I just don’t have that kind of money. It was called the BioBurner. Send any feedstock you want like hammermilled straw, wood chips, etc. And it would burn and heat water for water heating. And make char.

Yes! That is exactly the type of system the book is also promoting. "Stacking functions" and the biochar is sequestering carbon regardless of whether it helps plants grow in your ecosystem. There's always talk about government subsidies to farmers - we just need to figure out which subsidy would cover installation of this sort of technology. The BioBurner appears to be of US manufacture, but if we could get U of S to design something similar, that might help convince the government to give it a trial at least?

Yes, I hope adding biochar to your garden will provide long-term benefits, but at the very least you are still off-setting some of your carbon footprint. I only produce it on a very small scale myself and I've been layering it into my compost piles which will eventually top-dress raised beds with punky wood in the bottom as although we are *really* wet in the winter when there isn't enough sun to grow much, we're *really* dry in the summer, so holding water in the ground is critical.

 
Roberto pokachinni
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Steven McKracken wrote a few things, where someone else is quoted, I'll mention that:

I hope I don’t sound to critical. Hope this discussion helps!

  Not too critical, and yes, it is helpful!  

I will say a lot of the farmers in my area are always changing to more cutting edge technologies. There are some further east that I believe are playing with biochar.

 that is good to hear, what region of Saskatchewan are you in?

I would say the biggest challenge to get farmers to use char is the fact that the University of Saskatchewan has done trials and the conclusion was that has very limited benefits in our Saskatchewan climate and soils

 I tried to find that research this morning but couldn't.  I'm wondering what range of soils they tested it on, and with what crops?  I know that B.C. is extremely varied in soil types, and I suspect that Saskatchewan will be more uniform, at least in agricultural (prairie areas), but I think that there are bound to be some soils there that would benefit from biochar.  That said, and getting back on to my idea of tree intercropping/agroforestry (for carbon sequestration, for potential coppice-to-biochar, for water retention, for windbreaks, for beneficial habitat, etc), I came across this article in St Albert Today Could Biochar, farm trees solve climate crisis?  It briefly describes some ongoing research by folks from the University of Alberta. Here's a quote from the end of the short article:

Carson said the team hopes to find out which of these techniques boost carbon storage the most and what would happen if they were rolled out province-wide.
Results from a previous phase of this study found trees boost a region’s carbon storage by trapping carbon in wood and soil while also lowering net greenhouse gas emissions from soil, Chang said.
Agriculture contributes to and is affected by the climate crisis, Chang said. If farmers can boost on-farm carbon storage, they can help create a more predictable climate that’s less prone to cause crop failure, and potentially earn cash through carbon credits.
“Our results should encourage farmers to consider planting more trees on their less productive land,” he said.

Here is a photo of the difference in trees grown by Calforest with biochar and without (mentioned earlier)    

There is a company In Saskatchewan that takes old dead Pallets, grind them up, and makes char out of them. I think if we could set things up like they are doing where waste can be turned into valuable agriculture product and use the heat to make electricity, heat buildings, heat greenhouses would be great, which I think is the intent of the thread.

 Exactly, yes.  Taking char-able substances out of the waste stream and turning them into energy, nutrient reservoirs, and carbon sequestration, and I would add creating biomass specifically for the purpose of making biochar could be a more useful and profitable product in some locations than trying to grow food, as it would boost food productivity elsewhere.

 
Steven McKraken
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I am in the southwest corner of the province.

" I tried to find that research this morning but couldn't.  I'm wondering what range of soils they tested it on, and with what crops? "

I believe I read it in the Western Producer.

Jay Angler: There is a guy in BC who is a dealer for Bio Burners. While they are made in the States they can be bought in Canada.

For now I will keep making my char, improve my heater or scrap it and build something completely different and improved. It smokes way too much and isn't very efficient.
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