Closing the Circle:
Linked Responses to California's Critical Environmental Challenges
David Morell, Sonoma Ecology Center
California faces three difficult environment-based challenges: water shortages and high costs related to the drought, especially in agriculture but also in urban areas; risks of massive forest fires associated with millions of dead trees caused by the drought and its related bark beetle infestation; and ongoing need to increasingly reduce CO2 emissions in response to climate change imperatives. An efficient new integrated response to these challenges is now available: biochar.
Biochar is a specialized form of charcoal made at high temperature in a low oxygen environment (a process termed "pyrolysis"). Combined with compost or similar nutrients, biochar has been demonstrated in usage in many different global settings to retain and improve soil moisture, improve soil health through an increase in beneficial microbial communities, increase crop yields, and sequester carbon safely for decades or longer.
Using biochar as a soil amendment in California agriculture can save water —millions of acre/feet of expensive water saved annually. This is feasible in the state's almond orchards, vegetable fields, row crops, vineyards…across the board. Research efforts and field demonstrations suggest significant savings —sometimes more, sometimes less, with variations due to soil conditions, historical farm practices, altitude, and irrigation techniques in used. New financial instruments can be designed to allow eligible farmers to repay the upfront costs for their new biochar over 10 years or so from the value of their water savings—at no added cost. Loans can be guaranteed by the state's new Water Bond or AB 32 funds.
Where can we obtain all this new biochar? At what cost? Here's where the forest challenge comes in and we begin to close the circle, since the biochar can be made inexpensively using the millions of dead trees in California's drought-ridden forests. The state's dozen or so existing biomass-to-energy facilities can be readily converted make biochar rather than wood ash as the byproduct of their using dead/dying trees as their feedstock. One such facility in Shasta County has already been so converted —it is now producing high-quality biochar at prices never before available: less than $100/cubic yard delivered to California farms. These facilities face closure as their electricity sales contracts come to an end; biochar sales can sustain them, retaining their highly skilled operators. Using these trees as feedstock allows us to thin the state's forests carefully, thereby greatly reducing forest fire risks. At the same time, many jobs will be created in rural areas that already need more employment. (Cost concerns? California in recent years has spent over $3 billion fighting these fires —on top of the costs of the devastation caused to nearby residences and families forced to evacuate.)
Finally, what about climate change? Where do we close this third part of the circle? California is already leads globally in creating renewable energy supplies (solar/wind/geothermal), encouraging energy conservation in residential and commercial buildings, and creating appropriate legislative incentives: AB 32 and Sonoma Clean Power are two excellent examples. While these initiatives all help reduce new carbon emissions into the atmosphere (moving us towards “carbon neutral”), none of them sequester carbon underground (truly “carbon negative”). Using biochar in California agriculture does just this, burying thousands of tons of elemental carbon in the ground for decades where it will save water while reducing forest fire risk. Now the circle is truly closed, proving once again the classic ecological principle that all systems are linked to one another in nature.
Announcement from California Energy Commission Networking Hub - Energy Innovation Showcase
A new Energy Commission website has been released called the Energy Innovation Showcase. This website gives the public the opportunity to learn about research and development projects funded through the Commission's Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) program.
The graphically visual webpage provides insight to the various projects, lists the award recipients and funding amount and explains how the project benefits ratepayers. Projects can be searched by location, by areas of support and by research topic. Visitors can also see what energy activity activities are trending.
The page also highlights the Commission's goal of increasing diversity in the energy sector and its expanded outreach to efforts to women, minority, disabled veteran, and LGBT communities.
For more information on EPIC or PIER funding projects, contact Lorraine Gonzalez at 916-445-5295.
A number of representatives of industry, academia, government, agriculture, etc. interested in biochar got together in Manteca last week. We decided to form the California Biochar Association. The group will address all things biochar -- use, production, demand, environmental impacts, effect on crops, etc.
The California Biochar Association is very interested in comments, suggestions, or volunteers on pretty much anything: the name, a logo, scope, constitution, activities, whatever you think is appropriate. I agreed to put out this blog post to allow interested parties to comment. Just reply to this post and we can discuss.
Raymond Baltar of the Sonoma Ecology Center passed along a good article on biomass to energy conversion:
The Turfgrass and Landscape Research Field Day is an annual event that draws several hundred participants. It may be the largest gathering of people interested in turf, and includes vendors, presentations, and visits to field experiments. We will be presenting results at our biochar turf study.
Thursday, September 15, 2016
7:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m.
UC Riverside Turfgrass Research Facility
Department of Agricultural Operations
1060 Martin Luther King Boulevard
Riverside, California 92521
You can find out more and sign up here: