Closing the Circle:
Using Biochar Production and Use as an Integrated Response to
California’s Critical Environmental Challenges
David Morell, PhD and Raymond Baltar MBA/ Sonoma Ecology Center
California faces three difficult environment-based challenges: continuing water shortages and ever-higher costs; 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 and other greenhouse gas emissions in response to climate change imperatives. Many policies address one of these issues, separately. Now an efficient new integrated response to these three related challenges is now available: biochar.
Research globally and in our team’s own recent demonstration projects in northern California show that using biochar as a soil amendment can save millions of acre/feet of water every year. This is true for the state’s almond, walnut, and citrus orchards, vegetable fields, vineyards…across the board. Research efforts and field demonstrations document significant savings — sometimes more, sometimes less, with variations due to soil conditions, the crop being grown, historical farm practices, and irrigation techniques.
Conserving that much water allows farmers to save many millions of dollars. New financial instruments can be designed to allow eligible farmers to cover the costs of applying biochar to their farm’s soil over 10 years or so out of money gained by their water savings. To keep interest rates low, loans could be guaranteed with new conservation financing mechanisms. With some enlightened new policy changes it may be possible to leverage the Crop Insurance program and/or the Farm Loan system to help subsidize the purchase of biochar on a wide scale—brilliant ideas suggested and being explored by James Archuleta, a soil scientist with the U.S. Forest Service.
Where to obtain all this new biochar? At what cost? Here’s where the forest challenge comes in and we begin to close the circle, since biochar can be created from millions of dead trees in California’s drought-ridden forests. Some of the state’s dozen or so existing biomass-to-energy facilities can be converted to produce a high carbon byproduct that meets IBI’s standards for biochar (rather than a low-carbon wood ash byproduct) while still producing heat and energy from the woody biomass. With enough demand, these facilities could produce enough biochar to significantly impact the current market through reduced prices, making it more affordable for farmers and scaling its use.
Using dead and dying trees in this way allows us to thin the state’s forests carefully, thereby greatly reducing forest fire risks. At the same time, many new jobs will be created in rural areas. (As for cost concerns, California has spent over $3 billion in recent years fighting these fires, and that’s not counting the costs to devastated communities.)
Finally, there’s climate change. California already leads globally in creating renewable energy supplies (solar, wind, and geothermal), encouraging energy conservation in residential and commercial buildings, and creating appropriate legislative incentives. While these initiatives help reduce new carbon emissions into the atmosphere, moving us towards “carbon neutral,” none of them work to remove carbon from the atmosphere by placing carbon underground, an action that is truly “carbon negative.” Using biochar in California agriculture does just this, burying thousands of tons of elemental carbon in the ground for decades or centuries, 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.
Dr. David Morell is Vice Chair of the Board of Directors and Treasurer of the Sonoma Ecology Center, where he oversees the organization’s biochar activities including the Sonoma County Biochar Project. He is a former US EPA official in both DC and San Francisco and previously taught at Princeton where he helped found the university’s Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. Raymond Baltar is co-founder and Director of the Sonoma Biochar Initiative, and Senior Biochar Projects Manager at Sonoma Ecology Center.