Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Biochar Breakout Opportunity

Relatively speaking, Scott Pruitt supports efforts to clean up toxic waste in our land. He only wants to cut the superfund budget by $330 million, which is a 30% cut, as opposed to the 34% cut for the EPA overall. To show even more support, he wants to be briefed regularly on the 10 worst superfund sites. The other 1,300 sites are not going to receive as much attention. At the same time, under Pruitt's budget proposal, the states will have 45% less federal grant money to rely on for some of their clean-up efforts.

Since money is tight for these projects, the EPA and PRP's (Potentially Responsible Parties, but let's just call them "perps") should be happy to know that there is a lower cost method available to remediate heavy metal contamination in soils. Heavy metals are elements of high density (> 5 g/cc) and include Cd, Cu, Hg, Ni, Pb, and Zn. These metals are often left in the soil after manufacturing, mining, and disposal operations have moved on and can also be spread far and wide on the wind, especially from stack gases. They make it into the food chain via plants, and easily transform wholesome food into poison or ruin crops altogether. In some projects, activated carbon is used to sorb the heavy metals, but research has found that some less costly biochars do a better job.

CONTAMINATION by luc borell

With the loss to date of 1 billion acres of degraded, abandoned farmland, recovering that land is important for both the climate and public health. Estimates show the global activated carbon market to be growing exponentially due to environmental needs. Biochar made from animal manure, and then steam-activated, could satisfy 35% of worldwide granulated activated carbon (GAC) demand. It is cheaper than regular GAC and recycles another overloaded waste stream to useful ends. Other processes have used different biochar feedstocks and additives and proven helpful, as well, but manure's high phosphorus fraction seems to give it better heavy metal adsorption ability, according to Dr. Isabel Lima. Lead and mercury are adsorbed particularly well by phosphorus functional groups.

With energy companies like Shell dipping their toe into biochar production, there may be a better chance that their man Pruitt and the EPA will look into this solution.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Mid-Atlantic's Coming Green Revolution

In establishing the Healthy Soils Program, Maryland has begun to officially view soil in terms of biological populations, organic content, structure and water-holding capacity, and carbon sequestration. Everybody wants healthy soil, but for the past 70 years, conventional agriculturalists have been satisfied merely with healthy crops. Food for those crops has been supplied by chemicals known to help them grow. The soil fell into neglect, and in the process, we lost a lot of carbon from the soil and released a lot of nitrous oxide through chemical production. The Healthy Soils Program, then, is a way to recover from this unforeseen consequence of the Green Revolution by reducing the severity of our recent interventions in soil fertility.

In promoting healthy soils, Dr. Sara Via brings out a few principles farmers and gardeners should follow. I have annotated them here with my comments for gardeners:

  • Rotate crops - some crops, e.g. tomatoes, should be rotated over 3 or more years
  • Limit soil disturbance - soil structure is preserved thereby; use a broadfork to input OM
  • Limit chemical inputs - e.g. phosphorus, since an excess will subdue mycorrhizae
  • Increase biological diversity - compost increases soil biodiversity; biochar multiplies that
  • Keep the soil covered - keep your garden dressed (like the one in Eden)
  • Maintain live roots - when the roots die, mycorrhizae die back, too (90% of plants use MR)
    Photo by Tamera Clark

These may turn out to be Maryland's fundamental principles for healthy soil agriculture, as they support the four objectives in the new legislation.

Another way to increase soil microbial and faunal biomass, porous soil structure, and carbon sequestration is to add biochar, which Dr. Via also acknowledges in her talks. Among organic growers, biochar is still somewhat arcane; less so with the permaculture crowd. It is going to take a while, however, before most Maryland farmers adopt it unless the Healthy Soils Program adds incentives to do so.

Neighboring West Virginia, on the other hand, has become a potential beehive of biochar activity, stemming from the Appalachian Biochar Innovation Conference held this month that brought together makers and users of many stripes, as well as government and academic leaders. One of the largest potential applications there is in mining remediation. Strip mines and missing mountaintops could be restored to vegetative growth (ironically) with real clean coal, i.e. biochar made from dried manure. Joseph Knapp, Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College's Entrepreneur-in-Residence, and organizer of the conference, is ready to form a working group for the state to move ahead with biochar in its many applications. It was electrifying to be in the room when the upwelling of consensus was voiced by attendees that this is now a big part of their vision in a state long sullied by dirty coal and other chemical industries.

Like Maryland with their Healthy Soil advocates, West Virginia is starting with a small group of perceptive and determined people. Between us and climate conscious states like New York, a New Green Revolution may soon grow in the Mid-Atlantic region; all the more so if the U.S. Biochar Initiative (USBI) symposium takes place in Pennsylvania next year as rumored.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

First Things First

Last night, I was fortunate to hear Dr. Sara Via, a University of Maryland biologist, give her talk on "Ecology of the Soil" to my county's Master Gardeners. She recommended a 2016 paper from Nature entitled Climate-Smart Soils. One of the gems in this paper is the decision tree it offers for the coolest things to do with agricultural land, depending on its nature and condition. It says that marginal lands should be planted in perennials, and histosols (soils containing high organic matter, i.e. former bogs) should be restored to wetlands. Aside from those cases, the paper proffers a hierarchy of various measures that can be taken to improve soil health, such as cover cropping and no-till. The final measure in the hierarchy - adding soil amendments, such as biochar - is not based on the soil condition, but on the availability of the amendment - the more, the merrier (though 2" of compost per year may be a good upper bound).

This decision tree clarifies matters greatly for those who want to practice climate-smart horticulture at any level; from garden to farm-scale. Once I learned about biochar and began making it, my interest in gardening bloomed (along with many more flowers). Along the way, I have learned the importance of many of the other conditional steps in the decision tree that also help to sequester carbon and other greenhouse gases.

Early in my gardening avocation, I was taught that the first thing a landscaper needs to deal with is stormwater. That dictum makes good sense - all the more after getting trained as a Master Watershed Steward. The epiphany for me was that by learning and practicing key disciplines, e.g. stormwater management, composting, and biochar, I would be able to maximize my success in gardening. Similarly, if one wishes to maximize their contribution to improving the climate, there are key practices to follow, depending on the situation. The result, invariably, will be healthier soil - so the payoff and gauges of success are close at hand, though yield increases may not necessarily be as immediate as might be obtained by following ecologically harmful regimens. Dr. Via pointed out that monitoring your soil's health with a do-it-yourself tool called a soil health card is a good way to track progress.

When you take an approach, such as biochar, as the cornerstone of your efforts, it might lead you to wonder how it fits into the grander scheme of climate change mitigations. Project Drawdown's website makes schematics available to assist in that conception. The schematic in the area of Food solutions contains (among other land-use topics) high level categories that encapsulate the decision tree measures just discussed. The Conservation Agriculture / Regenerative Agriculture (CA - Reg Ag) category is particularly germane to croplands. With the guidance of the decision tree above, the soil health card, and the bigger picture of food solutions, my efforts at carbon sequestration through gardening should become even more efficacious.


Saturday, July 15, 2017

Carbon Nation

It is fortunate that Project Drawdown left CO2 capture and storage (CCS) out of their solution set, because the IPCC left us with a mixed bag by including it as a key element among their recommended approaches*. Environmentally-minded organizations such as the Post-Carbon Institute (PCI) are all too happy to explain that CCS doesn't pencil out when you consider such fixed costs as a network of pipelines in the U.S. equal to that of the entire oil industry. As implied by their name, however, the Post-Carbon Institute discounts the value of all of the extra tight oil that might be recovered and burned by enhanced oil recovery using all the captured CO2. Considering how polluting coal and other industrial combustion processes can be, it makes sense if you can exchange the CO2 output for a more clean-burning petroleum product, but the extra pipelines and other CCS components required really does cause it to look like CCS would be a net economic loss (until oil prices rise). The fact that the energy industry is begging for more subsidies to jumpstart CCS does not help their case.

Stanford Prof. Mark Jacobson, whose transition to renewables plan is embraced as the mainstay of the Green (Party) New Deal, also excludes CCS. Richard Heinberg of PCI nonetheless criticizes Jacobson's reliance on underground heat storage technologies unproven at scales needed for his plan. Both Jacobson's and CCS's scaling problems are constrained by access to storage deep underground and, in the case of CCS, sometimes hundreds of miles from the source.
Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim

It is typical of our disconnection from nature that a less brutal means of sequestering captured carbon wouldn't attract more interest. Biochar can be a coproduct of electricity production when using biomass as an input. Rather than pipe it deep into the ground, burying biochar a few inches below the surface of farmland would be all that is needed to sequester the carbon. Unlike CCS, biochar is scalable up or down, befitting the feedstock availability and soil characteristics in a locale. While not a stand-alone replacement for current fossil fuel electricity, biochar-producing power plants should be pursued before the riskier CCS plants that have already wasted billions of dollars in pilot programs and never captured any carbon. Further investments or subsidies in CCS power plants would quite likely fall short, leading to expansion of more carbon spewing fossil-fueled electricity, with the carbon capture piece set aside as too expensive or difficult to complete.

*According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, the overall cost of a global climate mitigation strategy without CCS is higher than a strategy with CCS in every scenario, and many models cannot limit likely warming to below 2 °C without CCS. (U.S. DOE Report, Jan. 2017, pg. 7)

Monday, July 10, 2017

Drawing Down - 3rd World Style

If  you are the independent type, third world solutions, otherwise known as appropriate technology, can be pretty great. The Drawdown project sees the biggest benefit of small methane generating anaerobic digesters in parts of the world where wood fired cookstoves are commonplace. Distributed digesters in the Drawdown model are fed livestock manure exclusively. Paul Hawkins' group estimates that 36.5% of manure in Asia is currently being run through small digesters and that we can bring that percentage up to 52.6% for all regions of the world where agriculture is dominated by small farms. For the rest of the world, they estimate much greater savings through the use of industrial sized anaerobic digesters. Yet, in marketing their product to the first world, HomeBiogas claims, even without displacing a cookstove, that their food scrap fed digester will save as much GHG emissions as if you stopped driving a car. In my case, it would also save on electricity to run cooking appliances and electricity to cool the house from the heat of those appliances.

Everyone's situation is different, but if you don't rely on a biodigester for recycling your kitchen waste, it may still be better to consider ways to do it yourself - the "it" here being greenhouse gas reduction. Composting of manures, food, and garden refuse are all ways to reduce waste, but they can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions if done properly. The key thing is to keep compost piles aerated. The hard way to do that is by turning the pile frequently enough to avoid anoxia in the pile while also avoiding outbursts of ammonia and methane in the process of turning it. The easy way is by lacing the pile with biochar which is full of microscopic air pockets. I still do some turning and churning of my non-manure compost, but all the piles get about 5 gallons of biochar or more (much more in the case of humanure compost which needs extra pore space in the pile). Sometimes I finish off a pile by giving it time in the tumbler for a few weeks where it gets a lot of air exchange.

If you happen to be a little higher up in the food chain, adding 0.5 to 1% of biochar in the feed for poultry and livestock could reduce enteric methane emissions dramatically. Putting charcoal in feed is not new, but it is being researched more rigorously. The amount of GHG emissions that could be reduced this way is astonishing since it comes with potentially reduced N2O emissions from manure, improved animal health, accelerated feed conversion, as well as biochar's innate sequestration of carbon.

Two solutions you won't find in Drawdown's list are Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and clean coal. Biomass energy is included as a transitional solution, but does not include any carbon capture, which turns out, like clean coal, to be technically infeasible. If the examples of alternative approaches described above are any indication, however, at the grassroots level, we can still drawdown significant amounts of CO2 by using the means at our disposal. It may surprise many experts to see some of these turn out to be major contributors to limiting global warming.
cells by Penfold_xxx

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Loosening the Grip of the Grid

One of the distinctions made by zero waste advocates is that incineration of waste to reduce landfill use exacerbates pollution. Waste industry apologists credit Maryland Governor Larry Hogan's decision to withdraw limits on landfill expansion as an effort to avoid shifting the burden to incinerators.

That might be a defensible position if Maryland's landfill gas emissions were well controlled and not the highest human-caused source of methane in the state. Fortunately, the U.S. Appeals Court rode to the rescue in their recent ruling against the EPA's delay tactics on oil and gas well methane emissions. Since the EPA has also postponed the implementation of new landfill gas emissions requirements, expect that the court will also find that decision to be unreasonable, arbitrary, and capricious. More landfills will then be required to incorporate gas collection and control systems. This should serve to pressure states to become more waste conscious.

Waste consciousness should not be left to government regulators. Citizens should police their own waste streams rather than shift the burden to government and industries. Energy and waste management businesses should absolutely be required to cut emissions from their operations, but individual households may find it economical to stop relying on those profiteers and find more DIY solutions.

Such solutions are not hard to find. Humanure composting is not a first world concept, but it makes economical sense. For other organic waste, a quick Google search led me to what appears to be an economical household replacement for capturing landfill gas emissions: a solution that would pay for itself by turning your "waste" into fertilizer and cooking gas. That biogas could also be used to purify water if you add a Stirling engine generator and water distiller, as inventor Dean Kamen and DEKA Research have been doing for the third world with their Slingshot system. The biogas generator may not be functional in the very cold months (though a straw bale enclosure next to one wall of the house might alleviate that), but I would probably only use it for outdoor cooking in seasonable periods anyway. If anyone out there knows my wife, please drop hints to her about what a great invention HomeBiogas is.

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