The Sonoma Biochar Initiative has been incredibly active during the last 6 months working on a number of grant projects and conducting DIY biochar production trainings and we have found it difficult to post updates along the way. We are looking to add a part-time assistant to the program in the next few months that will allow us to stay more up-to-date.
Here are some links and photos for some of our activities and other valuable information:
Check out this great article profiling our ongoing Department of Water Resources Oasis vineyard field trial near King City, California.
Go here to view a webinar from the Redwood Forest Foundation on our North Coast Resource Partnership project in the Usal Forest. This grant was made possible using funds from the California Climate Investment Fund.
USBI hosted a fantastic Biochar Week event with lots of great presentations. Watch them here.
High school student Jon Parkman is an aspiring videographer who is also part of Sonoma Ecology Center’s EnviroLeader program. SBI recently held a flame-cap kiln demonstration at the park and he filmed the process, and together with his father Breck Parkman produced a short video about making biochar. We want to thank Jon, Breck, and the others that also contributed to this inspiring recording!
We provided training to several farm managers and their staffs on the flame-cap kiln and conservation burn techniques:
Pacific Biochar secures the first carbon credits for biochar in the U.S!
Scaling Biochar Forum Videos Available
The Sonoma Biochar Initiative, in association with the California Biochar Association and the Sonoma Ecology Center, produced a two-day educational webinar series in mid-October called the Scaling Biochar Forum. This forum was focused on what is needed to scale the developing biochar industry and featured 27 speakers from around the country representing science, industry, entrepreneurial, and policy perspectives. All of the 20 to 30-minute presentations are now available on the scalingbiochar.com website and you are encouraged to view or share them with others who may benefit from learning about this amazing natural climate solution that offers so many other benefits.
Department of Water Resources Grant Field Trial Results
A crack crew of grape harvesters from Monterey Pacific Vineyard Management led by soil scientist Doug Beck, along with Josiah Hunt of Pacific Biochar and Raymond Baltar of Sonoma Ecology Center/Sonoma Biochar Initiative, recently weighed grape cluster samples from the 16 blocks of the Department of Water Resources field trial testing biochar’s efficacy at saving water in a vineyard setting. Below are some photos from the harvest. A report on the impressive results from the harvest is now available here. The previous report on this field trial is available here.
Mobile Kilns Bring Biochar Production to Forest, Farm and Ranch
As the planet heats up, so does interest in practical, affordable and scalable methods for drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. This helps explain the growing popularity of biochar, a “super charcoal” that improves soil, conserves water and sequesters carbon all at once.
This summer, Sonoma Ecology Center’s Sonoma Biochar Initiative (SBI) is taking local biochar production to a new level with portable kilns—a mobile biochar kit that can help foresters, farmers and others manage their surplus biomass better while drawing carbon out of the atmosphere.
“How do you make biochar cheaply in the forest? This is how,” says Raymond Baltar, director of the Sonoma Biochar Initiative, which has been studying and promoting biochar production and use for years. Raymond’s expertise on the subject has resulted in grant projects, speaking engagements and even an appearance in a Leonardo diCaprio film on climate change.
Now, thanks to a grant from the North Coast Resource Partnership, SEC will obtain five “ring of fire” kilns—metal kilns about seven feet in diameter, designed by Oregon-based Wilson Biochar Associates for the purpose of easily turning forest slash and other organic material into biochar on site. Sonoma Biochar Initiative, in partnership with Redwood Forest Foundation, Inc., will utilize the kilns in the Usal Redwood Forest, and the Potter Valley Tribe will use them on forested property recently acquired from PG&E, to process forest slash there that otherwise would simply be burned in open piles.
The kilns will also be used at an alternative biomass processing technique demonstration event in Scott Valley (Siskiyou County) being organized by the Scott River Watershed Council, who will also be demonstrating the Tigercat Carbonator 500. This large-scale air-curtain-style biomass processor, owned by Sonoma County Forester Dan Falk, can process 15 to 20 tons of woody biomass per hour while also producing large amounts of high-quality biochar.
“There’s a lot of interest in these kilns and other alternate methods for processing forest slash,” Raymond says. After the grant is completed the Sonoma Biochar Initiative plans to “continue getting them out into the community,” he adds, by bringing them to farms, vineyards, ranches and other places where organic material is processed. Production and use of biochar will be further integrated into Sonoma Ecology Center’s restoration efforts as well.
If slash is burned or left to rot on the forest floor, “much of that material would otherwise degrade into CO2 over time,” Raymond explains. “While leaving organic material in the forest to degrade naturally is critical for a healthy forest ecosystem and should always be done as part of sustainable forestry activities, there is often an overabundance of this material created during fuels reduction activities, and the typical solution for dealing with it is burning in open piles.”
But by producing biochar instead, “We can save up to 50 percent of the carbon in the plant material that otherwise would reenter the atmosphere, and put it to good use right back in the forest or in nearby agricultural activities.”
The full mobile biochar kit includes a trailer to haul the kilns and other equipment, plus a water trailer to douse the flames at the right time. It also includes tools, fire-safe clothing, propane tanks, and “everything you would need as a landowner or forestry operation.” Training in the assembly and safe use of the kilns is also included in the grant project.
Sonoma Garden Park Biochar Pot Trials
SBI and Sonoma Ecology Center (SEC) are now conducting pot trials at the Sonoma Garden Park nursery with native trees using a biochar/compost blend compared to a control blend using compost and soil only. We’ll report back from time to time with photos of any differences that show up. Here are a few photos of our very own EnviroLeaders Jada Rosen (blue shirt) and Laura Vega from Sonoma High School assisting SEC restoration staff Garrett Gradillas and Sierra Reinertson, along with Jonny Elhers from our Education department.
Important Biochar-Related Studies
Napa RCD Training
Charlie McIntosh presents at the training.
ROI Carbonator 500 Demo Day Falk Forestry Mill
- A consulting project assisting All Power Labs of Berkeley and the Mendocino Resource Conservation District establish a combined renewable energy and biochar project in Redwood Valley using surplus biomass coming from the Mendocino Complex Fire area. This is part of a larger CalFire grant project being managed by the MCRCD.
- Working with A Plus Tree Service on a sustainability initiative to better utilize the biomass produced by their crews through its conversion to biochar. This biochar would then be used in their tree planting and restoration efforts, eliminating the need to purchase it from other companies.
- We spent 2 days presenting the biochar story in the Regenerative Agriculture space at the Emerald Cup Expo in Santa Rosa. There is a growing interest in cannabis farming techniques that eliminate or minimize the use of chemicals, and it was great to interact with many folks already using biochar with great success as well as those that are excited to try it out. Cudos to master farmer Cuauhtemoc Villa and Pacific Biochar rep Charlie McIntosh for helping staff the booth!
The Sonoma Biochar Initiative, in collaboration with the Redwood Forest Foundation’s North Coast Biochar Project, Pacific Biochar, and Will Bakx of West Marin Compost Company, just launched a biochar/compost study measuring the amount of ammonia offgassed during the composting process. The biochar piles will be measured on a regular basis compared to a control pile with no biochar added. A researcher from UC Berkeley has expressed an interest in doing some addditional measurements and we look forward to their participation. Results will be available in 10 to 12 weeks. A few photos were taken as the two different types of biochar were added to the piles.
Sonoma Biochar Initiative Steering Committee Meeting
Notes, Takeaways, and Next Steps
The Sonoma Biochar Initiative Steering Committee met at the Sonoma Ecology Center in Eldridge. Present were: David Morell, Sonoma Ecology Center and SBI; Susan Haydon, Sonoma Water and SBI; Will Bakx, Sonoma Compost, West Marin Compost; Mark Welther, Redwood Forest Foundation, Inc.; Michael Jones, UC Cooperative Extension, Hopland; Carolyn Ruttan, Clear Lake Environmental Research Center; Adriana Stagnaro, Forest Working Group, Goldridge RCD; Charlie McIntosh, Pacific Biochar; Jeffrey Kelly, NRCS Sonoma; Allyson Young, NRCS Templeton; Jerome Chambless, Consultant/Professor; Jason Wells, Sonoma RCD; Robert Gould, Ag Innovations; & Raymond Baltar, Sonoma Biochar Initiative and SEC.
Some key conclusions and insights from this meeting are summarized below.
- The biochar industry needs to develop and provide a clear set of quality and application guidelines for RCD’s, NRCS, and landowners to be able to better understand and promote it. Funding needs to be obtained to support and conduct testing on a wide range of production methods and the resulting qualities of the biochar produced. UC Davis does have a database that partially addresses this, but it is not that easy to navigate and it could be made simpler to enter and evaluate. (http://biochar.ucdavis.edu/). SBI would be interested in hearing any feedback on this database and how we could either help revise it or else create something better for the average farmer, biochar producer or researcher to use. There are standards being developed by the Australian New Zealand Biochar group that could be used as a model for California.
- Develop a catalog of our common understanding and begin with our local area region. Information sharing is critical in building momentum. This could include: list of projects and field trials (various characteristics), existing policy and practices, and list of land managers experimenting with biochar, contact lists, etc. Need for simple summary descriptions of current activities for partners to understand the landscape locally and statewide.
- Policy advocacy for legislation. Influencing state leaders is key to moving biochar as climate strategy forward. Continuing to outreach to policy makers and leaders is critical.
- Conduct more research: large-scale field trials, life cycle analysis of biochar (from biomass acquisition, production and end use).
- Develop fire fuels reduction workforce: Carbon Conservation Corps – manages vegetation and sequesters carbon.
Will Bakx suggested following the example of the compost industry to better understand how to expedite the standardization process, which he said took 20 years of work to obtain. Even after all these years the compost industry still offers a wide variety of products that are called compost, and the public does not really understand the quality differences. Biochar, as with compost, will naturally vary based on feedstocks, method of production, inoculation and additives, so it is important to allow a range of quality standards rather than trying to meet a single, precise standard. But there are a number of similar characteristics and quality metrics in common that a basic set of standards could be developed while continuing to drill down on the more complex and nuanced subtleties as more information is obtained through scientific experimentation. But as with compost, there will never be a perfect standard that fits all products because of the natural variability of nature. (Again, please check out these draft standards.)
Potential Activities and Opportunities Identified:
- Meet with Carbon Cycle Institute and discuss partnership on a local field trial of mutual interest.
- Establish relationship with Chad White, BAAQMD. Offer a presentation/field time on conservation burning, kilns, and the
- Grant funding- CDFA Climate Smart Agriculture Technical Assistance: Up to $120,000 to provide tech assistance to applicants of 2 CDFA programs. Eligible entities include: RCDs, UCCE, and non-profits with demonstrated technical expertise in designing and implementing ag mgmt. practices to support CDFA’s 2019 CSA incentive programs. Requires research on whether local partner experience qualifies directly. Project could fund the assistance needed we talked about to help producers to better understand and utilize biochar production and use. Due August 30. (http://calclimateag.org/cdfa- advisory-panel-approves-new-technical-assistance-grant-program-solicitation-expected- soon/), and (https://cdfa.ca.gov/oefi/technical/) 1) Who is interested in exploring this? Carolyn Ruttan expressed an interested in collaborating on a grant application. SEC/SBI is interested. 2) Who might have some good CDFA contacts?
- Presentations and field training to RCD staff to help understand utility and considerations of various smaller scale methods: pit, kiln, pile, etc.
- List of technologies and methods for making biochar
Jason Wells, RCD Forester, is mainly interested in forest health and forest management and identifying better ways to manage the materials coming out of the properties he consults with. Biochar presents one such solution, but he needs to know more about the best methods to use in specific situations and what to do with the biochar once created. And he needs more scientific information about the safe utilization of the biochar as well. This was a common theme heard at the meeting and acknowledged that this will need to be addressed to take biochar to scale.
Follow up with RCDs. Discuss different options and explore specific steps we can take to develop and provide this information. It was also mentioned that RCDs themselves lack the capacity to actually do the work for their clients, so if a workforce and trainings could be developed, they could refer their clients to them.
Carolyn Ruttan, Charlie McIntosh and Raymond Baltar discussed coming up with a web-based tool to help forest owners, land managers and farmers better understand biochar and help them determine how best to obtain it (make it or purchase it), the available technologies or techniques used to make it, how to blend and inoculate it, general costs involved, application rates, how to apply it, the best time to apply it, and what they can expect from its application given their soil type and crop type. This could be done using a cascading set of questions using a web interface to help folks drill down and get information relevant to their specific situation. This could include biomass type, soil type, biomass amounts, equipment available to process the materials, etc., etc. Links could be provided to specific research papers and/or articles relevant to a given situation.
Conduct outreach and education to promote the Terraton Initiative locally and include local farmers. Partners could help engage local farms in this ambitious plan that is proposing to pay farmers to increase the SOM and SOC on their properties. Raymond Baltar noted that the Terraton folks will be doing rigorous testing to confirm the increases over time, and they are still developing the program to make the testing cheaper and more available. Go to www.indigoag.com and check them out. Terraton proposes using investor money rather than Cap and Trade or grant money to pay farms, which is an interesting twist.
Jerome Chambless suggested a carrot and stick regulatory approach to help scale biochar use. All landscaping in cities and towns, CalTrans property, and farms should be required to apply biochar to save water, and not applying it would trigger a tax or fine related to the water used rather than conserved. If they do apply it there should be some sort of incentive to help offset application costs. (The Terraton Initiative above might somehow be involved in this process.) Jerome was also a strong advocate for calling biocarbon “biochar” only after it has been inoculated and prepared for use in agriculture. He expressed concern that the uninformed could use biocarbon in its raw form to the detriment of their plants. Again, this points to the need for proper standards and labeling.
Mark Welther is working on establishing a carbon offset protocol for biochar, and is working with CARB and other landowners and forestry groups to establish biochar as a carbon sequestration strategy. Josiah Hunt of Pacific Biochar has been recommended for and applied to be a part of this process to represent the biochar community. The California Strategic Growth Council has granted funds to scientifically verify biochar’s ability to sequester carbon over the long term. We will know more in two to three years about the outcomes of this research.
Allyson Young suggested tying this work into the Healthy Soils Initiative (HSI), and the work mentioned above will help inform their decision about the carbon sequestration part of the equation.
Discussion held on status of standards. There is no question about biochar’s ability to retain more water and nutrients and this alone should make it a best practice recommended by the HSI. However, there is still the question of standardizing application rates and the best types of biochar to use for this purpose, and this will also need to be determined before biochar will be accepted into the HSI protocols. Will Bakx talked about the process the compost industry went through, and that because compost will always vary based on feedstock and additives, which is exactly like biochar, they allow a range of quality, based on some minimum standards.
David Morell discussed the Carbon Conservation Corps concept as workforce, skill building and public service for young adults. He is working with several universities to explore the idea of developing the program (akin to the former federal WPA program, Works Progress Administration and California’s Conservation Corps, but focused on forest thinning and biochar production). This could have huge implications for private landowners that could certainly use their services. Perhaps there would be a reduced rate subsidized or partially offset through the sale of the produced biochar.
Adrianna Stagnaro suggested a compiling a compendium of research they could refer to when recommending biochar to their clients. What are the basic metrics, who is selling certified quality biochar, and how can they test the biochar they make themselves? Another idea was a list of technologies and methods of making biochar. Perhaps a tool or matrix could be developed to help guide identification of appropriate biochar related technique with various property types and locales.
The Sierra Club’s opposition to large-scale biomass power plants was mentioned and needs to be addressed. We need the environmental community promoting biochar use, not preventing it.
There are legitimate environmental concerns that need to be understood and mitigated regarding these large-scale plants, both involving forest management and environmental justice issues. To this end SBI, SEC, Pacific Biochar and Oregon Biochar Solutions will be meeting with SC’s local and national forestry director on October 7 at a “learning” session to share viewpoints.
Given that most of the biochar produced in quantity is currently made in Co-gen plants that already exist and are permitted, and that more plants in California could be converted to produce high-quality biochar as well as energy, and that we have a very short time period to address the looming tipping points of climate change, we need to utilize ALL of the options currently available to produce as much biochar as possible to be used in industrial applications as well as in agricultural settings. For those interested in learning about the many ways biochar can be used to sequester carbon, please refer to the book “Burn, Using Fire to Cool the Earth” (Authors Albert Bates and Kathleen Draper). Sierra Club Redwood Chapter meeting 10/7, 5:30pm at Environmental Center, 55 Ridgway Ave. #A, Santa Rosa.
It has been proposed that the next USBI national conference return to California next year. Raymond Baltar suggests the theme title of this conference might be “Technologies and Standards in the Biochar Industry.” This would naturally bring out every wannabe biochar technology producer in the world to showcase their tech to the California market (and provide the sponsor money from a tech show), but it could also include a serious roundtable discussion coming up with what should be measured to establish standards and a timetable and pathway to do so. Presentations on local farms showing various low-tech and possibly higher tech solutions as well, and explaining where the biochar can be tested and how to evaluate the test results.
Lastly, and we didn’t get to this because of time constraints, but SBI would like to propose a public biochar meeting on Wednesday Sept. 17th, location to be decided. There are a number of speakers we could ask, but one that we have talked to is Cuauhtemoc Villa, a cannabis growing expert who is willing to come down from the (legal) farm he works on in Oregon for the event. He has had amazing success with biochar and compost. We could also have an update from last night’s meeting, perhaps a local grape grower who is also using biochar, and maybe a mid-scale biochar technology representative that would be appropriate for local landowners and/or farmers.
Dry Creek Valley Biochar/Burn Training
On May 23rd we held a biochar/conservation burn training in the Dry Creek Valley near Healdsburg, co-organized by Genevieve Taylor of Ag Inno-vations and Susan Haydon and several great associates from Sonoma Water. A big thank you to Marshall Turbeville of Geyserville Fire and CalFire for his valuable knowledge about fire safety and for providing the water we needed to preserve the carbon.
We hope to do many more of these workshops next burn season to educate landowners and managers in this simple technique that reduces smoke, conserves valuable carbon that can enhance farm soils while also keeping it out of the atmosphere.
We are continuing to work with The San Luis Obispo Air Pollution Control District (SLOAPCD) to find the money needed to fund our air emissions proposal that will measure the differences between a standard burn pile and a conservation burn pile. While the visual differences are obvious to those who attend one of our workshops, we need the hard data to convince all of the air districts to make the technique a best practice. Discussions are ongoing with contacts at CAPCOA and CARB and we are hoping to secure this funding by the next burn season.
Last December we were retained by the South Coast AQMD to oversee two days of conservation burning compared to conventional burn piles so they could monitor the technique. They used a drone and some ground-based equipment to measure emissions and we have not yet received their report. We are looking to do additional testing by East Bay company Best Environmental as part of our proposal to the SLOAPCD.
Biochar/Burn Workshops on the Central Coast
Our two recent Biochar Conservation Burn Workshops in Paso Robles and Soledad were very well received and participants included winery owners, vineyard managers, students, entrepreneurs, air district staff, RCD representatives, and CalFire personnel. We want to thank the SLOAPCD, the Monterey Bay ARD, J Lohr and Hahn Family Wineries, and the Vineyard Team for helping with all the logistics and for their enthusiasm for the information we passed along. In Paso Robles we were able to conduct a standard burn compared to a conservation burn, side by side, and the photo below shows the obvious difference.
We have some exciting plans for CBA this year and we need your support to help expand our efforts to scale biochar production and use. Check back soon for more details. Go to www.calbiochar.com and click on the donate button to make a tax deductible contribution. The Sonoma Ecology Center, a 501C3 with a 25-year track record, is our fiscal sponsor. Thank you in advance!
Sonoma Valley Conservation Burn Training at Circle Bar Ranch
The weather finally cooperated for the recent Conservation Burn workshop at Circle Bar Ranch. We want to thank all of our attendees for their interest, Cuauhtemoc Villa and Alana Fichman for their knowledge and assistance, and especially our Circle Bar host, Sue Smith, for her ongoing support of this program. (A special shout-out to equipment operator Jerry!) Here are a few images from the event. Photos by Raymond Baltar
SBI/SEC Gives Conservation Burn/Biochar Training to the Staff at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve
We recently gave a workshop at the Elkhorn Slough Research Reserve, a beautiful state research facility located in Moss Landing on the Central Coast. Both the conservation open burn and pit burn techniques were conducted and compared, and in the future they also plan on testing a “Kon Tiki” style kiln.The Reserve has an estimated 9-year supply of invasive Eucalyptus trees that they want to turn into biochar for on-site research.. The biochar will be processed for use as a filtration medium to determine how well it works to prevent local agricultural runoff from entering the Slough—an ongoing problem that can causes algae blooms that kill fish. We are excited to be collaborating with this nationally known conservation and research organization and will soon be working with them on the agricultural nutrient filtration project. Here are a few photos from the training, followed by some photos of the ongoing agricultural filtration project showing the water that needs filtering, the biofilters testing a number of different filtration media, and the results of the filtration efforts—a cleaner wetland. Photos by Raymond Baltar
Above: The Elkhorn Slough Crew (including new Charmaster Bree Candeloro, center!)
Below: The Agricultural Runoff Filtration Study Location Near Watsonville
Global Biochar Market Size Expected to Reach $585.0 Million by 2020.
According to a report by Zion Market Research, the global market was valued at approximately USD 260.0 million in 2014 and is expected to reach approximately USD 585.0 million by 2020, growing at a CAGR of around 14.5% between 2015 and 2020.
To learn more, go here.
Testimony and photos below from Patrick Norton, Assistant Vineyard Manager, Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards:
“Thank you again for a great seminar last week. Your educational and inspirational biochar workshop has changed the way I look at burning and soil fertility. Much appreciated! Conservation burning is so much cleaner and more effective. I will never burn conventionally again if I can avoid it.
Biochar for Carbon Removal from the Atmosphere (From the IBI Website)
In the October 21 issue of Nature Communications Woolf et al demonstrate that biochar could play an important role in removal of carbon from the atmosphere, which is increasingly recognized as essential to meeting global climate targets. Woolf compared biochar-bioenergy systems with bioenergy alone and gasification-based bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, known as BECCS. In its 2014 report, IPCC flags BECCS as the only major land-based approach expected to draw down atmospheric carbon dioxide. However, Woolf demonstrates that biochar-bioenergy systems that sequester carbon in agricultural lands could reduce carbon sequestration costs, allowing earlier adoption of a more aggressive policy of actively removing carbon from the atmosphere to avert dangerous climate change. Biochar-bioenergy competes favorably with BECCS at lower carbon prices, and where biochar addition to soils delivers significant increases in crop yields. Thus, effective use of biochar as a carbon removal strategy relies on identifying those sites that are most responsive to biochar.
This requires similar knowledge systems as those commonly in place around the world to guide fertilizer application. Averaged across all published scientific experiments, biochar increases crop yields around 20% with application rates often exceeding 10 t/ha. However, applications of less than 5 t/ha can increase crop yields by over 50% in certain types of soils. Even highly productive agricultural lands contain patches of degraded soils that would benefit from biochar application. Precision agriculture can deliver biochar to specific field locations where it can provide the greatest soil benefits.
Biomass energy in combination with carbon sequestration has enormous potential as a carbon removal strategy. However, biomass is a widely dispersed resource best suited to small-scale, distributed bioenergy systems. In contrast, sequestration of carbon dioxide is necessarily a large, centralized operation to enable separation and injection of carbon dioxide into carefully selected geological deposits. This mismatch in scale between bioenergy production and carbon dioxide sequestration is a challenge for gasification-based BECCS. The relative simplicity of producing and sequestering biochar results in biochar-bioenergy systems that can be built at modest scale and widely distributed. Their small size reduces the risk of deploying new technology, eases financing, and speeds adoption. Biochar-bioenergy systems can play an important role in a global strategy to actively remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Biochar Field Production Added as an NRCS Conservation Enhancement Practice
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced an amendment to the Conservation Stewardship Program (SCP), adding biochar production from woody residue as a conservation enhancement practice. This practice supports and encourages the production of biochar following fuels reduction harvests or post-wildfire forest regeneration. You can download the PDF on the here: e384135z
This conservation enhancement practice officially defines and supports work done by SBI over the last 4 years training farmers and foresters about the Conservation Burn technique that reduces smoke pollution while also producing biochar, as well as work done by Kelpie Wilson teaching forestry professionals how to use flame-cap kilns in Southern Oregon.
And as a reminder of how NOT to burn, here is a pile burned in the typical way— photographed in the Sonoma Valley.
Quivera Vineyards Burn Training