Scientist shares cogen plant recommendations

“What I’d like to talk to you about tonight briefly is a little bit of a challenge … for our future,” said William Johnson, Director of the Honey Lake Valley Conservation District. “We’re all faced with choices in life, and when you look at our environment, whether you believe in climate change or not, our climate is changing.”

Johnson, who moved to the area in 2005, read the newspaper’s recent article on Lassen Community College’s cogeneration plant and gave some recommendations to the college’s board of trustees during its public comment period.

At the Jan. 14 meeting, Johnson told the board that one of the methodologies for mitigating changes in climate is called “carbon sequestration.”

Johnson solicited input from the college as to the feasibility of turning the former cogeneration plant into a biochar production facility.

“Now, what biochar is is simply carbon,” said Johnson. “Every time you start a fire or the briquettes you use when you’re using your barbecue … that’s charcoal. That’s carbon that’s been locked up from a plant product and is no longer available to be turned into a gaseous state and accelerate global climate change.”

The Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources completed a study of biochar potential in Washington State agriculture. According to the study, biochar has gained recent notoriety due to studies of Amazonian black earth (Terra Preta) soils that have significant enrichment with biochar-like materials.

Researchers hypothesize the biochar in these systems is responsible for observed improved soil fertility and crop yields, and has stored carbon for a thousand years or more.

Biochar is now being proposed as a carbon sequestration strategy that can be immediately deployed in many parts of the world.

Johnson shared one of the ways of returning plant material into a stable carbon form is called pyrolysis.

This is accomplished by heating a biological element such as wood fiber in an oxygen-reduced atmosphere.

The result is net emissions that are less than the current standard vehicle with an internal combustion engine.

Another result is a one-for-three ratio of fixed solid carbon charcoal.

“Now biochar specifically relates to that charcoal when it’s applied through an agrarian application,” said Johnson. “The benefits of doing that are increased soil fertility, increased biotic activity, increased nutrient loading and has a whole range of things it can do for soils. The biggest thing it can do … with a modern application of biochar technologies across all modalities — whether that’s forest health, the Diamond Mountain Initiative, the Fire Safe Council or any other practices that are done, instead of burning it in open piles, if it was collected and turned into biochar through pyrolysis function, you sequester on average over an annual year, .6 gig tons of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide in solid carbon form.”

In fact, biochar can not only result in net emission, according to many scientists, sustainable biochar systems can be carbon negative by transforming the carbon in biomass into stable carbon structures in biochar which can remain sequestered in soils for hundreds and even thousands of years. The result is a net reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Sustainable biochar implementation could offset a maximum of 12 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions on an annual basis. Over the course of 100 years, this amounts to a total of roughly 130 petagrams of CO2-equivalents.

Johnson believes there is a market for this product. So do many others.

However, biochar soil application may be profitable only if a carbon-offset market exists for it, and farmers may use biochar if its market price is low enough to earn a profit.

Biochar creates value by increasing production and has the potential to improve crop yields by increasing the uptake of soil nutrients and increasing water-holding capacity of soil.

Several studies have reported yield increases from biochar application with rates between two and 20 tons per acre if appropriate nutrient management is followed.