Monday, July 25, 2016

Biochar - a low-tech way to store carbon

Charcoal is produced when biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen, which prevents it from bursting into flame and burning up.  Charcoal produced specifically to be used as a soil amendment is called biochar - which can be beneficial for plants, and is also a low-tech, low-cost way to capture carbon and store it in the soil.

This was a widespread practice throughout the Amazon region before the Europeans arrived, as layers of unusually dark and fertile soils with high charcoal content attest.  Scientific study of biochar has surged due to its potential importance in carbon sequestration.  

Ordinarily, the carbon in wood, plant materials or manure is released into the air as carbon dioxide when the material decomposes or is burnt in a fire. When biomass is turned to charcoal, the carbon becomes extremely stable and won’t reenter the atmosphere for a thousand years, maybe longer.   

As you know, climate change is accelerating. 
NASA just announced the first six months of 2016 were the hottest ever recorded. So a closer look at biochar and its climate regenerating potential is very timely.

In July 2016 I traveled to the Eco-Village Training Center in Summertown, Tennessee, to meet with its director Albert Bates, author of The Biochar Solution.
See my previous post on the visit here.
One day, Albert, I and John went for a ride, stopping for lunch buffet at a Chinese restaurant.  (Pondering how convenient it is that there are Chinese restaurants everywhere, I did a little looking and found that there are apparently over 45,000 Chinese restaurants in the US, more than the number of all the McDonald’s, KFCs, Pizza Huts, Taco Bells and Wendy’s combined.)

That was the weekend of the truck attack in Nice, France and the attempted coup in Turkey. Albert is concerned about cyber terrorism, and is reading Richard Clarke’s book on the subject. We recalled how in the early 2000s, observers of the converging crises in environment, economy and natural resources were certain that major disruptions were imminent, and are still perplexed that business as usual has continued.  The massive digital money printing after the 2008 financial crisis certainly helped.  How long can the current superficially stable state of affairs continue? We can’t really tell.

Albert had two observations.  One is that the stability of the economic / political system depends on public confidence, and disruptions large enough to make the public lose that confidence could pop bubbles and trigger unknown consequences.  The other parallels the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which tells us that physicists can know the speed or position of a subatomic particle but not both. We’re operating in a very complex world system. So the more we know about a particular dynamic in society, the more we risk over-focusing that and less likely we can predict with accuracy how that particular issue will play out, and when.  

On the way we saw very ominous clouds and stopped to look.   It didn’t get close or turn into a tornado, but easily could have. Tennessee is one of the states in the US where tornadoes commonly occur.

But back to carbon management and biochar.  Whether you’re in Tennessee, Mexico or NYC there are still opportunities most people are not aware of to better manage our resources and safely store carbon in the soil.

One of the high carbon materials mentioned in the last post is the solid organic matter left over at the end of the sewage treatment process, sometimes called biosolids. 

NYC’s Department of Environmental Protection manages wastewater treatment plants.  Their method of operation is described here. 

It explains that biosolids may be used as fertilizers or soil conditioners spread on parkland, farmland, lawns, golf courses, cemeteries and landfills, and that NYC has long term contracts with companies to manage the biosolids. 

The City’s 2006
Solid Waste Management Plan and its Biosolids Management appendix partly address how those biosolids are used.  The vendors and their details have certainly changed since then.

The numbers are going to be big.  NYC produces 1,200 tons per day of biosolids. Until it was legally prohibited in 1988, the City was dumping them in the ocean.

While methane is always produced in the anaerobic phase of sewage treatment, as well as in the decomposition of waste in landfills, NYC is making a particular effort to collect methane from the
Newtown Creek sewage treatment plant

Each of its eight gigantic steel digester eggs holds millions of gallons of sewage waste.  Held at a steady 98 F in the absence of oxygen, bacteria are digesting the waste and producing gas.  Here’s a closer look into Newtown Creek’s operation.

Methane has about 25 times the greenhouse gas effect as carbon dioxide, so capturing and burning it to produce electricity offers environmental as well as financial benefit.

The One NYC Plan’s
2016 Progress Report reaffirms the administration’s goals of reducing the City’s carbon emissions 80% by 2050 from 2005 levels.   Most of the City’s energy use is centered on heating, cooling and lighting of buildings.  However upgrading composting, anaerobically digesting organic waste, and capturing methane from wastewater treatment are also prioritized (p. 112). 

Turning sewage digester gas into electricity at several of the City’s wastewater treatment plants was set out in the original
2015 One NYC Plan (p. 171). The Administration aims to reduce the amount of solid waste disposed of by the City 90% from its 2005 level by 2030, partly by expanding organics collection and processing (p. 176, 179). “…The City will also explore options to beneficially use biosolids resulting from the processing of organic waste at WWTPs…”

Perhaps sewage biosolids, food waste and other waste flows can make a much larger contribution to the City’s carbon emission reduction goals than has been anticipated so far by sequestering some of them as biochar?

When Mayor de Blasio raised the City’s carbon emission target from the Bloomberg era 30% by 2030 to 80% by 2050, the goal didn’t come out of a vacuum. A number of cities around the world had already put that figure out as their goals.
In 2013, the Mayor’s Office of Long Term Planning reported on how a new goal of 80 by 50 could be met.

The report focuses on reducing energy use or greenhouse gas emissions, but does not seem to recognize or address the potential for direct carbon sequestration.

The solid waste section, starting at p. 99, notes that whatever cannot be composted or recycled is
taken to waste-to energy facilities outside of the city or to transfer stations in the city that coordinate delivery to landfills as far away as Virginia and South Carolina. Could some of that waste flow, such as the wood component of construction waste, be sorted out for turning into biochar?

Graphs on pages 102-03 give more insight into the City’s residential, commercial and construction waste flows and their destinations as of 2011.

Some questions about potential biochar production in NYC

  • Who are the contractors responsible for handling NYC's 1,200+ tons per day of sewage biosolids? How are those wastes currently being used and handled? How much if any is being landfilled, and for what reasons?
  • How much money is the City getting from vendors who are selling NYC biosolids for agricultural / soil amendment purposes?
  • How much if any is NYC currently paying contractors to dispose of the biosolids?
  • Would the City be willing to turn some of that biosolids waste flow (and giving up the associated income) to convert it, combined with other NYC woody biomass sources, into biochar? 
  • How much would the City be willing to pay to add the amount of carbon it sequesters, to accelerate its progress toward its 80 x 50 goals?
  • Could biochar produced in this way be productively used in or near NYC, either by City agencies or private purchasers?
  • What if any are metal or chemical contamination issues with NYC biosolids that restrict its use?
  • Are there any metal or chemical contamination issues with potential NYC biochar feedstocks that would limit its agricultural use, and if so, are there other uses that would still be suitable?
  •  Could the wood in construction waste, wood chips, wooden shipping pallets, or other high-carbon and high-lignin components of NYC’s solid waste stream, be used as biochar feedstock?
  • How conveniently could waste products suitable for biochar production be diverted from current uses or disposal arrangements?  

The City’s organic waste flows are about to get even bigger.

NYC is now requiring food service businesses above a certain size to collect organic wastes. Food and yard waste makes up about a third of the solid waste from the City’s businesses. The businesses or a private carter they hire must either compost or anaerobically digest the waste.

  • Does Dept. of Sanitation currently have a plan for the increased flows of organic waste to be collected either by DOS or private carters?
  • What is the range of tons per day of new organic waste the City anticipates will be collected under these new regulations?
  • Who is expected to provide the municipal scale composting services?
  •  How much chemical or metal contamination of these waste streams is expected, and how much may that affect the resulting compost?

Any feedback on these questions, or additional questions that need to be addressed, would be greatly appreciated. Thanks! 

Pictures of Dan's visit to the EcoVillage Training Center on Facebook.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Summer camp at The Farm in Tennessee

Leaving one job and not having to jump directly into another gave me time to do something I had been thinking about for years: visiting Albert Bates at his Ecovillage Training Center at the Farm in Summertown, Tennessee. 

I first met Albert at the NYC peak oil conference I helped organize in 2006.  Since then I have followed
his blog and read his books.  I was at the 2014 Age of Limits conference at which he shared the stage with John Michael Greer, Dmitry Orlov, Guy McPherson, Gail Tverberg and Dennis Meadows himself, the lead author of the Limits to Growth report. (Here’s Albert’s summary of the conference.)

For many years I worked at a thoroughly conventional economic development
nonprofit in Queens while carrying out a series of work-related and volunteer green projects.  When it was time to move on I looked for jobs that were more aligned with my values and reality picture...and wound up working for two years as district manager of the community board in East Midtown Manhattan. Then I took a six month contract to promote a NY State energy agency program to Bronx homeowners. 

Tired of the conventional wisdom that I needed to find a new job to go to before leaving a current job,  I simply gave notice that I was not renewing my contract and would time out at the end of June.  While I am planning to sell an energy conservation product to large commercial customers, it is on commission and I will be working from home.  I am less formally employed than I have been in a long time, and so far it feels good.

After July 4th I visited relatives in Kentucky, then headed south by Greyhound bus.  During a long layover in Louisville, KY I discovered that Frederick Law Olmsted designed its Central Park as well as the one in NYC.  Also, that Kentucky’s largest city, pronounced “Lu-uh-ville,” is known for its baseball bat factory. 

I spent the night in downtown Nashville, passing many bars featuring live country music.  After enjoying a fine BBQ dinner whose leftovers were ample enough for a good breakfast, I stayed at a large, pleasant and modern hostel.
Outside of Tennessee’s major cities, mass transit is in short supply.  The only way to get to most places, if you don’t have a car, is by taking the county-subsidized van which runs twice a day from the Nashville to points south, several days a week. The driver of the noon van told me he was overbooked with pickups on the route and that I would have to come back for the 4 PM.  He finally allowed me to board if I got out at a town halfway between Nashville and Summertown, from which Albert had said he could pick me up if needed.  At one stop I took a picture of an Amish woman in a horse-drawn carriage, thinking that was pretty exotic, but it got better.

At the next few stops, Amish got on the van.  My apologies for being a city slicker objectifying the Amish, but when the guy next to me took a nap I took a selfie with him. The driver was curious about my visit to the Farm. I explained that there are many modern people, even in cities, who think that we need to relearn some old time country ways, and I wanted to meet people at the Farm who are studying how to do this.  The driver was sympathetic to this, not being a close follower of popular culture who grew up with relatives canning vegetables and eating squirrels and possum.   The Amish might have been listening, but did not enter into the conversation at all.  Albert picked me up at the halfway town and we had lunch at a Mexican place, sharing updates on what each of us had been up to lately.

An introduction to Albert is in order.  After graduating from New York Law School in 1972, Albert was hiking down the Appalachian Trail, stopped off to visit the Farm, and has been living there ever since.  Once one of the largest and most influential communes, it was formed by school bus caravans of San Francisco hippies led by spiritual teacher Stephen Gaskin.  During the 1970s they launched projects in midwifery, soybean–based foods such as tofu, tempeh and soymilk ice cream, and international disaster relief. 

He has long played a significant role in the Farm as the founder and director of the Ecovillage Training Center.  Albert practiced environmental and civil rights law, and founded and directed the Global Ecovillage Network, representing GEN at United Nations climate conferences.  He has taught the 72 hour Permaculture Design Course fifty times, all over the world. He wrote one of the first books about climate change way back in 1990.  His other books include the Peak Oil Survival Guide and Cookbook and The Biochar Solution.

We drove back to the Farm and he gave me a tour. Besides the sites pictured here, we saw
a theater made completely from recycled materials, the Farm’s woodland cemetery, a field of blueberry bushes, and several businesses operated by Farm residents.

The gate house at the Farm entrance

The octagonal Farm store

A huge outdoor gazebo, the site of gatherings such as the Farm’s monthly market

The ETC hostel, in which I stayed for much of the week, is one of several buildings dating from the Farm’s origins in the early 1970s

Close to the ETC hostel are a number of newer structures made with natural building materials such as cob (clay, sand, straw, and earth) and straw bale. The hostel expansion, still under construction, is the largest natural building I’ve ever seen.  

Albert in the hostel expansion, which now hosts some meetings and events

A composting toilet next to several water filtration ponds

The ETC garden in which I spent a good amount of time weeding

Internet access at the Farm is very limited.  On Wednesday we drove into nearby Hohenwald to use the excellent internet connection at a railroad station restored to its appearance in the late 1800s, which is now used as a community center. 

I was able to listen in on the video conference Albert had with staff at the NYC office of a very well-known international architecture firm.  He’s the permaculture design consultant for a green hotel project planned for Tulum, Mexico. 

Waste disposal is a big challenge. The other hotels in this tourism district already send a stream of sealed trucks containing human waste slurry to be emptied in the Tulum municipal sewage treatment system.  The architects wondered if some of the waste could be converted to biochar.

Charcoal is produced when biomass is heated in the absence of oxygen, which prevents it from bursting into flame and burning up.  Charcoal produced specifically to be used as a soil amendment is called biochar. 

This was a widespread practice throughout the Amazon region before the Europeans arrived, as layers of unusually dark and fertile soils with high charcoal content attest.  Scientific study of biochar has surged due to its potential importance as a low-cost form of carbon sequestration.  


Ordinarily, the carbon in wood, plant materials or manure is released into the air as carbon dioxide when the material decomposes or is burnt in a fire. When biomass is turned to charcoal, the carbon becomes extremely stable and won’t reenter the atmosphere for a thousand years, maybe longer.  As you know, climate change is accelerating.  NASA just announced the first six months of 2016 were the hottest ever recorded. So a closer look at biochar and its climate regenerating potential is very timely.

The slurry containing human waste, more politely referred to as sewage, can be processed by bacteria in oxygen-free tanks to produce methane, the main constituent of natural gas. It can be burned to heat water into steam, run a turbine, and produce electricity. To produce biochar, it’s best to mix dried sewage remains with a high-carbon woody material, which can then be mixed with compost and added to soils.

A unique feature of biochar made from woody feedstocks heated within a certain range of temperatures is that the original structure is preserved at a microscopic level, creating housing for beneficial bacteria and fungi, introduced via the compost.


Another element of the toolkit is bamboo, as some of its many species are among the world’s fastest growing sources of woody biomass. Most tropical bamboo species grow in clumps and can produce large strong stems suitable for construction purposes.

Temperate zone species tend to spread quickly through underground runners, which have to be blocked, cut or controlled to prevent them from becoming invasive.  Albert recommended that the hotel plant lots of bamboo on its property to provide for biochar feedstock, and elevate its buildings on stilts for better air flow as well as flood protection.

While there is a great deal of seaweed cast up on Caribbean beaches, the preferred raw materials for biochar are high in lignin, such as wood and bamboo. Since seaweed, like paper, is made up of less desirable hemicellulose, it would be better to simply add seaweed to the soil after washing away the salt.

After the call, I toured downtown Hohenwald and visited its natural history museum.  There was a surprisingly good exhibit on Meriwether Lewis, who as part of the duo Lewis and Clark explored the Louisiana Purchase and the American west in the early 1800s and was apparently assassinated near the town.  A former resident donated a disturbing number of animal heads, obtained through decades of big game hunting. 

That afternoon Albert gave me and ETC program director Hayley Smith an update on his other project. In addition to his Tulum project, Albert is on the team of a design firm for rural economic development projects that are carbon neutral or negative. That is, they will deposit or sequester carbon in the soil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere while creating a variety of yields and economic returns, using a full suite of permaculture and climate farming approaches:

Permaculture integrates knowledge, experience, research and practices from many disciplines to restore landscapes and communities on a large scale.  These strategies include:
·         A spectrum of safe, renewable energy technologies.
·         Scientific research and exchange of knowledge, information and innovations.
·         Water harvesting, retention and restoration of functional water systems.
·         Forest conservation, reforestation and sustainable forestry.
·         Regenerative agricultural practices—organic, no-till and low-till, polycultures, small-scale intensive systems and agroecology.
·         Planned rotational grazing, grasslands restoration, and silvopasture systems.
·         Agroforestry, food forests and perennial systems.
·         Bioremediation and mycoremediation.
·         Increasing soil organic carbon using biological methods:  compost, compost teas, mulch, fungi, worms and beneficial micro-organisms.
·         Sustainably produced biochar for carbon capture and soil-building.
·         Protection and restoration of oceanic ecosystems.
·         Community-based economic models, incorporating strategies such as co-operatives, local currencies, gift economies, and horizontal economic networks.
·         Relocalization of food systems and economic enterprises to serve communities.
·         Conservation, energy efficiency, re-use, recycling and full cost accounting.
·         A shift to healthier, climate-friendly diets.
·         Demonstration sites, model systems, ecovillages and intentional communities.
·         Conflict transformation, trauma counseling and personal and spiritual healing.
·         Transition Towns and other local movements to create community resilience.
·         And many more!

The firm’s approach is informed by Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. The law of the few holds that whether an idea spreads to become a social epidemic depends on the involvement of certain types of people with unique social gifts: connectors are the people in a community who know lots of other people and can make introductions; mavens are trusted information specialists and brokers; and salespeople are charismatic persuaders.

The book speaks of whether an idea is sufficiently sticky or memorable, and the power of context – whether the time and place is right for it to spread. Albert and the group hope to portray the new, carbon negative way of doing things as cool, and the old carbon polluting, wasteful way of doing things as old, stale and unfashionable.  Hopefully, the time is right.

There’s lots of proprietary information involved, so I’m leaving out names and links, but I think this much is appropriate to share.  Many extremely wealthy and accomplished individuals are involved, and they’re starting with a big eco-tourism project in the Dominican Republic.

Two young Argentinian guys who are experts in geographical information systems came to the DR on vacation.  They found that few residents of the DR countryside had formal legal title to their land, and parasitical developers and lawyers were already starting to close in, potentially dispossessing multitudes. The pair offered an innovative service to rural Dominicans: mapping their land and getting the paperwork to provide them with clear legal title.  They made a fortune, may have prevented a civil war, and are now revered across the island.

The Argentinians then acquired a big parcel of beachfront, with allied investors buying nearby properties.  The government fully supports their plans to create a regional eco-tourism center and nature preserve.

The design group was brought in to ensure that the project is as green as possible, and gets community support.  Albert’s best, most sociable, Spanish-speaking permaculture students are already on the ground. They’ve found that folks living in the area want to continue making a living fishing and harvesting coconuts, so the group is figuring out how to help them do just that.  Biochar production is part of the plan.

The rest of my week at the Farm was less eventful, but had a very unique texture.  Birds start to chirp as the sky became light in the morning, followed by remarkably loud insects from dusk through much of the night.

John, Albert, John, Laetitia and Noa, Dan, Marty and Laura

There were many conversations with other residents of the ETC hostel. Marty, a retired math teacher and sometime poet, moved from Seattle senior housing to live on the Farm permanently.  Program director Hayley, a fulltime resident, has formal training in geology combined with passions for teaching, travel in developing countries, and wastewater systems. 

A few others are like me, between things. John, a tai chi practitioner, had ended a long career in the Florida construction field and wants to relocate to South Carolina. I learned from him that rolled oats don’t have to be cooked; you can just pour boiling water over them and let them soak.  Stevie from Illinois interested in herbs and holistic practices. A second John is a musician carting his electronic keyboard who hoped to stay at the Farm for a few weeks.  Laetitia, Yannik and Noa, a Canadian family, was travelling in a trailer to the Southwest and planned to wind up in Ecuador.

I did a lot of weeding in the ETC vegetable garden (which will bear lots of tomatoes and squash later this summer), joining the chickens, who patrol for bugs, and a reclusive turtle.  One night I made pasta with some string beans which were past their prime, but certainly high in fiber. There were a few big cucumbers, and an abundance of basil and parsley, as well as comfrey, which is unfortunately not so edible.  

There was no meal service at the ETC, but ample supplies of free staples like pasta, grains and dried beans that we could cook ourselves in the same kitchen used since the beginning of Farm. 

In the surrounding ETC grounds, I used a weed wacker with a long extension cord, and a tool I used early in life but just now learned its proper name - a grass whip.  One afternoon I wiped all the tools in the tool shed down with oil-soaked sand. Given the hot sun and humidity, and a few itch-inducing insects, these were not the easiest of tasks.  It heightened my appreciation for urban areas, with air conditioning, unlimited access to internet access, consumer goods and instantly available mass transit. 

I was daunted to think of how the original residents of the Farm worked extremely hard under austere, vow-of-poverty conditions.  In the early 70s the Farm residents gave up drugs, were vegetarian and had no alcohol.  On the Farm today, at least coffee is still allowed!

In part two of this post, look for a few more recollections about my week at the Farm, and thoughts about how the biochar discussion could be applied to New York or other cities.

More pictures on Facebook.