Archive for Carbon offsets

The Nitrogen-Biochar Link

by Tom Konrad, Ph.D.

Promoters of Biochar should ally with fishermen and other groups concerned about ocean dead zones caused by nitrogen runoff.

The folks at the Carbon War Room are trying to save the world by tackling the trickiest problems in addressing climate change.  One of their current focus points is biochar [pdf].  I’m one of very few investment writers who has taken notice of biochar so far, and they called me to ask what I thought needed to be done to bring in private investment dollars. 

Getting investors interested in biochar is going to be tricky.  The problems are three-fold:

  1. The science of biochar is not yet well understood.
  2. An agriculturalist who uses biochar only gains a fraction of the total benefit; other benefits are positive externalities felt far and wide. 
  3. Creating biochar is fairly low-tech (you can get plans for a charcoal burner on the internet, and make one in your back yard.)  This makes it difficult for companies to profit from it by producing and selling superior technology.

My third point about producing biochar being low tech may not turn out to be a problem.  I ran a draft of this article by Jonah Levine, an industry insider, currently Vice President of Technical Sales at Biochar Engineering, a technology startup.  He says, "The biomass industry is used to driving biomass to ash to garner all of the potential energy benefits. Driving off H and N from the biomass and leaving as much C as possible in a continuous, automated process is not simple. The reaction would like to either take off and reduce everything to ash or not start at all."

If my first two points can be addressed, creating a market for quality-controlled biochar, and portable biochar producing units like Biochar Engineering’s  technology can be produced at a cost low enough that the extra char yield compensates for the extra production cost of the pyrolyzer, then there will be investors interested in biochar, and much more funding will be available.

The Carbon War Room is already supporting research to flesh out the science, and they are working to get biochar included in the World Bank’s biocarbon fund, but I was able to give them one idea: work with others concerned about nitrogen runoff from the overuse of fertilizer to get stricter restrictions or fines imposed for nitrogen runoff.

Nitrogen Runoff

Nitrogen runoff is a massive environmental problem, if not on the same scale as global warming.  Farmers often use more fertilizer than their plants really need because the costs to them of using too little (low yields) outweigh the costs of using excess fertilizer.  Incentives that increase the price they get paid for producing corn and other nitrogen intensive crops only aggravate this tendency, since they increase the benefits of high production without changing the costs of excess fertilizer use. 

The excess fertilizer is not taken up by the plants, and instead runs off into the river system, causing marine dead zones, and contaminating freshwater sources.  This increases the costs of water purification as well as harming people and livestock who drink the untreated water, and is the cause of "blue baby" syndrome.

Biochar and Nitrogen

Biochar, used as a soil amendment, improves water and nutrient uptake by plants.  It has its greatest effects in poor soils, helping the plants access the nutrients that are available, and this effect can last for centuries after the soil has been amended with biochar.  Biochar-ameneded soil should reduce the risks to farmers of using too little fertilizer, and hence reduce the incentive to over-apply, benefiting both the farmers and everyone else in the watershed.

Studies suggest that fertilizer taxes are the most economically efficient way to reduce Nitrogen runoff.  If such taxes were in place, farmers would have a stronger incentive to use biochar in order to make the most of the suddenly more expensive fertilizer.  For environmentalists interested in reducing carbon emissions, this would have the added benefit of reducing nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from heavily fertilized soils, for an additional reduction of greenhouse emissions.

Hence, Biochar advocates should team up with groups concerned about the fisheries and health effects of runoff to advocate for higher taxes on nitrogen fertilizer.  When farmers complain, perhaps we can buy them off by using the revenue for a biochar subsidy?

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The Week in Energy Storage and Carbon Regulation

This week, I sat in on Charles Morand’s weekly The Week in Cleantech column on AltEnergy Stocks. It may be just me, but it seemed like there were a ton of interesting articles about energy storage this week, from utracapcitors to sodium-sulfur batteries. Maybe it wasn’t the week, though: batteries are one of the areas I’m most interested in investing in right now… better energy storage is critical to a better functioning electricial grid, as well as to replacing foreign petroleum.

I also go a plug in for a move to a Colorado Carbon Tax… much simpler and less open to special interests than a cap-and-trade initiative. And, as Lori Bird of NREL says, a cap-and-trade regime for carbon must be very carefully designed in order for voluntary REC (Renewable Energy Credit) purchases by consumers to help decrease carbon usage, while RECs will always help reduce carbon emissions in a Carbon Tax regime.

You can read The Week In Cleantech, July 9-15, here.

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Trees and Carbon Offsets

There’s an article in the Christian Science Monitor by  Moises Velasquez-Manoff discussing attempts to standardize the quality of carbon offsets.  Carbon offsets are a big concern to me, especially when a lot of the offsetting is in the future, as is the case with planting trees.  From the box at the end of the article:

And unless a forest is permanent (and who can guarantee that?), trees only temporarily sequester atmospheric carbon. When they burn or decompose, the carbon they contain is released back into the atmosphere. In tropical countries, where trees are most effective as a cooling agent, they’re often up against poverty and political instability. “Does some guy wake up and say, ‘Now I’m the dictator of the country. I want a golf course?’ ” says Michael Dorsey, a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “There’s the big issue.”

Another issue is that trees may e like the old saw about the insurers: someone who lends you an umbrella, but takes it away when it starts to rain.   In the Western US and Canada (as well as many other parts of hte world,) our forests are rapidly dying due to a bark beetle infestation brought on by persistent drought and not enough frost… which makes the ultimate cause of the dieback Global Warming.

My worry is this: you plant a bunch of trees, that are supposed to suck up CO2 and thus slow global warming.  But not enough people are planting trees, etc., so Global Warming continues and the trees die and catch fire due to temperature rises and persistent drought caused by global warming, realeasing any CO2 they have absorbed back into the atmostphere, and compounding the problem.  By counting on trees, we are unintentionally creating a positive feedback loop that could end up accellerating climate change rather than stopping it.

This is why, rather than buying carbon offsets, I prefer to give away CFLs, and I only count the energy saved in real time as offsetting my own carbon emissions… I may have already given away enough CFLs to reduce future electricity consumption over the next decade or two by 72 GWh, but the number I focus on (and I encourage others to focus on as well) is how many kWhs or tons of carbon emissions you have prevented today not how much you may be responsible in the future.  I can’t just give away a 25W CFL with a rated life of 12,000 hours and say I’ve reduced total electricity used emissions by 900 kWh.  If the person I give it to uses the bulb for only 15 minutes a day, it’s going to take 134 years for that bulb to prevent the use of that much electricity… and long before then, we should be operating on electricity that’s mostly renewable based anyway.   Not to mention that within 10-20 years, I expect that the incandescent lightbulb will be only available in antique shops, so if the bulb I give away is still in use 20 years from now, it’s probably just replacing another CFL, for no net energy savings.

In short, carbon credits are a good thing, but an offset that pervents carbon from entering the atmosphere is better than one that takes it out and stores it for some unknown period of time, and it’s much better to prevent carbon today than a year from now.  All in all, buying offsets is a good thing, but we shouldn’t be fooled that it’s nearly as good as reducing our own carbon emissions today.

Further reading:

Green Wombat: Buyer Beware

Celias: Carbon Offset Certification

AutoBlogGreen: REEEP reduces uncertainty

IREA Voices on IREA’s green tag program

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