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Black is the new green
(FT on biochar)
Fiona Harvey, Financial Times
In Brazil’s Amazon basin, farmers have long sought out a special form of fertiliser – a locally sourced compost-like substance prized for its amazing qualities of reviving poor or exhausted soils. They buy it in sacks or dig it out of the earth from patches that are sometimes as much as 6ft deep. Spread on fields, it retains its fertile qualities for long periods.

They call it the terra preta do indio – literally, “the dark earth of the Indians”. Dense, rich and loamy, this earth forms a stark contrast with the thin, poor soils of the region. (It seems a paradox, but rainforest soils have low fertility. This is why farmers who cut down the forest for agriculture have to keep on felling – after a few years of cropping, yields collapse and they have to move on.) Patches of terra preta extend for many hectares in some places but until recently, no one really knew what the mysterious dark earth was. Some guessed it was volcanic, or the sediment of old lakes, or the residue of some long-rotted vegetation. Few imagined that it was man-made.

This ancient product of the Amazon is now the subject of intense scrutiny by climate change scientists. The tenacity of the charcoal of terra preta – retaining its fertilising properties over centuries – has given them an idea. Charcoal is a form of carbon, the burnt remains of plant and animal material. If it can stay intact in the earth for so long, without being released as carbon dioxide gas, why not lock up more carbon in the earth in this manner?

Scientists have begun to refer to the charcoal made from plants for the purpose of storing carbon as “biochar”. The theory is that biomass – any plant or animal material – can be turned into charcoal by heating it in the absence of oxygen. By taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, the impact on climate change could be huge.

… But Saran Sohi, a lecturer in soil science, warns that anyone hoping that biochar alone will solve fertility problems is probably deluded – biochar is not enough by itself to make the difference that terra preta does to thin Brazilian soils. “Terra preta soils also contain other nutrients, from the other substances they contain – things like bones, which are rich in phosphorus [essential for healthy plant growth],” he says. The biochar undoubtedly plays a role in holding these nutrients together, ensuring they remain available to plant roots, but the nutrients must be provided by other means. “No one has yet succeeded in recreating terra preta,” Shackley adds.
(27 February 2009)
Long article. For more on biochar, see the website for the International Biochar Initiative (IBI). The IBI’s February newsletter is out, but it hasn’t been posted yet in the newsletter archives. -BA

Australian opposition embraces biochar

Stephanie Peatling, Sydney Morning Herald
Australian Coalition pins its great green hope on carbon trio

THE COALITION’S “green carbon initiative” is a three-pronged policy that aims to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by making buildings more energy efficient, having faith in clean coal and burying greenhouse pollution with a process known as biochar.

Geosequestration – the burying of greenhouse pollution underground or beneath the ocean floor – remains the great technological hope for solving climate change even though its adoption does not appear to be any time soon.

Biochar, about which researchers are optimistic, is a new hope in climate science. Biochar refers to small pellets of charcoal produced when plant waste, such as wood chips, are heated in a process called pyrolysis.

When added to the soil, the pellets help boost fertility, retain moisture better, and efficiently store carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

Scientists believe biochar is stable enough to hold gases for at least 100 years, a finding that has been eagerly seized on by politicians desperate to find a technology that will mop up greenhouse gas emissions.

The Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, argues that Australia’s large land mass could be its greenhouse saviour, citing research that finds a small increase in the amount of carbon stored in soil could absorb all of the nation’s annual emissions.

Research projects, including one by the NSW Department of Primary Industries, are encouraging, but scientists are concerned that the technique has not yet been properly investigated.

Dr Evelyn Krull, of CSIRO Land and Water, says one of the main areas that needs further study is how different types of soil react to the addition of biochar. “From a scientist’s point of view I would be hesitant to say let’s apply it to all soils, because we haven’t done proper studies on it,” she said.
(24 February 2009)

US ethanol sector faces grim prospects-USDA

K.T. Arasu, Reuters
Hard times have hit the once-robust U.S. ethanol sector amid the economic recession, with as much as 15 percent of production capacity likely standing idle, USDA chief economist Joseph Glauber said on Thursday.

It was a sobering assessment of the fledging industry that was once bursting with optimism and financial gains as the country issued mandates on using the renewable fuel to reduce dependence on crude oil.
(26 February 2009)

Sierra Club & Worldwatch: Time to Get “Smart” on Biofuels

WorldWatch Institute
The Sierra Club and Worldwatch Institute today released a report,Smart Choices for Biofuels, highlighting the need for important policy reforms at this critical juncture in America’s effort to increase the use of biofuels. The report outlines the economic and environmental impacts of first-generation biofuels such as corn ethanol
, proposes strategies to make the biofuels industry more sustainable, and offers specific policy recommendations in four broad categories:

* Developing sustainability standards
* Advancing biofuels production and new technologies
* Creating green jobs through biofuels
* Promoting policy coherence across energy sectors

… “The headlong rush toward biofuels-corn ethanol in particular-has had many consequences, some foreseen and others not,” said Carl Pope, Sierra Club Executive Director. “The downside risks to our land, air, water, and economy have become readily apparent, but the good news is that with smart choices we can make biofuels work for the environment, economy, and climate, while enhancing our energy security.”

Smart Choices for Biofuels maps a future path for biofuels to ensure that they are more environmentally and socially sustainable and that the use of renewable fuels for transportation contributes to the global effort to reduce global warming pollution. The steps proposed in the report include an accelerated transition to cellulosic feedstocks such as switchgrass and the use of more effective agricultural practices to decrease erosion and soil nutrient depletion. The report also recommends complementary steps beyond improvements in biofuels production, such as the promotion of plug-in hybrid vehicles and increased investments in public transportation, which could also help achieve crucial energy and climate goals.
(18 February 2009)
The report is online: Smart Choices for Biofuels (PDF)

The report is better than those appeared years ago, but is still unconvincing to me. Corn ethanol is criticized, and faith is put in the Next Generation of biofuels. Some of the problems with the argument:

  • Great faith is put in the development of switchgass and other “advanced biofuels.” The trouble is that these are still in the developmental stages and are subject to the wishful thinking that characterizes alternative energy schemes. It is unwise to base an entire energy strategy on the basis of an unproven technology.

  • Figure 3 compares energy sources in a funny way – “Biofuel energy balances” – which shows biofuels in a much more favorable light than fossil fuels. I would be much more convinced of the rigor of the report if they had used EROEI (energy returned on energy invested).
  • There is no mention of the possibiity of driving less – which is probably the fastest and most cost-effective way of decreasing energy use. The report at least mentions the importance of efficiency and the advantages of converting biofuel directly into heat or electricty (rather than transportation).


Review of “Fuel”

Julia Babcock, In|ur Magazine
Of the many problems plaguing the modern world, fossil-fuel dependence may be one of the most pressing—perhaps second only to climate change in its potential to destroy the fabric of life as we know it. But most Americans maintain a very blasé attitude toward oil dependence—until gas prices exceed four dollars a gallon. Fuel, a new movie by Josh Tickell (author of From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank), has the potential to raise awareness and motivate audiences to “change your fuel … change the world.” Fuel shows the problems society encounters when fossil fuels become interconnected with every part of modern life. Winning a Sundance Film Festival Audience Award in January 2008 and the AFI (American Film Institute) Dallas International Film Festival’s “Current Energy Earth Friendly Award” in March, this film is on track to continue picking up awards and influencing audiences nationwide.

Fuel made its national debut in Portland, Oregon, on November 14, 2008, with the hope that a receptive Portland audience would encourage more showings throughout the country. In the opening scene a serene satellite image of our blue planet fills the screen, while a narrator describes how single-celled organisms changed into oil over millions of years.

… In light of the oil-dependency issues that the film outlines, which can be summed up by President Bush’s now infamous quote, “We are addicted to oil,” the film demonstrates the benefits of switching to alternative fuels and the growing need for more localized action toward this end. In a virtual city of the future, green roofs, light rail, and “vertical farms” illustrate how large populations can be less reliant on personal vehicles and can grow their own food and fuel locally by retrofitting existing cities.

In this way, Fuel is a redemptive story, although it does not promise that the road ahead will be easy. It shows technology that is within grasp, so that individuals and cities can gradually transition from oil dependency to more localized and sustainable models that meet the triple bottom line of improving the economy, the society, and the environment. Overall, Fuel succeeds because it provides a wealth of information useful to both experts and every-day folks on issues often overlooked by mainstream media. Like many documentaries, the power of Fuel is in the dialogue it creates
(?? February 2009)
Film website:

The film is much more optimistic about biofuels and biodiesel than many in the peak oil community are. It is based on the book “Biodiesel America by Joshua Tickell.” -BA

Recommended by Daniel Lerch who writes:
Here’s a good review of FUEL from its premiere in Portland last month. The navigation’s a bit off –you flip to the next page with the arrows in the upper-right hand corner of the screen– but it’s a neat layout with graphics, etc.