Early in September I had the privilege of leading a biochar study tour to Stockholm, Sweden on behalf of the IBI. I have long been enamored with the Stockholm Biochar Project (SBP) for many reasons and was thrilled at the opportunity to see up front what I believe is one of the first of what will hopefully be many replicable biochar ‘bright spots’ (as the Heath brothers call them in their book ‘Switch’). The crux of the project is this: convert urban yard and garden waste into heat for the district heating system and biochar for urban tree planting and storm water remediation.
What makes the SBP different from so many other biochar production scenarios is that, through years of trial, error and persuasion, a small but dedicated team has succeeded in building a strong, consistent, non-seasonal demand for biochar. Having proved the various benefits of using biochar in structured soils [which consists of: 1 part biochar, 1 part compost, to 6 parts gravel by volume], the city has been importing biochar from different biochar vendors in the UK and Germany by the truckload for a growing number of urban landscaping projects for several years. While initially intended to improve urban tree survivability, an unintended but enormously valuable consequence of using gravel based, biochar-enhanced structured soils was the significant reduction in storm water sent to the city’s wastewater management system. Not only has this reduced municipal wastewater management costs but urban perennials including trees and shrubs, are thriving as compared to those that were dying in heavily compacted soils. Assisted with grant funding from winning the 2014 Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge, the city took the next step in creating a closed loop biochar production facility to replace the imported char with char they can produce from underutilized biomass.
Urban trees provide a variety of eco-system services estimated at more than $500M in value for a megacity. Amongst other benefits these benefits include: improved air quality and human health, production of oxygen, CO2 storage, wildlife habitat, reduced heat island effect and energy usage and improved property values. Not having to replace urban trees every decade that die due to compaction issues can also translate into a huge savings for cities.
The Bright Spots approach looks at entrenched problems through the lens of: let’s find out what is working to solve problems and how we can do more of it using specific tasks and behaviors that support new directions. Replicating biochar production is no longer the problem for scaling the biochar industry. More and more examples of biochar production are popping up all across the globe using different technologies and different biomass for biochar production. The challenge, as I’ve said before, is replicating the consistent, preferably local, demand for biochar at a price that makes biochar production financially viable. What the SBP folks have done is identify and educate a large prospective end user for biochar, i.e. urban landscapers, on the benefits of using biochar. While not all cities are likely to value urban trees the same way that Stockholm does, especially those located in drought-prone areas, many cities do place a high value on trees and thus provide funding for tree & perennial planting and maintenance.
Many cities have been or will be forced to plant new trees to replace those afflicted by the ever increasing number of invasive insects such as the emerald ash borer which is decimating ash trees or the Asian long-horn beetle which is responsible for felling maples, box elders and willow trees across the country. Many cities, especially coastal cities, are also desperately trying to figure out how to reduce flooding which has been exacerbated by the perpetual pursuit to pave combined with rising sea levels. Using biochar enhanced structured soils can help with both of these. Planting trees in these soils has improved tree survivability, and some research is beginning to show that planting trees using biochar in soils can even help fend off certain pests by enhancing the thickness of leaves. It can also help to significantly reduce flooding, which after seeing the devastation in places like Florida, Texas and Louisiana, could be worth billions in averted rebuilding costs.
Given all of that, doesn’t it sound like it is time to call up a few folks responsible for planting trees at your local municipality to schedule a time to chat with them about tree planting and biochar?