The Natural Resources Committee is conducting an enquiry into biochar to help the SA Parliament frame a policy on biochar that will provide guidance to government and industry on how to maximise the potential benefits of biochar for the environment and for sustainable agriculture.
Maccy Biochar was invited to make a submission and that is now available to the public to read via the SA Parliament website.
Our submission is also reproduced below for your convenience.
19 August 2022
Natural Resources Committee
RE: Enquiry into Biological charcoal (Biochar)
- your letter dated 15 July 2022
- ref: A278874
Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission to your enquiry.
Maccy Biochar is a volunteer community not-for-profit group based in Macclesfield, SA. It was set up in January 2019 to take local action to combat climate change by making biochar to draw down carbon and to help improve local soils. We became a task group of the Macclesfield Community Association Inc. in May 2021. Our group brochure is attached with further information.
1. PRODUCTION OF BIOCHAR:
Production by Others in SA:
A number of Vineyards/Wineries known to us in SA are making their own biochar using flame-capped kilns similar to the ones that we use.
A gardening group based in the Summertown-Uraidla area has also started making their own biochar for home use.
There are several small-scale commercial producers of biochar known to us locally.
Some major commercial producers of biochar that we know of in SA include:
· Round Wood Solutions, Mount Gambier.
· Peat’s Soils.
· Jeffrey’s Soils.
Note that these larger companies produce biochar as a by-product or waste product of their main business objective and use the biochar in other products and/or sell the biochar itself. We applaud their initiative subject to their biochar satisfying the necessary quality conditions. However we are concerned that such companies may claim a carbon credit for their biochar production that may not balance the emissions associated with their main production process.
Note: Commercial production of raw biochar as a main business objective is very difficult and we know of no one in the world doing so. However producing biochar as an ingredient of other products (eg activated carbon) is potentially quite lucrative. We understand that local company Bygen is pursuing opportunities in the activated carbon market.
We are aware of the following companies making biochar interstate:
· Earth Systems, VIC. makes biochar and enclosed pyrolysis equipment.
· Rainbow Bee Eater, VIC (sells process equipment to make heat, power and
biochar – system installed in Tantanoola, SA).
· Terra-Preta Developments, TAS. makes biochar and flame-capped kilns.
· SOFT (Sustainable Organic Farming Techniques, NSW, part of Mara Seeds)
makes enhanced biochar for animal feed additives.
We aware of some overseas biochar production initiatives through our association with the US Biochar Initiative particularly the progress being made in the USA, UK and Europe but also in South East Asia. The trend seems to be towards scaling up commercial production capabilities through improved technology in US, UK and Europe; but in South East Asia and Africa the trend is towards helping small-hold farmers make biochar to improve crop yields and helping householders to make biochar in specially adapted wood-burning stoves to reduce smoke and earn some money from the sale of the biochar.
Potential future production:
In general potential future production using large scale processing equipment is limited by the availability of feedstock and the return on investment in the necessary equipment and infrastructure which of course is related to the demand price for biochar on the open market.
In our case, we do not have the finance to invest in large scale pyrolysis systems; we are not driven by a profit motive to return a dividend to investors; we have access to a plentiful supply of free feedstock; and we have free but limited labour. So we are of necessity content to use simple and therefore cheap technology that is labour intensive.
So our future production will be limited by:
· volunteer numbers;
· limited season outside CFS fire-ban period (typically May to November inclusive).
If volunteer availability could be doubled we could easily double annual production.
If rain/wind protection could be installed (eg partly enclosed shed) production could be increased substantially.
If enclosed kilns were used (at much greater capital cost) production could be extended to include non-fire ban days during the fire-ban period, more than doubling the production.
Potential combined future production by other volunteer not-for-profit groups and/or farming cooperatives in South Australia is probably 100-fold more than our production. The cooperative business model using mainly volunteers and distributed through the State according to the availability of feedstock and local demand for biochar could perhaps strike the best balance between large scale commercial profit-driven entities and very small local volunteer groups such as us.
It is our wish to see more community groups taking up this activity so that in the near term a biochar cooperative could be set up that shared marketing costs, accreditation costs, production knowhow etc between all of its members.
Recommendation 1: That local and state government actively encourage and support the establishment of community biochar groups throughout the State, particularly in the agricultural sector where agricultural benefits and emissions reductions will ensue from the adoption of biochar; and support the amalgamation of these groups, when ready, into a SA Biochar Cooperative.
2. USES OF BIOCHAR:
In South Australia:
Maccy Biochar currently supplies raw biochar to:
· Our members at a discount rate of 50c/litre.
· Retailers who add value by enriching with nutrients; or grading to a
particular particle size range; etc.
· Councils for use with tree planting.
· Households for garden use and compost enhancement.
· Landowners for pasture enhancement.
· Fruit/veg growers for soil improvement.
Possible additional future uses of our raw biochar include:
· Animal feed supplement.
· Animal bedding additive.
· Commercial compost additive.
· Broad-acre farming using biochar and organic fertiliser mixes.
· Water treatment systems. (Eg street drainage).
· Construction material additive (eg cement, asphalt, etc).
3. IMPACTS OF PRODUCTION AND USE OF BIOCHAR:
Maccy Biochar uses only biomass (natural uncontaminated organic matter) from local households and landowners who have unwanted prunings or tree litter they would otherwise burn or take to the dump. We do not currently collect from roadsides but if we were asked by Council to do so as a fire hazard reduction measure we would gladly oblige. We do not collect from environmentally sensitive areas or where the need for rotting biomass is considered desirable. We do not use wood chips because they are generally too moist and too dense as a mass. We do not accept painted or chemically treated timber.
Maccy Biochar uses only simple open kilns (so-called flame-capped kilns) to partially burn the wood in such a way that the wood gases (H₂, CH₄, CO etc) emitted are completely burned (and converted to CO₂). This CO₂ emission is of course carbon neutral because the CO₂ is returning to the atmosphere from where it came from prior to its relatively recent conversion to C and O₂ by photosynthesis in the trees we are now using. But the biochar that remains after pyrolysis is approx. 80% pure carbon so we classify this as carbon negative because this CO₂ has been captured and not allowed to return to the atmosphere. (Please refer to attachment 2, Total Organic Carbon (%).
The biochar is produced at a temperature in the range 400 to 600 deg. C and is crumbly, odourless and tasteless. Smoke can occur during the first few moments of lighting up but otherwise if the wood is dry (i.e. not green) and is loaded gradually no more smoke is emitted.
Note: Enclosed kilns (or retorts) produce biochar without actually burning the wood but rather cook it at a temperature in the range 300 to 400 deg. C. Biochar made in this way tends to be harder (not so crumbly). Importantly the kiln needs to be designed to ensure that all the unburned tars and the wood gases they emit are either burned to carbon neutral CO₂ and perhaps also used to provide renewable heat or electrical energy; or collected in such a way that they do not contaminate the surroundings and perhaps used in other ways (eg as wood vinegar).
On completion of pyrolysis (when the kiln is nearly full of biochar) we completely quench (cover) the biochar with fresh water and leave to soak until cool. This ensures that the potential for self-combustion at a later date (eg during storage or transport) is eliminated. When the biochar is cool (and has absorbed a quantity of water) the excess water is drained.
We then transfer the biochar from the kiln to bags (generally 1 cubic metre bulk bags). During the transfer, care is taken to check for and discard any foreign matter (eg nails etc) and to discard any uncharred wood.
Sampling & Analysis:
Representative samples of our biochar are collected periodically (currently 1 sample per bulk bag) and stored for one year. Each year we take a representative sample of the year’s production and send it to a laboratory for analysis. Attachment 2 is one such analysis. The cost of each such analysis is of the order of $400.
Note: The measurement of dry bulk density of the biochar is crucial to the calculation of CO₂ drawdown. Ideally this should be measured for each bulk bag produced. However that would be financially out of our reach. A local testing capability to determine dry bulk density of biochar is needed (without necessarily all the other nutrient and metal content measurements). Such tests only need to involve heating, combusting and reducing the biochar to ash and accurately weighing the sample prior to, at each stage of the process, and on completion.
We claim the following ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS arise from the production of our biochar:
· Fire hazard reduction by reducing the amount of flammable material lying
around and reducing the risk of fire escaping from burning wood-heaps ;
· Methane emission reduction from rotting biomass.
· Atmospheric CO₂ reduction by preventing re-conversion of wood carbon
back to CO₂ (i.e. carbon drawdown).
WHEN our biochar is used as a soil amendment we claim the following additional environmental benefits:
· Increase in soil water holding capacity.
· Increase in availability of nutrients to plants.
· Decrease in leaching of water, nutrients & fertilisers.
· Increase in habitat for soil microbes, soil bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi.
· Increase in soil organic carbon directly; and indirectly by the potential
multiplier effect of increasing soil health and plant health.
· Reduction in the need for inorganic fertilisers; and consequential reduction
in emissions of NO₂ (which is some 300 times more potent as a
greenhouse gas than CO₂).
· Long-lasting benefits (potentially hundreds of years).
WHEN our biochar is used as an additive to compost or animal bedding we claim the following environmental benefits:
· Reduction in methane emissions.
· Reduction in odours.
BEST USE OF RAW MATERIAL
All the biomass we use is essentially unwanted litter and would be either burned or dumped or left to rot if not used to make biochar. So we would claim that our use is perhaps the best use possible for that material.
CLIMATE IMPACTS & CARBON CREDITS
Biochar is recognised by climate change authorities (eg Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC – Ref. 1) as being a part of the solution to alleviate the effects of climate change. Basically it has been agreed that carbon drawdown is needed over and above the planned reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. If biochar is produced in such a way that the carbon emissions generated by the manufacture and operation of the pyrolysis and associated equipment ( eg materials handling and packing etc) are more than offset by the carbon captured in the biochar then the biochar so produced will be carbon negative.
Note: The theoretical maximum drawdown per dry unit weight (kg, tonne etc) is 3.66 based on a comparison of the atomic weights of Carbon (12) and CO₂ (44). 44/12 = 3.66. This is reduced according to the content of actual carbon in the biochar (eg typically 80 to 85%) and by the positive carbon emissions released by the process.
We have estimated that our biochar captures approx. 450kg CO₂ for every 1000 litres of biochar we make.
Based on a dry bulk density of biochar of 150kg/m³ then this equates to 450kg of CO₂ for every 150kg of biochar; i.e.3kg of CO₂ for every 1kg of biochar; i.e. a carbon drawdown of 3.
The estimated carbon emissions associated with the manufacture of our low-tech kilns is also about 450kg CO₂ so we became carbon negative after we had made our first 1000 litres of biochar.
However we do not include in our calculations the carbon emissions associated with delivery of the product to the customer, because we believe that those emissions should be to the customer’s carbon account and will vary in ways over which we have no control or oversight. But we do recognise that local use of locally made biochar is the optimum scenario. And this is another reason why we recommend as per our Recommendation 1 that biochar groups be set up around the State wherever there is sufficient unwanted biomass available at little or no cost.
The calculation of the carbon drawdown of our biochar is relatively simple provided the biochar has been adequately analysed. However accreditation of small producers like us creates a dilemma in that the carbon accrediting agencies are located overseas and the cost of engaging their local operatives is prohibitive and carbon intensive (eg air travel etc). So we would like to see a form of accreditation that would be acceptable to the government agencies responsible for accounting for carbon emissions while being affordable to small producers.
Recommendation 2: Local accreditation agencies be set up to assess biochar production by small local producers and be licensed to issue carbon reduction certificates that will be recognised by Australian Government climate change agencies for use as carbon offsets by farmers, Councils, businesses etc that purchase biochar.
This would provide an additional incentive for biochar to be taken up by broad acre farmers and others where they not only can use the biochar to improve their soils and pastures but can also claim carbon offsets for the emissions generated by their fuel consumption etc.
PRODUCTIVITY OF CROPS
There have been numerous trials conducted here in South Australia and overseas that have demonstrated the benefits for crop yields when using biochar and particularly when using biochar combined with organic fertiliser.
SA No-Till Farmers Association and Fleurieu Farming Systems Inc. can provide details.
PRODUCTIVITY OF ANIMALS
There have also been trials conducted here in South Australia in conjunction with the Dairy Industry and dung beetle suppliers using biochar as an additive to stockfeed mix that have shown improved milk quality and improved pastures. It is believed by many farmers that biochar also reduces methane emissions from cattle but this is difficult to prove.
4. POTENTIAL HEALTH IMPACT OF BIOCHAR
Production, Use & Consumption: Manufacture of biochar for consumption by humans is outside our scope of activity. But the use of charcoal as an ingredient in health products and for medical treatments is long standing. With the development of improved techniques for activating biochar these applications have seen a resurgence in recent years.
5. BARRIERS TO PRODUCTION, USE AND EXPORT OF BIOCHAR
Maccy Biochar has so far removed approx. 23.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide. However there is no easy means for an organisation like ours to receive carbon credits for our work. The international company Puro.earth originally advised that our non-capture of the pyrolysis gases and the small scale of our operation did not meet their supplier requirements. We understand their current requirements may now exclude the capture of pyrolysis gases but we remain relatively small scale.
Within Australia it seems that any allocation of credits through the Emissions Reduction Fund requires the biochar to be applied to soil. However we are simply a producer of biochar, with the permanent removal of carbon dioxide by the application of the biochar, ultimately being a matter for our customers.
A local marketplace, or the provision of a government agency broker, whereby our production could be paired with those making use of the biochar, and where our biochar could be aggregated with other producers, would enable us to be rewarded with payment for our credits or allow the farmer to offset some of his carbon emissions. See Recommendation 2.
Maccy Biochar has been fortunate in that we received a $2000 grant from Mt. Barker Council to allow us to make our first large kiln and the Department of Environment & Water (via the Hills and Fleurieu Landscape Board) has underwritten our public liability and accident insurance. We have also been most fortunate in obtaining permission from a local landowner to use our kilns on his property pending approval for a permanent site on community land. Consequently we are currently financially sustainable with membership fees and biochar sales more than offsetting our operating expenses.
However in order to maximise the benefits from our volunteers we still need some additional infrastructure to allow wood to be stored under cover and to allow operation of the kilns out of the rain.
The biochar industry is unique in that it has the potential to be a carbon negative industry and thereby contribute to the carbon drawdown that will be needed over and above the projected reduction in carbon emissions.
The purchaser of biochar needs to be informed of the carbon drawdown rating of his purchase so that a proper comparison can be made between suppliers according to the purchaser’s objectives. So the carbon drawdown rating of all biochar offered for sale needs to be clearly labelled and the rating based on accreditation by local agencies.
Recommendation 3: That all biochar offered for sale be clearly labelled with its carbon drawdown rating based on a life cycle assessment and the name of the accreditation agency.
6. OTHER RELEVANT MATTERS
The many possible applications of biochar need to be prioritised according to the benefits that each application will bring to mitigating climate change.
Foremost among the top most beneficial applications are those that will reduce NO₂ emissions. NO₂ has been assessed as being 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO₂ so every tonne of NO₂ emissions avoided is equivalent to 300 tonnes of CO₂ emissions avoided. So those applications that target NO₂ reductions should be given 1st priority (eg wastage of ammonia–based fertilisers by excessive application).
The second worst greenhouse gas that is commonly emitted is methane. So those applications that target methane reductions (where methane emissions as a fuel source are not feasible) should be given 2nd priority (eg. Intercepting methane emissions from rotting biomass – composting operations; dairy farm sewage ponds; piggeries; cattle feed etc).
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA):
Accreditation of the carbon drawdown rating of all biochar offered for sale needs to include an LCA of the process used including the manufacture of all the process plant from feedstock collection to product dispatch and delivery to the wholesaler or distributor. So there will be a certain quantity of biochar sold after starting up the process that will be carbon positive. This should be reflected in the carbon rating claimed and accredited for the product. We believe that the LCA should terminate at a point beyond which it is impracticable to assess the effect on the LCA. So that for:
· imported biochar the LCA will include its share of the carbon emissions
generated during shipment from overseas or interstate to the wholesaler
or distributor; and for
· locally made biochar the LCA will include the carbon emissions generated
during transport from the production site to the wholesaler or distributor;
but where biochar is sold ex-factory to the end user directly, the emissions
generated by the user will not be included.
Perhaps the take-home message we would like to leave with you from all of the above is:
· Keep it local.
· Keep it simple.
· Keep it carbon-negative.
If the Committee would like us to elaborate on or clarify any of the above comments or require further information arising from the above please contact Brian Lewis (Mob: 041 148 0935) or email email@example.com
Task Group of Macclesfield Community Association Inc.
1. Maccy Biochar Group Brochure Dec. 2021.
2. EAL Report for sample supplied on 16 Feb. 2022.
1. IPCC 2022 REPORT on Mitigation of Climate Change.
Page 1223 (or chapter 7-63): Available at https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg3/