2.1 Biomass collection
Every biochar project starts with one thing: biomass. To qualify for carbon credits, the biomass feedstock must meet certain criteria. First and foremost, it must be sustainable, preferably from the waste stream of some other agricultural product or process. It should not be something that has other value or importance, as firewood, for example. It’s also interesting to know what was being done with the biomass before the biochar project was established. For example, if the waste was being burned in an open fire on a regular basis, and that practice of open burning is now being curtailed, that’s valuable information, and some evidence should be provided.
For security and transparency, you’ll want to obtain offtake or purchase agreements for this biomass. These agreements need to specify the quantities and schedule of biomass that will be available and the price. Without reliable numbers, it’s impossible to know if you have enough raw material to maintain the operation, or whether you’re exceeding a sustainable level of production (i.e., bringing additional, unqualified biomass into the production line).
An agreed price is also vital, because a waste product that’s free (or almost free) might suddenly become expensive when the farmers see that you’ve found a use for it. At the same time, the farmers should receive some benefit, monetary or otherwise, if they are providing all the feedstock for a revenue-generating carbon project.
Again, all those costs and co-benefits should be well-documented. And it can take time to obtain those agreements in writing and get them translated into English.
Of course, your biomass will never turn into biochar without the critical process of pyrolysis. Our CSI projects use Kontiki kilns for their production, while larger projects may need to source something with a more industrial capacity. CSI has already accredited the Kontikis and the emissions from these kilns are known and understood. For other kilns, an emissions analysis will be necessary. This is something that will take some time, so it should be addressed as early as possible.
After deciding which kiln to use, you’ll need to have it priced and fabricated. You may need to source the materials and find a qualified steelworker. Or you might have to place an order from a factory and have the equipment delivered.
With the pyrolysis equipment assembled and delivered, you’ll need to identify a good location for it, a place that is central and accessible, and also suitable for this sort of activity. One of the goals will be to minimize the distances traveled by biomass and biochar, so the kiln location is key. You may also need to get permits from the local government to operate pyrolysis equipment at a designated location.
Once the machinery is installed and ready to operate, you can start conducting trial runs. Pay close attention to the cook times and the conversion rates (liters of biomass to liters of biochar per cook). Then you can get some local lab analysis as well (see below).
Before you can apply it to the soil, it’s very important to mix (aka charge or inoculate) the biochar with some kind of compost or manure. As with the biomass, you need to have a guaranteed supply in place, and a set price that you know you can count on. Again, the only way to do this is with signed purchase agreements which can take time to organize.
If you have choices, you want to use the least expensive and most abundant type of compost or manure possible. From our experience, it seems like compost tea or some liquid fertilizer concoction is usually the cheapest way to go. It also tends to be the most cost-effective in terms of time and energy required to do the mixing or inoculating.
Last, but not absolutely not least, the biochar needs to find its final destination. Biochar can be added to farmland, degraded land, feral land, or elsewhere. But your biochar can’t just go anywhere; it has to go somewhere. And you need to decide as soon as possible where that somewhere will be. And you need to know if you will be giving the biochar away or selling it, and if selling it, then for what price. Once again, we need to have offtake agreements in place with potential customers and landowners who will become the recipients of your dark gray treasure.
As you can see by now, there’s quite a bit of documentation required in order to guarantee the feasibility of the project and to provide the level of transparency that carbon credit buyers demand. Gathering this documentation might take longer than you think, and it could bring unforeseen challenges to light. The sooner you can overcome these obstacles, the better.
3. Lab Analysis
If you’re in the earlier stages of establishing a biochar project and waiting to get started with a feasibility study, one of the most important tasks to look into will be conducting a lab analysis on a sample of biochar. To fully understand the feasibility of the biomass and the project as a whole, we need to know what quality of biochar you are producing.
A thorough analysis will gather a long list of data points, but among the most important will be the carbon content percentage, the hydrogen-to-carbon ratio (H: C), the PAH values (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and the bulk density (as the biochar comes out of the kiln). Eventually, you’ll probably need to send your biochar samples to an accredited lab in Europe, but in the preliminary stage, the results from a local lab test will be perfectly satisfactory.
This data will be crucial in assessing the viability of any carbon credit project, and for calculating the quantities of credits your project will be able to generate per batch, per day, per month, and so on.
So if you’re eager to work with Planboo, we are probably eager to work with you as well. And if you’re caught on the waiting list, don’t be discouraged. There’s no reason to fuss and no reason to sit on your hands. The tasks described above should give you plenty to work on. In the end, transparency and documentation are everything, so run your trials, do your testing, prepare your contracts, and sign your offtake agreements. With these boxes ticked, you’ll be able to hit the ground running and coast through the feasibility study with flying colors.
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