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From Green Waste to Black Gold: Cities Embrace Biochar

Local governments across the world are beginning to put biomass to work in the form of biochar, which can be used in areas like agriculture and energy production, all while reducing carbon dioxide in the environment.

a hand holding biochar
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Seven cities across the globe will be investing in carbon sequestration projects made possible with investments from Bloomberg Philanthropies.

In 2014, the Stockholm Biochar Project, which focused on resident incentives to produce the organic, charcoal-like substance, won the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge. The idea of using biochar has also gained ground in the U.S., with localities like Lebanon, Tenn., and Los Angeles County also looking to make use of biomass.

Now, through an investment from Bloomberg Philanthropies announced last month, seven cities will receive up to $400,000 in funding as well as technical support to help them develop their own biochar projects — applying the knowledge gained through Stockholm’s efforts.

The seven winning cities are Cincinnati, Ohio; Lincoln, Neb.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Darmstadt, Germany; Helsingborg, Sweden; Sandnes, Norway; and Helsinki, Finland.

SO WHAT EXACTLY IS BIOCHAR?


Biochar is produced during the gasification (or burning) of biological materials like yard trimmings, wood waste or even manure, according to the US Biochar Initiative. These materials, that otherwise might have been discarded, can be given new purpose, and even the heat used in the process has its own value.

The process of creating biochar involves using pyrolysis: biomass heated in the absence of oxygen at temperatures ranging from 350-700 degrees Celsius. This process is scalable, as it can occur through pyrolysis stoves for residential use or in industrial-sized units.

There are many possible uses for biochar. Notably, during the conversion process from biomass to biochar, heat and power are generated as a clean and renewable energy source. The carbon dioxide sequestration that occurs through this process can help in the fight against climate change.

Mattias Gustafsson was the project manager of the Stockholm Biochar Project and is a biochar specialist and partner at EcoTopic, which he co-founded. Gustafsson said that the city of Stockholm has benefited from the circular economy model that turns waste into a resource.

BIOCHAR IN MINNEAPOLIS


Minneapolis has been working with biochar since 2013 but has not been producing it. With the investment from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the city plans to build a production facility capable of harnessing the heat created in the process.

To this point, the city has had to acquire the product from a manufacturer for various applications in the community — ranging from urban agriculture to use in transportation corridors.

The city’s previous experience with biochar originated with Jim Doten, the city’s carbon sequestration program manager. Doten said he was introduced to biochar’s potential while in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army.

Through various uses, the city worked to use biochar to combat public health inequities and environmental justice issues, like using it in community gardens to improve food access.

“Because we’re with the health department, we’re trying to find ways to help out places where we see health inequities, which line up really well with environmental justice,” he explained, detailing that the city has identified “green zones” — or areas in the community that face the combined impact of environmental, political and economic marginalization — to focus this work.

In 2014, the city entered a memorandum of understanding with the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community to provide biochar to at-risk communities in the city.

BUILDING A BIOCHAR FACILITY


The city’s new production facility will ultimately turn local wood waste into biochar. And while the location is currently being finalized, the city is looking to start production in the second quarter next year, Doten said.

“We’re looking at it with an equity lens to make sure that we see the primary benefits of a government facility going towards equity purposes,” he stated.

The project will impact the community in numerous ways, not just urban agriculture but also urban forestry, stormwater, transportation corridors and more, Doten said, adding that there is even the potential to use this type of project to gain carbon dioxide removal credits.

A big piece of completing a project like this is building support, Gustafsson explained, and it can be accomplished in a number of different ways given the many potential uses for biochar. For example, with politicians, he recommends focusing on how biochar production could benefit the goals they already have, like those related to recycling.

He also underlined the importance of communication, something that the Stockholm Biochar Project team focused on both internally and externally. This helped the team build support with stakeholders and the community.

And ultimately, the goal was to give back: “We didn’t want to do a project that didn’t benefit the community.”

For Minneapolis, the approach to building support has been similar. Doten underlined the value of building a coalition of those with vested interests.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.


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