CCS Versus Carbon-Negative Bioenergy with Biochar

By John Bonitz | August 31, 2011

John Bonitz wrote this letter in response to an article that appeared earlier on the magazine website, and is published in this magazine on page 15. With debate raging over the carbon neutrality of bioenergy, America should embrace biomass technologies that are actually carbon negative. Thus, I applaud the article on the recent IEA Greenhouse Gas study, “Coupling with CCS.”

Thank you for jump-starting the conversation. Beyond this, the study has limited usefulness in the U.S., as policymakers and investors have already largely rejected carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). July’s cancellation of the Mountaineer coal-fired CCS project prompted Businessweek magazine to report, "Five largescale CCS projects have been canceled or postponed, while the fate of several others remains doubtful." In a policy regime where the costs of carbon pollution remain externalized, CCS projects fail due to complexity, high operational costs, large scale and high capital costs.

Current CCS technologies—often called "clean coal"—require 10 to 40 percent more energy input for the same output of a non- CCS power plant. If CCS with energy-dense coal is expensive, then CCS with low-energy density biomass will be even more expensive.

In contrast, the other carbon-negative bioenergy pathway— pyrolysis or gasification with coproduction of biochar—is less complex, can be built at smaller scales, and is less capital intensive. Biofuels and/or biopower are produced while also creating biochar for use as a soil amendment. Any “energy losses” perceived in the conversion of potential Btu into charred carbon is a justifiable form of tithing back to the earth. Afterall, this biochar puts stable, recalcitrant carbon back in the soil, where it has many beneficial impacts.

CCS has ready markets for CO2 pumped underground to enhance oil recovery (EOR). But biomass is a distributed resource, oil wells are not, and there is little biomass in oil country—inherently limiting the EOR market.

Soil scientists are finding biochar has many benefits, including increased crop yields, retention of nutrients and water, and suppression of greenhouse gas emissions.

Granted, until Americans put a price on carbon, both CCS and thermochemical bioenergy are precommercial technologies. Also, additional research is needed to determine the precise benefits of different types of biochar in different soils, for different crops. But investors and policymakers with limited capital might ask themselves, which is a better investment: complex, centralized engineering monoliths or heat-treating biomass for distributed energy and beneficial biochar?

Carbon-negative bioenergy with biochar is a pathway to rebuild the soil, provide for the needs of future generations and provide some of today’s energy needs, while helping to mitigate climate change.

Either way, let’s stop dithering over debatable carbon accounting and take actions that prove their merits with measurable physical sequestration of multibenefit biogenic carbon.

Author: John Bonitz
Southern Alliance for Clean Energy


2 Responses

  1. Gloria Flora



    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece, John. When one looks realistically at our constrained economy and constrained conventional energy future, there is much greater wisdom in pursuing technologies that are fully scalable, distributed, replicable, affordable and sustainable. And significantly, the energy return on energy invested and the carbon life cycle assessment of those technologies need to be rational, and ideally carbon-negative. Biochar is showing great promise in every one of these areas, in addition to its soil remediation capabilities. For our own future as well as that of our children, let's pursue common sense solutions.

  2. Danny Day



    John is right. Proper conversion of organic waste sidesteps the natural conversion and loss of valuable biogenic carbon (into CO2) and no matter what we wish the nutrients of decaying matter are soon washed away. The energy and financial cost of restocking our nutrient base with fertilizers is enormous. Biochar helps retain trace minerals which restores flavor to our food. Most of us remember fondly how good those vegetables were from our grandparents gardens. Biochar's ability to retain soil moisture can make the difference between making a crop in a dry year or a complete loss. It can mean difference between brown grass during periods of water restrictions or lush green lawn. When we look at biochar's benefits, the largest number accrue to the current generation. Though I am sure our ancestors will appreciate the rebuilding the garden of eden that was earth while mitigating climate change. The other opportunity is the energy released and or fuels produced while making biochar. Since 2002 Eprida has been demonstrating biochar and hydrogen production. Now that the world has begun to embrace biochar as a sustainable practice for agriculture. Let's also consider that the carbon negative fuel which can be produced at the same time is the fuel of our future. Dany Day, Eprida Power and Life Sciences Company


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