Showing posts with label Clean Stoves. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Clean Stoves. Show all posts

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Cone Pit Method

"We wondered, before going to the expense of building a steel wok like they use in Japan, what if we build a pit like Josiah Hunt but shape it like a cone kiln?"

Charles Eisenstein, writing for Resurgence, says:
Please, my argument here is NOT “Various greenhouse-gas curtailment schemes have failed, so we shouldn’t even try.” I am, rather, proposing that these failures have something in common – they emphasize the global over the local, the distant over the immediate, the measurable over the qualitative – and that this very oversight is part of the same mentality that is at the root of the crisis to begin with. It is the mentality that sacrifices what is precious, sacred, and immediate for a distant end; it is the mentality of instrumentalism that values other beings and the Earth itself in terms of their utility for us; it is the hubris of believing we can predict and control the consequences of our actions; it is the trust in mathematical modeling that allows us to make decisions according to the numbers; it is the belief that we can identify a ‘cause’ – a cause that is something and not everything – and that we can understand reality by dissecting it and isolating variables.
What would happen if we revalued the local, the immediate, the qualitative, the living, and the beautiful? We would still oppose most of what climate change activists oppose, but for different reasons: tar sands oil extraction because it kills the forests and mars the landscape; mountaintop removal because it obliterates sacred mountains; fracking because it insults and degrades the water; offshore oil drilling because oil spills poison wildlife; road building because it carves up the land, creates roadkill, contributes to suburbanisation and habitat destruction, and accelerates the loss of community. On the other hand, many of the technologies I find beautiful might also be justified on climate change grounds: agricultural practices that regenerate the soil; restoration of forests and wetlands; smaller homes in higher density communities; economies of reuse, upcycling, and gift; bicycle culture; home gardening.
Yesterday our 2014 ecovillage apprentices, still caked with clay plasters from upcycling our Prancing Poet Ecohostel, helped us perform an experiment we have been inching towards for a month. Like most experiments, there was no real success or failure involved, just the harvesting of new knowledge. Still, we were grateful that it turned out even better than we had imagined it might, and now we are eager to pass along the results.

The problem we are addressing is multilayered. At its most general layer, there is an observable imbalance in Earth’s climate systems that is an existential threat to all of us.

... and lift-off
We attribute this imbalance, now calibrated with a high degree of certainty, to the corruption of “normal” atmospheric chemistry with a superabundance of waste elements from the biological processes of a single, invasive, overly fecund species, you know, the two-legged ones. Since this species shows no sign of going away before it causes irreparable harm to its host, we few revolutionary cells, acting as antibodies in the greater system, are working towards effective and timely mitigation by finding ways to reduce and reverse the damage wrought by our deluded or disengaged brethren.

The dilemma is, as Eisenstein opines, global, distant, distressingly measurable, and spawned by hubris that is seemingly intractable. Nonetheless, the way out is beautiful, elegant, sublimely local and relies on millions of farmers and gardeners awakening like a peasant permaculture army and simply doing what they do best — grow food.

One of the most promising (and most tested) ways we know to reverse the effects of runaway source emissions is to increase the strength of nature’s counteracting sinks. At the planetary scale, carbon has four mega-repositories: deep earth (including fossil hydrocarbons); shallow earth (topsoil and the subsurface microsphere); oceans; and vegetation. Deep earth is where half the problem originated, but returning carbon there once it has gone to the atmosphere, while technically feasible, is stupendously expensive (as we described here two years ago). The Ponzinomics of “clean coal” scrubbers, or artificial trees, may yet provide windfall profits for the 1%, but it comes at the expense of everyone else, and all our relations.

Oceans are the sink that has shouldered the greatest burden for the past century or more, but even oceans have reached their unfathomable limit and now, as they warm, not only will not accept more from us, may join us as fellow sources. Oceans, while remaining net sinks, are already starting to return excess carbon back to the atmosphere through methane effervescence and plankton die-off. This is a frightening, self-reinforcing feedback demonstrating all too cogently the penalties of our dalliance. Soon, only two viable sinks will remain — shallow earth and vegetation — to pick up the slack and get us back to 350 ppm or below.

We need to net sequester from 5 to 10 gigatons (or petagrams, or billion tons) of carbon annually to dial back the danger as quickly as we can. The only way to get plants and soils to perform that trick is to baby them with water, healthy microbes, and TLC. Burning soils with chemicals just adds deserts, to say nothing of driving the nutrition out of food. We need more organic gardens, more forests, and also — something that would assist in the creation of both of those first two — more biochar, or recalcitrant carbon, to work as an alternative to petrochemical fertilizers while intercepting short carbon cycles and replacing them with longer, slower, more earth-friendly ones.

For the five billion people on the planet who grow food, and the six billion who work in some fashion with the more than 50,000 species of bamboo, this is good news.

Growing Local

Each type of of biomass provides a unique cellular signature
At the Ecovillage Training Center, the apprentices have been busy since early March harvesting all of the dead culms of our bamboo left by an exceptionally harsh winter. Not all varieties are the same — some have lower temperature tolerance and did just fine, while others froze and died back. Having a wide variety is an excellent hedge for any grower.

Bamboo is the second fastest growing plant on Earth, after microalgae. It will double its biomass every year if conditions are right. Running varieties can expand as far out from their base in one year as they are tall, and do it again the next year, and the next.

Building a bamboo fence

The first use we made of our Spring bamboo harvest was for fencing around our poultry area, enclosing the chicken coop and duckling ponds. The second use came from taking the slightly larger widths — 2 to 3 inches in diameter — and splitting them to make plaster lathe for the building we are currently reviving. Some prime pieces ended up as walking sticks, garden stakes or finishing trim — or future bambitats — and then, finally, what was left became the scrap pile — whatever odd shapes and sizes were without immediate other uses — and that was set out to dry. It is now early May and that pile was sufficiently large and dry — 12 cubic feet — that the time had come to turn it into biochar.

Building a bamboo building (Pachamama, Colombia 2013)
We have been adding biochar to our gardens since 2006 and we swear by it. Bamboo biochar is especially great, because those big pores in bamboo’s cell structure translate into a heavenly microbial habitat when it is charred, charged, and dug into the garden. Just by way of example, we had a Discovery Channel crew here shooting a piece on biochar stoves in mid-March. We had a dozen small tomato starter plants — no more than 3-4 inches tall at the time — that we filmed being transplanted into 1-gallon containers. The lower half of the container was composed of biochar that had been steeped in urine for the previous 4 months, then turned with a mix of weathered sawdust, kitchen compost and composted horse manure before being deployed as container fill. The top half of the container was just the tiny, fragile tomato plant surrounded by garden soil.

Bamboo cup
Too bad the Discovery Channel was not able to return 4 weeks later, in mid-April, when we moved the tomatoes from the greenhouse out to our garden beds. By then they were chest high, all leafed out, and in need of stakes or cages to support their weight. No MiracleGrow or other synthetic fertilizers were used in the making of this testimonial. Just biochar from bamboo and a little compost.

Yesterday, with storm clouds gathering from our Southwest, we decided it was a good time to take the dry bamboo to the kiln. We could not get any more solar drying done this week and the summer garden will be wanting more biochar soon.


We have experimented with a number of stove designs, from oil drums to TLUDs, Beaners and Biolites to ceramic ovens, but lately we have been most intrigued by the large wok design used by the Hozu farmers cooperative in Japan to turn bamboo into biochar for their “Cool Vege” label.

Our friend Kelpie Wilson out in Oregon made one of those “cone kilns” and reported the results on her blog. In January she traveled to Simi Valley, California to see Michael Wittner’s BlueSky Biochar burn at the Simi Community Garden. Michael also used a cone kiln, and as he did the burn he narrated the physics of the process and described how the cone shape created an oxygen-free zone at the base. He demonstrated a layering technique that kept enlarging the zero-O2 zone until he was getting a smooth torus of flame with no appreciable smoke.

Some partially charred pieces reveal the source fuel
Two weeks ago, Kelpie described a test burn by Kamal Rashid, CEO at Zanjabil Gardens in Pembroke Township, Illinois, using a giant homemade cone kiln —  59" top diameter,  24" bottom diameter, and 24" high. The kiln made 133 gallons of biochar (17.7 cu ft) in about 4 hours, using cordwood. Kamal reports that it took 30 gallons of water to quench the kiln.

Some years back, with support of The Biochar Company's CEO Jeff Wallin, “Biochar Bob” Cirino went to Hawaii and made a video of another friend of ours, Josiah Hunt, who makes commercial biochar for the Hawaiian home market.  Biochar Bob is the spokesperson of CAFT: the Char Alliance for the First Tier. The First Tier represents organizations around the world that have working demonstrations and adoptable business models for using biochar in the developing world. Check out the Biochar Bob series on YouTube (Biochar Bob Goes to Haiti, Biochar Bob Goes to Costa Rica, Biochar Bob Goes to Brooklyn…).

In Josiah’s Hunt’s method, a shallow pit is dug in the earth, filled with woody biomass, ignited, and then covered to smolder. This is not much different than the method practiced by indigenous societies for at least the past 1000 years as related in The Biochar Solution.  It is pretty labor intensive and slow, but it yields a consistently large amount of biochar.

We wondered, before going to the expense of building a steel wok like they use in Japan or at BlueSky or Zanjabil (estimated about $400 in costs to fabricate), what if we build a pit like Josiah Hunt but shape it like a cone kiln and use the type of layering technique that Michael Wittner demonstrated?

That was our experiment, which we are calling Cone Pit method. We dug a cone-shaped pit — 54" top diameter, 24" bottom diameter, and 16" deep. The burn began with a single match and some cardboard boxes, along with a few small, very dry bamboo sticks. Within a few minutes it had grown to fill the bottom of the pit and we quickly started adding more and bigger bamboo to the fire. We watched for signs of it going white – indicating ash formation, and then we would throw on another layer of bamboo.

If we had more bamboo we could have probably made 10 times what we did, but we started with about 12 cubic feet of loosely piled dry bamboo and we used that in the course of the 12 minute burn. Then, with no more fuel, we started quenching at the edges and anywhere we saw white ash, and gradually worked the spray toward the center, ending the process after approximately 15 minutes. We quenched the fire thoroughly, left it out in the overnight rain, and then allowed it to drain into the ground for a full day before collecting and weighing what we had. It was 30 pounds dry weight.

The urine vat receives liquid from an ecohostel pissoir
From there the fresh biochar went to a urine bath. Even though it was quenched with water and was rained on during the night, biochar coming directly from a pyrolytic kiln will be hydrophobic – meaning it repels water. By soaking it in a vat of urine for some days or weeks before mixing it into our compost pile we can be certain to convert it from hydrophobic to hydrophilic. Now when it reaches the garden it will work like a sponge, soaking up water when it rains and releasing it back slowly to the plant roots as needed, along with all the minerals and nutrients being brought to the “reef” and stored there by the families of microbes.

It would have been better if we had found a good use for all the heat we generated in that 15 minutes — a good excuse for further experiments — but our fire was still relatively clean, producing nil carbon dioxide and keeping most of the plant carbon out of the atmosphere for the next 1000 years, hopefully time enough to change our renegade species’ wicked ways.

It may be, as Charles Eisenstein says, that the world is not going to be saved by international treaties or retooled economic initiatives that purchase megacorporate buy-ins, but by agricultural practices that regenerate the soil; restoration of forests and wetlands; smaller homes in higher density communities; economies of reuse, upcycling, and gift; bicycle culture; and home gardening.

Here is our short video:


Tuesday, November 26, 2013


"What we are attempting, with permaculture, carbon farming and ecovillages, is to reverse the degradation of the quality of life that is the inevitable consequence of population expansion hitting the limits to growth. We are trying to claw our way back up Maslow’s heirarchy of needs; to push to the summit and hold that high ground.


Add caption
As I settle in for the winter I hope to catch up with more frequent posts, but at the moment I am in my 11th country so far this year, Cuba, and it has poor internet access and besides, my interest in the International Permaculture Congress here steals my attention from blogging. What I can offer at the moment is an advance glimpse of the talk I am preparing for my address to the Congress today. Regular readers may be familiar with much of this material, but this overview summarizes the core of my current work.

Our story really begins with the 8th International Permaculture Conference, in São Paulo, Brazil in May 2007, followed by the Permaculture Convergence at EcoCentro and the Amazon tours. This was my first exposure to the dark earths of the Amazon and it began for me an inquiry that continues to the present.

Within those dark earths is a mystery, one that puzzled scientists for 400 years. How could it be that there are large pockets of deep, rich humus all over the Amazon watershed, when just adjacent to these deposits are the more typical, nutrient-poor, tropical clay soils? Those latitudes closest to the Equator have not been periodically remineralized by glaciers, and many are in non-volcanic zones. Monsoon cycles, the parching sun, and erosion from wind and rain long ago washed most of the nutrients out of these soils and left what remains stored in living plants and animals, and when those die, the nutrients quickly transfer to the next generation of plants and animals.

The mystery was eventually cracked by soil scientists — Charles Hart, first Dean of Geology at Cornell University; Friedrich Katzer, whose early 20th century samples were destroyed during the shelling of Sarajevo; Wim Sombroek; Bruno Glazer, and several others — who proved beyond any doubt that these soils were man-made. The secret ingredient was recalcitrant carbon, formed by pyrolysis of woody biomass, or what we call today “biochar.” Some of the Amazonian deposits are more than 8000 years old, and the carbon that turns the earth dark has been remarkably stable over that time. The reason the soils are so fertile has to do with the porous quality of biochar and its high cation exchange capacity, which make it ideal habitat for beneficial soil microbes and a storage media for calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus and other minerals that plants need.

We have known that putting charcoal in your garden is good for your plants for a long time, since at least the Nogyo Zensho, an agricultural encyclopedia written in 1697 during Japan’s Edo period by the wandering samurai-turned-Zen monk, Yasusada Miyazaki. What we have not known until more recently was how that works. Interestingly, it was the subject of a debate between Louis Pasteur and Baron Justus von Leibig. At the turn of the 20th Century, believers in vitalism thought soil contained an organic life force. Leibig contended it was all just chemistry and physics. Pasteur said, in not so many words, its the biology, stupid. In the end, Leibig conceded Pasteur was right. He became a biochar fan and had himself buried in a coffin filled with biochar.

Of carbon on land, 75% is Soil Organic Carbon, which cycles through living things. Very little was in Earth’s atmosphere—until recently. Carbon’s capacity to absorb energy causes air to heat up and in the upper atmosphere. As a greenhouse gas, it also allows short-wave solar energy to pass to earth but traps the longer-wave reflected heat, warming the lower atmosphere and passing some of that warmth to ocean and land. The era of fossil fuels, beginning with coal mining and continuing today with fracked gas, has added gigatons of carbon to the atmosphere, which has destabilized the heat cycle of the planet.

One way of thinking about it is to imagine you are about to cross a busy highway but three times out of ten, you must cross with your eyes closed. One of those three times, on average, an oncoming car will not be able to avoid hitting you. Those are approximately the odds that mammals, such as ourselves, have of surviving in a 3-degree warmer world. At Copenhagen the world agrees to not exceed 2 degrees of warming, which means 1 additional chance in 10 (we already were committed to 1 degree at that conference in 2009), of human extinction due to climate change. We will exceed the 2 degree limit by 2040, 4 degrees by perhaps 2080. By the end of this century, 6 to 7 degrees is the most likely scenario, even factoring in Peak Oil and financial collapse. That fate is already in the pipeline, as they say. To survive to the end of the century we will have to cross the highway 8 times in 10 with our eyes closed, and hope we get lucky. Human extinction is not a fait d’accompli, just becoming more likely by the year.

Imagine for a moment you are the non-linear, quantum entangled brain of Gaia. You have four organs that you are balancing for carbon (and nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other elements too — you have to keep them all in balance, but lets start with carbon). At present, there is too much carbon dioxide in the air, and reducing its concentration from 390 ppm to 350 means we’ve got to take 300 billion tons out. We can’t put that into the oceans and in fact 350 is probably too much so we really need to remove between 900 and 1,000 Gt of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it safely away.  Land plants hold 600 billion tons of carbon at present but Earth’s soil holds about three times that amount. That is the storage medium we need.

While we need to rebalance the sources humans contribute (cement, coal, fertilizer, population), we will also need to go to Net Minus for a while to dial the pressure down. To do that we need to find around 8 to 10 Gt of carbon we can lock up annually. After a century, that would bring us back to 350 atmospheric parts per million, or lower, and also repair ocean acidity. If by then we have managed to cross the road with our eyes closed, repeatedly, and survived, we might even be able to restart civilization.

So what are the wedges that find us 8-10 GtC to remove from the atmosphere annually? We have four main ones: steep reduction of our emissions (we currently emit 5.6 GtC/yr from fossil fuels); “carbon farming” (the suite of permaculture tools advocated by Yeomans, Savory, Salatin and others — about 1-2 GtC/yr); biochar (recreating the dark earths — 4-10 GtC/yr); and tree-planting (afforestation and reforestation, about 80 GtC/yr by UN estimates). These are our best options, and lo! we find we can get our 8-10 GtC from these wedges, working together in coordinated ways.

Clean Stove Initiatives

What are the paths to adoption? Every year in the two-thirds world, eight million children die of inhaled black soot from three stone cooking fires on dirt floored kitchens. Making smokeless stoves that make biochar and use 30% less fuel is a solution to that. Following the earthquake in Haiti, WorldStove went to the assistance of refugee camps, first setting up community kitchens that cooked 300 meals per day per stove, making biochar and then making microenterprise hubs to get people out of the camps and earning a living. They made stoves from earthquake rubble. The kitchens were all carbon-minus. Then they pelletized fuel from the same source, and later from grasses. They set up hubs for both fuel-making and stove-making.

In Haiti giving the biochar to people risked having it burned, because in Haiti everyone cooks with charcoal, so instead WorldStove gave it to aid groups making compost toilets. They used it to reduce the smell of the toilets and that effectively prevented the char from being diverted into the fuel market. Instead, it became fertilizer, which was then distributed to other NGOs planting trees to reforest Haiti.

Not everyone can access the materials to make a metal stove, so in Kenya, Dorisel Torres, a graduate student working on biochar as a soil amendment at Cornell University, developed a simple clay gasifying stove that is one-third more efficient than rocket stoves, is smokeless, and leaves no ash, only biochar. Anyone can make one, and no money is required. The results in the poor African soils were dramatic — double the yields for beans and maize in the first season.

In prepping biochar for the garden, David Yarrow has given us the rule of the 4 ‘M’s: Moisture, Minerals, Microbes and Microns. Straight out of the kiln biochar is bone dry. The product needs to be washed to cleanse it of tar and resin residues that make it hydrophobic and provide a little starter moisture for the microbial community. It has huge adsorption capacity and this is optimized for gardens by adding sea minerals and the major cations – Ca, Mg, K — and anions — N, P, S. Encouraging colonization by aerobic bacteria and fungi can be sped up by injecting existing communities of beneficials, or simply by blending the biochar with compost. The optimal particle size is rice grain size, down to dust — the size an earthworm could digest.

The biggest wedge we have is reforestation and agroforestry is one way to do that without diminishing food supply, but Carbon sequestration begins to diminish annually as a forest matures. The juvenile trees simply sequester more C as they grow, annually, than the older ones. We can optimize the sequestration capacity of forests by selective halving of the population -- tree culling -- at intervals of 6, 9, 12, 16 and 24 years. Nursery trees can be used for various things before being made into biochar. We can than either return the forest to clear (milpa) or slow-age the top grade timber (but that does not maximize C sequestration).

It is necessary for such management to be cautious and proceed with the same holistic management practices that you would apply to drylands pasture recovery. We are managing for ecological service capacity improvement, so we would want to look at the stocking of all parts of the system and try to redress any imbalances. Still, we have shown through projects like the Alford Forest and the Pioneer Forest that management for these goals actually produces more financial yield than the alternative, less sustainable, current industrial pulp, paper and timber harvesting models, even before you factor in the fossil fuel. We need to manage for mixed age, mixed species, maximum biodiversity and the full gamut of ecological services.

Ecovillage Living

So, now I have given you a scientific foundation for talking about effectively reversing climate change. It is time to move to the process by which we can bring that reversal into being. We can begin by getting rid of the politics of combat negotiations, where you have two opposing viewpoints and each tries to gain an advantage over the other. Instead, let us proceed from those things on which we can agree. All people, in all cultures have essentially the same set of wants. All communities want:
To reduce environmental pollution
To have a better quality of life
To strengthen their economy
To insure health and security, and
To have a nice place to live

Robert and Diane Gilman defined an ecovillage as “a fully-featured human settlement, with independent sources of initiative, in which human activities are integrated into the natural environment in a way that is sustainable into the indefinite future.” It is not particularly new idea, if you go back to Thomas Alquinus, Edward Bellamy, or the Victorian Era Garden City notion, the desire for utopia is a constant. In the Sixties we saw the emergence of separate alternative movements for sustainable building, energy, health, transportation, agriculture, and many other things. Ecovillages merely assemble all these alternatives into a holistic matrix and take them to village scale.

The oldest continuously functioning ecovillage in the world -- now 83 years old, is Solheimer in Iceland. It was begun by Sesselu Sigmondsdottir in 1930 as a home and school for developmentally challenged children. It had the benefit of a hot spring on the farm property that produced 30 liters per minute at 95°C. Today Solheimer is working to reforest Iceland, planting millions of seedlings from their geothermal nursery.

Torri Superiori is a European example of reinhabitation of an 8th Century village that was a ruin on the mountainous border between France and Italy, not far from Ventimiglia.  A design best practice should be to not take away from farmland or wild land, but instead to green up brown fields, and reinhabit suburbia. At Torri there is another best practice, which is designing for enchantment, and that is how we win hearts and minds.

Findhorn has been planting trees to reforest the Scottish Highlands that were deforested after the clearances. They enlist volunteers each Spring and Fall to trek the wildest parts of Caledonia and reinstate the missing bits of that uplands ecology.

A first Ecovillage Design Education Training Program was held in Guizhou Province in August and Sept 2010 with 29 participants. Later programs followed up, and now Tengtuo is China’s model ecovillage. It has the potential to become the first carbon-negative farming region in Asia, by using their coconut husk wastes to make biochar.

Ecovillages are engaged in the transformation of values in four ways that may make the transition to sustainability easier and more graceful:
  • delinking growth from well-being
  • reconnecting people with the places where they live
  • affirming indigenous patterns and practices, and
  • offering a holistic and experiential vessel for social experiments, educational methodologies, and transition paths.

One of the best examples is the Sarvodaya network of some 18000 ecovillages in Sri Lanka that now has more than 1 million people living in ecovillages. It is a “pay-it-forward” system of self-help, where each ecovillage adopts a sister village that is less fortunate than itself.

What we are attempting, with permaculture, carbon farming and ecovillages, is to reverse the degradation of the quality of life that is the inevitable consequence of population expansion hitting the limits to growth. We are trying to claw our way back up Maslow’s heirarchy of needs; to push to the summit and hold that high ground.

The Farm in Tennessee, where I live, inhabits a remnant mixed mesophtic boreal forest. The fabric of the Southeastern forest is wearing thin as population continues to cut into and haul away the forests to make suburbs and strip malls. Because of its forests, The Farm net sequesters 5 times its human carbon footprint.

We’ve found keyline management the fastest way to restore degraded soils. It does not release carbon to the atmosphere like normal plowing does. We have been augmenting the technique with the advice of Darren Doherty, Elaine Ingham, Dan Kittredge and others, using compost tea, biochar in slurry, and remineralization. Using these methods you can add a meter of topsoil in 3-10 years. That is not just drought and flood-proofing, but also rebuilding the soil carbon reservoir.

We offer opportunities for people to come and learn these things at The Farm, we invite other teachers to use our venue for teaching, and we send our teachers and graduates out around the world.

The next agriculture will not be about chemistry. It will be about biology. We are just beginning to learn about the quantum entanglement of all life forms into a non-linear web of mutual support. Every time someone uses antibacterial soap or discards something made of plastic they are cutting strands of that web.

Bacterial cells are much smaller than human cells, and there are at least ten times as many bacteria as human cells in the body (approximately 1014 versus 1013). 205 identified genera exist in our body. The mass of microorganisms are estimated to account for 1-3% total body mass. Bacteria create the next generation by epigenetics - drawing upon a smorgasbord of available genes. Bacteria choose what to become. This is how Gaia heals.

The genius of biochar is that it provides habitat and sanctuary for microbial life. It is more than just a sponge, it is a soil coral reef. You can see how quickly diversity of soil microbes goes up if you add biochar.

Biochar serves as a helpful media in establishing living roofs, as well as gardens and orchards. Winter heating and cooking can supply enough biochar to provide for the gardens, and natural plasters, and food supplements. This is how we may come to inhabit the earth in the Anthropocene -- sheltered for coolth.

Earthaven, in North Carolina, is another example of an ecovillage that net sequesters a third more than than its carbon footprint from all activities, including businesses and visitors’ travel.

So how can we speed up the process of adoption? What can make the meme viral?

You would be amazed at all bamboo-biochar products that you can order on the web from China. Wearables become soil amendments when they are worn out and composted. Even sniper gulley suits and kevlar body armor are being lined with biochar woven material because biochar absorbs the heat-signature of the wearer.

At the recent North American Biochar Syposium they passed out biochar-coated peanuts that are recommended for improving your digestion. The peanut crust is five-year-old bamboo, burnt at around 800°C.

The anime show Yakitate!! Japan, is about a kid's quest to create a national bread for Japan. The 29th episode is about bamboo biochar bread. An evil bakery rips off the diet bread recipe of the good guys, who then counter with a bamboo charcoal bread. [spoiler alert] The bad guys are left in tears at its flavorful beauty. Somewhere in there they also manage a giant robot battle. You can also find charcoal in Japanese desserts, real-life charcoal bread, and a restaurant in Vancouver that sells bamboo charcoal ramen.

Cool Foods

Hozu Farming Coop started in 2005. 338 of 352 households in region belong. Total acreage is 150 ha. (370 acres) and that is 97% of the farmland in the region so you can see that most Japanese farms are under 1 acre, on average. Their Cool Food project was started in 2009 as a partnership between the Hozu Coop, the local university, and Kameoka City government. They called the partnership Carbon Minus. The idea was to harvest bamboo and dead wood from Satoyama (common) lands, make biochar, use biochar to grow vegetables, and brand the produce “cool foods” in stores. It succeeded dramatically. Hozu Coop calculates that if biochar were applied to all 2100 ha on Kameoka regions farms it would sequester 154000 tons of CO2 annually, a third of Kameoka’s CO2 footprint. At $40/ton the Coop could earn $6.2 million/yr from carbon credits.

A similar potential exists wherever cacao is grown. Craig Sams, who founded Green and Black’s Chocolate, and now Carbon Gold, is trying to do it on a large scale.  Chris and Celini Nesbitt are making biochar while they cook breadfruit for their hogs at Maya Mountain Research Farm and then after composting with the hog manure putting it into their gardens and cacao orchards.

I can imagine a charcolate bar being made now, not just merely with cacao from biochar-enhanced soils, but also with the crunch of charred bamboo and peanuts.

At the Hawaiian Mahogany Farm on Kauai, nurse trees are thinned to release mahogany and other overstory trees, then chipped or sawed into lumber. The chips make biochar and electricity and the heat is used to cure the lumber and also run an ice plant that supplies the local fishing fleet. The fertilizer and mulch are used to improve community gardens and forage pastures.

The Warsaw UNFCCC Conference — COP 19 — ended in grief and tears, but it is possible to proceed without UN support or carbon taxes or incentive programs. We can find the benefits without that, although having that could speed the conversion of modern agriculture and habitat design enormously.

The Baltic Sea Region Ecovillage project is a 6-year, 1.5 million Euro program by the EU augmented with contributions raised by the 9 partners. It is creating guidelines for regional development, new village-based technologies and recommendations to governments for speeding the process and ensuring success of new ecovillages. This could go entirely carbon minus, or “cool,” in a later stage.

Education, particularly of youth, is an important part of our Global Ecovillage Network strategy for accelerating change. Since 2006 Gaia Education and Gaia University have delivered more than 200 programs in 33 countries over 6 continents, graduating more than 4000 students. You can download our Ecovillage Design Curricula and our books, the Four Keys to Sustainability set, for free ( in English, Spanish and Portuguese.

We need to reach back from these secure places and pull up our brothers and sisters in Haiti, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Burma, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Timor. That is the only real security that is possible – not whack-a-mole with drones and hellfire missiles to maintain failing Empire. Ecovillages are a one-world psychographic: the transitional vessel for the consciousness shift from me to we. There is no away, that is just basic ecology. It is one planet, a blue island in space. There are no lifeboats. It can no longer be Me first. We first. 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Post-Modern Moonshots

"New ways of looking towards a cooler planet: biochar textiles that serve as deodorizers, plasters that absorb mycotoxins, lightweight biochar bricks, a refrigerator house in Kenya, biochar pillows and mattresses that soak up toxins from your skin and ambient electromagnetic pollution, and graphite-quality biochar for semiconductors, batteries and nanotubes."

Mobile burn at New England Small Farm Institute
As Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, reminds us, "If the world is to be saved, it will not be by old minds with new programs, but by new minds with no programs."

Actually, it may not be the lack of programs, per se, but more to do with new ways of looking at the world — as Proust said, “not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Many of us who have been fretting over near term human extinction, a prospect recently bolstered by the advance release of the summary report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if not the near death experience of the global economy at the hands of a tiny political faction, have been probing this idea of new ways of thinking. That is what led us to travel up the Amazon river some years ago, and there to discover a secret climate control mechanism involving dark earths. Ever since then we have been using this space to report on new steps along that path, or new vistas we can discern with our new eyes.

We are fresh back from the 2013 North American Biochar Symposium and, as usual, dazzled by the latest vistas. To condense a 5-day conference into a short post is impossible, but fortunately the organizers had the foresight to video capture not just the plenaries but every one of the more than 100 presentations in the breakout sessions. These will soon be posted for public viewing on the UMass Amherst and/or Pioneer Valley Biochar web sites.

Highlights are many but here are just a few:

The conference served the first ever cool banquet — food items grown in biochar amended soil or foods/beverages that, in the course of production, provided feedstocks to be made into biochar. Entrees included biochar-fed smoked pulled pork, biochar-fed chicken sausage, charcoal pasta, biochar-wrapped goat cheese, biochar-covered peanuts and a variety of salad greens and vegetables grown in biochar conditioned soil.

Kelpie Wilson provided a little-known piece of the history of biochar in the story of Justus von Liebig and the evolution of the theory of humus. Most fascinating was a vignette of the argument between Liebig and Pasteur over whether soil fertility could be attributed to “vitalism” (biology) or the presence of elemental compounds (chemistry). Liebig believed that plant growth could be explained entirely by the availability of soil minerals until Pasteur proved conclusively there was more to it, and that humus is, in fact, teeming with forms of life that make plant growth possible. Liebig was an early pioneer in studying the uses of biochar and when he died, left instructions to be buried in a coffin filled with biochar. 

Who knew NASA’s budget has a $160 million/year line item for educating US schoolchildren? The federal shutdown canceled attendance by many participants from USDA, USGS, USFS and ARS but Doris Hamill of NASA’s Langley Research Center paid her own way to give a plenary keynote on the children’s educational packet she and others at NASA developed for distribution to middle schools across North America. For reasons one can only speculate, her superiors deemed her effort “off mission” and did not elect to go public with the packet, but the developmental work is not in vain. Watch for this to be independently funded and distributed soon, in English and Spanish.

Among the many 5-minute “Insight” talks were nice little tricks-of-the-trade visuals from Kelpie Wilson (how to build and operate a conical open “wok” kiln); Josiah Hunt (large-scale batches using the pit method); and Thomas Reed (instant biochar from pinecones on wet newspaper). 

CoolPlanet Biofuels, now supplied ample funding from Google, GE, BP and Conoco, is building mobile reactors that convert 1 ton of biomass to 75 gallons of biogasoline and 1/3 ton biochar.

In his opening keynote, Erich Knight reminded us that if CoolPlanet processed the entire projected US biomass harvest in 2030 (1.6 Gt), the yields would be 120 billion gallons of tank-ready fuel (the US now consumes 150 billion gal/year), and 0.3 billion tons of biochar, with a farming application of 300 million hectares, or 1.2 million square miles. The land area of the United States (excluding Hawaii and Alaska) is 2.9 million square miles. Of course, there is no possibility that CoolPlanet could process the entire annual biomass harvest of the United States! Their more modest goal is 100,000 one-million-gallon capacity plants, each at village scale. A typical village of 1000 residents with such a plant would net $1 million/yr besides making all the fuel they need and 60kW of electricity, with a capital payback of 2-3 years. CoolPlanet’s founder, Mike Cheiky, says that with 2% of the world’s arable land they could drag industrial civilization back to carbon neutrality. With 3%, they could cleanse 100 ppm CO2 from the atmosphere in 40 years (to 300 ppm if we begin right now). Meanwhile, the projected price of the Cool Fuel produced would be $1.50/gal in today’s dollars. Only time will tell whether this is a realistic projection or just so much more snake oil.

Meghana Rao, who dazzled us as a High School sophomore from Beaverton, Oregon, at the Sonoma conference a year ago, delivering a PhD level talk on the effect of particle size and feedstock on physical and chemical stability of biochar, was back as a 17-yr-old High School junior having now presented in Kyoto, Japan, become a finalist at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair — which gave her 15 minutes of face time with President Obama at the White House to better educate him on the climate restoring value of biochar — and also being named the Young Naturalist of the year by the American Museum of Natural History. Her presentation this time, which was again jaw-dropping, was on the “Novel Implementation of Biochar Cathodes in Microbial Fuel Cells – Phase I.” Having earlier noted the high surface area and cation exchange capacity of biochar, she is conducting a longer study on replacing platinum and rare earths in fuel cells with biocathodes. Preliminary results suggest biochar is somewhat less efficient (10-15%) but up to 400 times more cost-effective and of course can be recycled to later uses, such as water filtration, toxin-scavenging or as an organic soil amendment.

And, speaking of stacking uses for biochar, many more wonderful contributions came from Hans-Peter Schmitt at Ithaka Institut in Switzerland who described his “55 uses for biochar” in greater detail, including a number of cascading processes that sequence the same batch through an array of uses. Schmidt pointed particularly to the digestive qualities of biochar, noting that the Zanzibar Red Colobus monkey eats char daily to detox the phenols in its leafy diet, that we currently spend $20 billion per year on animal pharmaceuticals, and that adding a tiny bit of biochar to animal feed would cut Germany’s GHG emissions by nearly 1%, not including methane. Hans-Peter circulated a charred wool product, looking like a rasta dread that had gotten too close to Jock Gill’s charbecue, that was, in fact, a slow release fertilizer stick containing 8% nitrogen. He described biochar textiles that served as deodorizers, plasters that absorb mycotoxins (like black mold spores), lightweight biochar bricks, a refrigerator house in Kenya, biochar pillows and mattresses that soak up toxins from your skin and ambient electromagnetic pollution, and graphite-quality biochar for semiconductors, batteries and nanotubes.

There was much more here than we can possibly describe, but we invite readers to visit the UMass site and take in some of the videos and powerpoints from the program as they are posted. With 4 concurrent sessions at any given time, you can’t see everything even if you attend in person, but thanks to the magic of new media, we will shortly be able to shift time and space and attend any session, on demand.

These video-on-demand features may be the next best thing we have to giving everyone new eyes.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Turning the Herd

"Salvaging hope has to do with finding some wayward lead animals who are running oblique to the cliff’s edge and trying to persuade other members of the herd to follow them, in hopes that collectively it may actually slow momentum or even reverse direction of the herd, or at worst, save a few animals from being swept over."

We are sitting in a bay window of a stone cabin staring at the sunny, windswept west coast of Ireland, Rossbeigh Beach on the Iveragh Peninsula, overlooking Dingle Bay near Killorglin. We began this trip with an utterly absorbing International Communal Societies meeting in Scotland, moved on to a climate farming design charrette at a Permaculture center in Norway, then a repeat performance on a biodynamic farm in Sweden, and now the annual Feasta (Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability) retreat week in the west of County Kerry where we are brewing cool coffee with our Biolite stove and charging this iPad.

We travelled by train from Dublin with Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh of The Automatic Earth) after spending the night at the home of David Korowicz, to a quaint summer retreat cottage on the beach purchased by London barrister John Jopling in 1960 as a stone ruin and still being very gradually restored. It will house the dozen or so international participants of our conversation the coming week.

Arriving in late afternoon, we sat here in this window and curled up with a book we picked off the shelf, Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society, a Feasta anthology edited by Brian Davey and published in 2012. Now completely entranced by Davey’s opening chapter, in this post we will try to describe what we liked about it.

The chapter is called What can be done if mainstream politics loses interest in climate change, which seems at first glance a dumb question, being a fait accompli, but it turns out to be a compendium of the world’s best thinking on how to turn sour lemons into mojitos.

The first thing Davey observes is that great changes seldom come from confrontation. Rather, they are approached obliquely, indirectly, because from the standpoint of the historical participant, what needs to happen is unclear. Actually, as to our present dilemma, Davey’s essay points clearly to what needs to happen and catalogs the challenges.

Policymakers and business leaders are a tight-knit class locked into a commitment to growth. Growth underpins our global economic system, if for no other reason than money is merely the issuance of debt obligations and when you add the requirement of (unlent) interest, as Margrit Kennedy observed 30 years ago, it sets up a Ponzi scheme that is utterly dependent on growth, and endlessly seeking new patsies. This system requires both the unscrupulous lender and the gullible victim, and the globalized education system is geared to produce both in large numbers.

Money, drug and energy addicts share a brain chemistry that gets reinforced by both Western diet and social networks of fellow addicts. Policy is largely formulated by officials dialoging with the predator class and their skilled lobbyists and public relations hires, creating a mainstream narrative drummed by media that drowns out all alternative narratives, even the ones being trumpeted by Mother Nature in the form of superstorms, net fossil energy decline and global weirding.

No-one likes to maintain stressful confrontational relationships over long times, so regulatory capture is followed by the capture of non-profit opposition groups, popular media, and large open public fora, such as we described in past narratives of Rio+20 and UN climate conferences. Davey says, given this context, the situation appears pretty hopeless. We are a herd species and our herd is galloping towards a cliff.

Salvaging hope has to do with finding some wayward lead animals who are running oblique to the cliff’s edge and trying to persuade other members of the herd to follow them, in hopes that collectively it may actually slow momentum or even reverse direction of the herd, or at worst, save a few animals from being swept over.

We might think of these as “seed” experiments — complimentary currencies, ecovillages, “cool” stoves, and non-violent methods of conflict transformation — as the fringe of society but they are actually the leading edge of our inevitable future, if we are to have one.

In Denmark we can point to Ross Jackson’s “breakaway” strategy — a reform of global governance led by democratically or economically advanced countries like Iceland and Bhutan. In Germany there is the “solidarity economy” that hopes to congeal cooperative networks of CSA’s, community energy companies, community gardens and similar grass roots enterprises into a political force. From Ireland and the UK we have the Transition movement that combines town-scale remodeling projects with personal reskilling to cope with energy descent and climate change. From Italy we have Slow Food evolving through slow money and slow living to slow everything, very useful to the herd-and-cliff metaphor. From France we get Decroissance, which personally we prefer over its English version (Degrowth), because the French sounds more like a flaky pastry than losing your job. Something similar is emerging in Bolivia and Ecuador with Buen Vivir.

From these seeds, with some sunlight, water and the luck of a green thumb, who knows? What we may see will not be a centralized, pre-conceived new system replacing the old like Bolshevism or the Campuchean Revolution, but a bottom-up, decentralized Sacred Unrest, to borrow Paul Hawken’s words.

As Davey says, though, “What is still not clear is how far governments are capable of contributing to the new future.” It is argued by Naomi Klein, among others, that nations are now functioning as brands, running sophisticated PR campaigns designed by their financial sectors for the purpose of gaining expanded markets, access to raw materials, and new populations of debt slaves. Alternative futures will have to compete with this for minds and hearts.

It is helpful that governments and their economic schemes are increasingly seen as corrupt and bankrupt. It is less helpful that they are erecting a neo-liberal security state to impose power and undercut their opposition by violent means. Nonetheless, truth will out. As Napolean said, “Never harass your enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself.” The herd is not slowing yet, but the outliers are gaining adherents.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Personal Forest, Part 2

"If you appreciate the effort it takes for a single individual to become carbon-neutral, you can appreciate what it might take to balance the carbon footprint of a modern city of tens of millions of individuals."

In 1979, with the birth of my second child, my mother followed me to Tennessee and bought 88 acres near our budding ecovillage. Since our intentional community used to sharecrop that land, the fields had been contour terraced and swaled in the late 1970s with The Farm’s bulldozer and road grader, using guidance from the local soil conservation service (another Roosevelt relic), so it was already in pretty good condition from a keyline management point of view. I took the local USDA extension agent’s suggestion and planted loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), which, it turns out, was good advice. The loblolly is hardy, fast growing, drought-tolerant, and its range is expanding as the Southeast warms. I also planted hybrid American chestnut, mulberry, hardy citrus and bamboo.
The length of the frost-free season (and the corresponding growing season) has been increasing nationally since the 1980s. NOAA/NCDC, National Climate Assessment 2013 (advance draft).

In 1977-78, even before my mother purchased her farm, I began experimenting at my home with fast-growing hybrids of poplar, developed in Pennsylvania, comparing their growth characteristics with native tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). I was looking for a sustainable winter heating supply and a substrate for mushroom production that could be harvested by coppice and pollard. In 1985 I applied that knowledge to plant a shelterbreak of hybrid poplar along one border of my mother’s property.

Walnut Hill Farm 

Interior of the Prancing Poet, under construction in 2012
In 1998, I planted out 3000 hybrid walnuts, comparing grafted rootstock developed by Purdue University for veneer with native black walnut used primarily for furniture and hardwood flooring and secondarily for a prodigious, oily nut crop. Nearly all of the expensive hybrid plantings were lost within 5 years to rabbits, insects, drought, and ice-storms. The native walnuts succeeded, and so have become a lasting part of my forest design at what our family now calls Walnut Hill Farm. We are using the oily husks this winter to stain the interior trim in a new addition to The Farm’s Ecovillage Training Center.

The late 1990s also saw the introduction of many bamboo stands, along the swales and in “canebreaks” where creeks would overflow in high water. I put in a half-dozen varieties in discrete patches, spread over about 20 acres. These have multiplied so quickly that they alone more than offset all the annual carbon consumption at Global Village Institute, including the Ecovillage Training Center and all its employees, visitors and volunteers, and all my annual travel around the world giving courses and workshops. Counting sequestration both above and below ground, 10 acres of bamboo locks up 63.5 tC/yr (metric tons carbon per year).

I am told by Peter Bane, author of The Permaculture Handbook, that six tC/yr is consistent with back-of-the envelope figures for maize, another C-4 photosynthesizer. The difference with bamboo is that being an annual, edible corn is harvested and consumed each year and the stover decomposes rather quickly, releasing briefly stored carbon as greenhouse gases. Maize is therefore actually a greenhouse pump, because it draws soil carbon into the thick-rooted plant and makes it more readily available to the atmosphere. Bamboo, if it is landscaped into groves or incorporated into furniture, buildings or biochar, lingers much longer in the terrestrial environment.
The Albert Bates Forest (we do not call it that; I am being facetious) now occupies some 30 acres. After my mother died, the Institute leased 44 acres from Walnut Hill for the project and planted fruit trees, berry bushes, bamboos and cactus, as well as the tried-and-true local trees. We know that climate change will cause many of our most familiar tree species to out-migrate, and we are working to fill the void by planting species more likely to survive in semi-tropical conditions, albeit punctuated by winter blizzards.

Planting trees is not as easy as it seems when your experience is mainly hardy transplants of Loblolly pine provided by the Forest Service in tight little bundles. Most trees resist being transplanted and have to be encouraged and pampered. Oliver Rackham, in Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape  (2001) says “planting a tree is akin to shooting a man in the stomach.” His point is that trees are uniquely adapted to the angle of the sun, the flow of subsurface water and nutrients, the community of the forest and other factors we seldom consider. Starting trees in situ from seed or small seedling is often more likely to succeed than transplanting them as grafted rootstock or even semi-mature trees.

My planting method relies heavily on natural regeneration, followed by selection for desirable traits. Because of the poor highland soil in our region, cedars are a common pioneer species. Tulip poplar and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) are also common. Most disturbed ecosystems will revert to woodland through natural succession if left un-grazed and un-mowed. We have mowed those areas we wanted to reserve for planting stands of higher value. Self-sown trees are generally stronger and grow faster than planted trees, so by allowing space between patches, we left plenty of room for natural succession through self-seeding.

Most tree work is done in our dormant season, roughly from mid-November to the end of April. My son now has a nursery established at Walnut Hill where he starts seeds in containers in polytunnels in the summer months, transplanting seedlings out in winter. He is good at scavenging plant leftovers from nursery sales and farmers markets, and although those trees have diminished survival rates from excessive handling and neglect, some always manage to survive and mature. From these, new generations are cultivated and encouraged.

I have been planting at densities of about 100 trees per acre, but those densities will increase substantially as the forest fills itself in. I imagine 400-1000 trees per acre to be more typical at climax, plus a wide range of understory plants. I asked Frank Michael, Global Village Institute’s engineer, to run these numbers for me. He used several approaches to cancel out the various unknowables. This is part of a work in progress that he plans to publish as a book in the near future.

Calculating Carbon Sequestration

For a mature mixed-oak-hickory mesophytic forest of the type we are planting in the Highland Rim region of south central Tennessee, hard data is not readily available, but the appendices to the First State of the Carbon Cycle Report of the US Climate Change Science Program (2007) are very helpful. Studies aggregated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that 400 trees (one acre at maturity) would structurally absorb 2.6 tons of carbon per year (2.6 tC/ac-y or 5.84 tC/ha-yr,), based on studies at 6 sites over 34 years. Our 30 acres are now at about 5% of the eventual biomass density, so they are sequestering 3.9 tC/yr. At maturity they would sequester 78 tC/yr. Foresting the full 44 acres would sequester 114.4 tC/y.

Another approach is to use a coefficient for average forest sequestration. A standard reference for this work is Akihiko Ito and Takehisa Oikawa’s “Global Mapping of Terrestrial Primary Productivity and Light-Use Efficiency with a Process-Based Model,” in Global Environmental Change in the Ocean and on Land, M. Shiyomi et al., Terrapub, Eds. (2004), pp. 343–358. If we apply the number Ito and Oikawa cite — 0.5-0.6 kgC/m2-yr for second growth Northern woodland — to our 44 acres (178,000 m2), we arrive at 89-107 tC/yr at maturity, which is in the same ballpark as estimating structural mass using NOAA’s figures. Since we are only at 5% maturity on 30 acres, the forest is presently saving about 3 tC/yr. 

Using the carbon calculator on the Dopplr web site, and tracking my average annual travel for the past five years, I produce about 10 metric tons/yr of CO2, or 2.72 tC, from my jet-setting lifestyle. In order to also include all the embodied energy amortized into my food, clothing, gadgets, workplace and home, let’s call it 5 tC/yr, although that is likely an over-estimate. So, at this point in time my tree plantings are not covering my footprints, although my bamboo plantings are, and I am also neglecting to mention my experiments with algae in constructed wetlands. Algae and bamboo are the number one and number two fastest photosynthesizing plants we know of.
The estimate of potential average annual sequestration by my forest at maturity, even without bamboo or algae, is 89-114 tC/yr at a stocking density of 400 trees/acre, in perpetuity. That will erase my footprints with the soils of time.

By 2050 this forest should be relatively mature, and so would only continue to stock carbon at the same rapid rates it did as a juvenile forest if it were to be selectively harvested. In The Biochar Solution I described the method proposed by Frank Michael for step-harvest. I presume that most of the wood harvested at that point would be used in buildings or for biochar, further sequestering its carbon rather than oxidizing it back to the atmosphere through decomposition or burning.

In the step-harvest method, mixed locally-native species are planted in a tight grid spaced to reach closed canopy in 4-6 years, at which point half the young trees are harvested and used for biochar manufacture (and accompany heat capture); the biochar is returned to the patch. In nine years, the remaining trees again close canopy, and half are harvested for biochar and lumber. This cycle is repeated at 12, 16.5, and 24 years, etc. At each point, there are several options:
    1. Harvest all the trees and start a whole new planting cycle;
    2. Insert a farming/gardening rotation in the open areas, adding mulch, compost teas, biochar and compost as soil amendments; or
    3. Allow remaining trees to mature and re-enclose the canopy, while allowing or adding useful understory plants.
    The first option yields greater than 6.2 times the biomass per unit of time and area than a conventional commercial forestry plantation.

“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.” 
      — Gustave Flaubert, November

My hope is that long after I am gone, my life’s forest will continue to provide valuable ecological services of all types to those who inhabit it after me, whether that is for climate mitigation or for the sense of wonder that growing up among tall trees can give to a child. 

I recognize that it is an extraordinary luxury for one human to have access to 40 acres of land and be able to devote the resources required to establish a lasting, productive and climate-resilient forest. I don’t wish to suggest that everyone could or should do this — just multiply 40 acres by 7.2 billion people and you see how impossible that would be.  
What I am saying is that the carbon footprint of millions of people who live at the standard of living I do, racking up air-, sea- and ground-miles and using server farms powered by fossil energy slaves to book our next business trip, will not just go away by itself. Earth’s carbon cycle is profoundly out of balance (as are the nitrogen, potassium and other cycles) — so much so that those conditions now threaten our extinction.

If you appreciate the effort it takes for a single individual to become carbon-neutral, you can appreciate what it might take to balance the carbon footprint of a modern city of tens of millions of individuals. Reports that city dwellers are more ecological than their country cousins often overlook this kind of calculus.

So what is the prescription? While not everyone can plant a personal forest, everyone can estimate their own greenhouse footprint and begin reducing it. I have been giving seminars in how to heat your home with stoves that make biochar, and how to use biochar in your garden to grow more biomass, including winter fuel. I am also active in the ecovillage and transition towns movements, which are pioneering a brighter, happier, cooler future. Planting trees helps. More forests are better. That just may not be enough. 

This is the second of a two-part piece. The first part was published to The Great Change on January 22, 2013. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bioenergy, TLUDs, and Our 2012 Stove Camp

"Both Solar Bob and Doc agree that trying to get charcoal-burning cultures like Haiti to give up making and burning charcoal is a lost cause, not worth spending much time on. We are less convinced of the hopelessness of conversion, having the card up our sleeve of eCOOLnomics still to play. Pop Culture can marry Mother Earth. We can make it cool to sequester carbon in the soil. "

Here at the Ecovillage Training Center we just completed our first, hopefully annual, Biochar Stove Camp. And a good time was had by all.

Dr TLUD demo's the Mwoto double chamber gasifier
These stove camps are the brainchild of Paul “Dr. T-LUD” Anderson, a retired geography professor who is spending his remaining active years enjoying as much geography as he can extend into. We, and “Solar Bob” Fairchild, whom Doc recruited to organize this camp, find ourselves kindred spirits in that way. We like to travel and exchange information, and we’re getting older.

Doc got interested in stoves doing mission work in Africa, and started attending stove camps in places like the Aprovecho Institute in Oregon, where he picked up on the gasifier design and its capabilities to produce biochar. Tom Reed, one of the early organizers of the International Biochar Initiative, interested him in the climate benefits of biochar. We saw him at Newcastle for the Biochar, Sustainability and Security in a Changing Climate conference in 2008 and at the U.S. Biochar Conference in Boulder, Colorado in 2010, showing off his namesake TLUD — “Top Loading UpDraft” — biochar-making stoves to, among others, the Secretary of Agriculture and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Doc just came back from Uganda where last spring he set up a project near Kampala to manufacture TChar stoves, a TLUD kit design he developed collaboratively in CHAB (“Combined Heat and Biochar”) camps such as ours. The Ugandan project is called Awamu Biomass Energy, or ABE for short. Awamu means “together” or “juntos” in Lugandan language. Awamu will set up a shop to cut, bend, drill and assemble the TChar, grow and harvest fuels and make hand-presses for biomass briquettes. It will then wholesale the stoves, presses and briquettes locally. If successful, Awamu would next expand to Bungoma, Kakamega and maybe Nyamira. 

Engineers Without Borders, Micro-Compound-Lever Press / Easy BioPress.
HAND PRESS: The press has a low build cost (about US$18), is easy to build using hand tools, is lightweight at 26 pounds and can create a force far in excess of that required to make a high quality briquette (typically in excess of 4,000 pounds). Briquettes can be produced at a rate of about twelve in ten minutes depending of type of mold used.

After Uganda Doc went to Kenya, then to Haiti, Honduras, back to the States for the Biochar Conference in Sonoma, Uganda again, and home to his Brazilian wife, Noeli, in Bloomfield, Illinois before packing his car with TChars, Toucans, Mwotos, and assorted other kits and tools, and heading here to Tennessee for Labor Day.

An engineer by training, Robert J. Fairchild went off to Ladakh in the early 80s and became one of the key staffers for Helena Norberg-Hodge’s International Society for Ecology and Culture. All over the Tibetian Plateau Solar Bob designed and built solar cookers, water systems, power systems, and home retrofits to save energy and fuel. When he came back and homesteaded near Berea KY, he bought and rebuilt an old hydropower dam. Today he sells into the Kentucky grid, and the system runs itself well enough to let him occasionally travel, installing solar energy systems in distant places (-- he installed our array here in 1995). He has spent the last 3 years working in Haiti with a group of missionaries from Nashville — building the first oil-drum rocket stove in a refugee camp that feeds 300 children daily — and went to Doc’s CHAB camp Massachusetts in 2011 to better understand what to do about charcoal. That’s where he first met Doc. Now he instructs the camps. He is just back from Haiti and has some new ideas he wants to try out having to do with heat exchangers.

Both Solar Bob and Doc agree that trying to get charcoal-burning cultures like Haiti to give up making and burning charcoal is a lost cause, not worth spending much time on. One of Doc’s stoves, designed specifically for Haiti, is a three-stage unit that makes charcoal in the top, gasifying, stage before burning it for cooking in the lower stage, rather like a machine that roasts and grinds coffee beans before steeping them into your cup.

The Whitfield Home Garden Biochar Pellet Stove, undergoing trials in 2012.
Of course, it would be better not to burn the charcoal but instead to grind it fine, run it through the compost pile and then get it into the garden, but that kind of use is a hard sell in Haiti.

We are less convinced of the hopelessness of conversion of charcoal cultures than are Doc and Bob, having the card up our sleeve of eCOOLnomics still to play. Pop Culture can marry Mother Earth. We can make it cool to sequester carbon in the soil.

It might be a long shot, but then considering the alternative is that places like Haiti and Africa become intolerably hot and dry and unable to support life, we think taking that gamble is warranted.

NikiAnne makes a TChar
The biofuels/agribusiness issue always crops up, to abuse a metaphor, but we are of the persuasion that whatever risks that agriculture-for-energy may hold, they are worth the risks if we can reverse climate change and get the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million carbon, or below, on decadal time scales. 

The challenge is that in the rural areas where biomass is available in abundance and can be collected at little or no cost, gasifying stoves are not affordable. Another challenge is having dry fuel in the rainy season. Unfortunately gasifiers are very sensitive to fuel moisture and do not handle fuel well unless it is less than 20% moisture. Making briquettes and pellets from dry grasses and biomass that if left alone would become greenhouse gases is a potential village enterprise that would be sustainable.

This stove charges your laptop off
a USB port that
derives electricity from a
bimetalic heat/cold current generator
We have no delusions about the potential of biofuels. It is hard to improve upon the renewable energy economies of the Greeks and the Romans even today — and they built empires on that kind of energy — but in the end Greek and Roman appetites for energy and consumer goods outgrew their empires’ abilities to enslave and deforest. Today populations are much larger, and better armed, and empires are again running out of far away places to enslave and deforest. They are having to do it at home to their own people and forests.

Part of the prescription for backflow in the carbon cycle is reforestation and afforestation, taking back fields converted to farms and suburbs and returning them to mixed-age, mixed-species food forests. (Other parts of the prescription include biochar, holistic management, mob grazing, keyline, organic no-till, and painting the built environment white or silver). We will hone in on this notion at our next workshop here at the Ecovillage Training Center, Building Food Forests for the 21st Century.

It is our strategy to build a permaculture army to turn this into a garden planet, using ecological services to meet all of our needs, while returning our Mother to the comfortable climate of the Holocene.

The Food Forest workshop starts September 23, runs to October 7, and places are still available. And for those who are in the Northeast, Albert Bates will be appearing on stage each day of the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, Pennsylvania from September 21 to 23. 

They are giving away conservation heirloom chicken brood starters as a door prize. Won’t you join us?




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