Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Plants and Soils have Wisdom

Mother Nature has had billions of years to evolve and adapt and has created the ecosystems we have today. The Soil supports human life and is alive with soil organisms, most of which are microscopic bacteria and fungi.

Healthy soil requires a wealthy diversity of microorganisms. Very little is known about how long-term agricultural land management affects the composition and genetic diversity of bacteria and fungi in soil. We know that forage, natural fertilizer applications, and cattle grazing increases the diversity of soil microorganisms and that conventionally tilled cropland with inorganic fertilizer results in a low diversity of soil microbes.

Conservation agricultural systems with wise use of animal manure is known to improve soil quality by increasing the number and type of soil microorganisms. Soil bacteria play a fundamental role in a vast array of ecological processes.

So if the diversity of soil bacteria in soils is reduced through stress these stresses could lead to a collapse of the soils ecosystems – and therefore to a consequent lack of productivity. It may not be leaching, erosion and runoff that are the primary culprits in worldwide soil fertility declines.

Even if there seem to be abundant “nutrients” to support vegetation, without the nutrient cycling and interaction with plant roots and other soil species (fungi, bacteria, nematodes, algae, yeasts, protozoa, turbellarians, tardigrades and rotifers...) the plants cannot thrive.

There was an interesting experiment done in November 2000 by the FAO.

Researchers in Brazil dug up a 25 x 25 cm block of degraded pasture land and buried it in a nearby forest, and in its place planted a similarly sized block of forest soil. A sort of “soil swap” you could say.

Within a year, the aggregate structure of the pasture sample had been completely restored to levels typical of native forests, while the "orphaned" block of forest soil had become compacted and had lost most of its porosity.

What did they conclude made the difference? Soil organisms. The forest earth was rich in "ecosystem engineers" - earthworms, termites, millipedes and ants. The native macro-faunal communities in the pasture land had been all but lost. What does this teach us?

Soil biodiversity plays an enormous role in sustainable agriculture.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Biochar and the Ontario Auto Sector

A number of interesting convergences are happening right now in Ontario.

The Ontario Environment Industry Association just released a report called "Time to Grow: Making Ontario's environment industry a world leader at home and abroad".

In it they note that "There is a worldwide trend toward sustainability and increased environmental protection. Globally, governments are increasingly investing in the environment, which could lead other jurisdictions to become the growth centres of the new green economy. Ontario may have already lost any advantage in photovoltaics (led by Germany) and wind power (led by The Netherlands, Denmark and others). Investment elsewhere is increasing rapidly, including in the US where more than $79 billion is being proposed for energy and the environment in the 2009 temporary stimulus bill and $150 billion in ongoing funding earmarked for improving green technology over the next decade."

The interesting part of this story is that while the traditional auto sector in Ontario is hemorrhaging (GM's Chapter 11 filing marks the biggest ever bankruptcy of an industrial company), companies like Google Launch their RechargeIT Plug-In Hybrid Car Initiative.

But look at what else is happening in Ontario.
The Zenn Motor Company just announced an increase in their equity investment in EEStor to the fullest extent possible in preparation for an electric vehicle rollout and Magna International, a company based out of Aurora and run by Frank Stronach, simultaneously announced that they have signed a memorandum of understanding to sell 65 percent of "Adam Opel" to a Russian-backed consortium -- and Frank Stronach wants Ottawa to loan him hundreds of millions of dollars so he can start manufacturing electric cars in Canada for a world market in as little as three years. He envisages that "in six years (2015) about 15 per cent of all vehicles sold will be electric, and in 12 years (2021) that will jump to 30 per cent".

This is an incredibly bold vision..

It seems like everyone else has plans to expand and transform the auto sector in Ontario at the same time that GM is going into bankruptcy.

Why is this? Perhaps it is because back in January Ontario announced that it would join the "better place" initiative. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty himself announced a new partnership to advance the cause of Electric Vehicles by building an electric car network across Southern Ontario and that they would help expand the network of electric-car charging ports and battery-swap stations to the rest of Canada.

But it means that in the period of transition between now and then Ontario will need to build huge additions to its electrical generation capacity to supply all of these automobiles with energy. Ontario needs to build 2,000 kilometres of new transmission corridors, at a cost of $2 billion, to carry new sources of wind and hydro energy from Northern Ontario to the cities of the south.

The catch is that Ontario has promised to close the coal plants. Their target is to close the last coal-fired power plant in 2014.

This means that Ontario needs to replace this coal with something else. Is conservation enough? Will we become so efficient so quickly that we will no longer need these coal plants? Ontario produces 6434 megawatts (MW) of electricity from coal power plants. Coal makes up about 16 percent of the power generated for Ontario.
This is actually down from a 25 percent share in 2003, but much of the difference has probably been made up through expansion of Nuclear energy and from imports, not from conservation.
Now, if we start adding electric cars into the province this will bring even greater demands onto the electrical system.

Can solar and wind make up the difference between reduced supply and increased demand? The Ontario Clean Air Alliance claims that "wind, solar, biomass, hydro, could meet 79 per cent of Ontario's projected energy needs in 2020", but how much is actually expected from solar and wind energy over the next six to twelve years?

Ontario's goal of installing 100,000 residential solar rooftop systems will amount to only about one per cent of Ontario’s supply mix. It is expected that 15 percent of Ontario’s energy will come from wind by 2025 (16 years from now), but wind only accounts for about one percent of Ontario’s power mix right now. We need 15 percent in only 12 years. That's 15X as much wind energy as we already have.
I expect that date for closing the coal plants may be pushed back if reliable delivery of power is not assured.

But Ontario has also said that it wants its greenhouse gas emissions to be six per cent below 1990 levels by 2014 and 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.
It's going to be tough to get from here to there without something else to offset these emissions.

When Magna says that "in six years (2015) about 15 per cent of all vehicles sold will be electric, and in 12 years (2021) that will jump to 30 per cent", that does not mean that 15% of the automobile fleet will be using electricity in 6 years.
Canada only ever produced between 2.5 and 3 million vehicles in any given year. The best year ever was 1999 when 3,056,616 vehicles were produced. But the “Big Three” have exported close to 90 percent of their Canadian vehicle production each year over the last decade. Most of these exports are to the U.S. and Mexico.

That means there is a turnover rate of only about 300,000 vehicles per year in Ontario.
There are about seven million vehicles in Ontario right now. If only 15% of all vehicles sold will be electric after six years this translates to only about 45,000 electric vehicles sold in Ontario after six years. That translates to about 0.1% of the vehicles on the road - about one in a thousand - after six years. Even after 12 years of cumulative increases in production Ontario might only have about 8% electric vehicles on the road. In fact, at this rate, it would take another 42 years to convert the entire automobile fleet over to electric vehicles. About the year 2050.

This means that gasoline vehicles will make up the bulk of Ontario's cars for the foreseeable future.

This also means that if we are unable to shut down our coal plants and it will take this long to replace all of our gasoline powered vehicles, and if we actually want to reach our GHG reduction targets something needs to give – either we reduce our total energy used (unlikely given the amount of economic activity that would result from this) or we need a carbon-negative industry to unfold in Ontario.

It doesn't make sense for Ontario to spend billions of dollars to undertake Geological Carbon Capture and Sequestration like they are in Alberta if we plan on shutting down the coal plants anyway.

If we consider the fact that biofuels are only "carbon-neutral", if we ramp up conventional biofuels production in Ontario to make up for reductions in coal use, Ontario would still not be able to actually reduce its emissions without using something carbon negative -- like Biochar -- to offset the increasing amounts of total energy required to run this electric fleet (the efficiency of simple-cycle combustion electrical generation is ghastly low, even if it is biomass powered).

In my mind, Biochar is probably one of the very the best (and possibly the only) significant option Ontario has left to reduce emissions given the realities of the situation.

So, perhaps Biochar could be a key tools used by Magna (and others in the auto sector) to sequester the carbon emitted from its worldwide automobile fleet as we transition to Electric vehicles? We have about 150 years of fossil carbon emissions to pull out of the atmosphere, after all. Companies like Magna could continue to use Biochar to offset emissions for the next several decades and even after the transition to electric vehicles is complete.

If we can improve the soil in the process it would be a win for everyone because biochar is especially useful in the tropical south -- the developing countries of the world. If emissions from the first world auto sector were offset with the production of biochar in the poorest countries of the world it would not only mean income and jobs for them it would hopefully also mean more robust soils, improved agriculture and, ideally, an improvement in their living conditions and economies at the same time.

So, if we could somehow get Magna onside with Biochar, this could really be a huge opportunity for Canada. If we could tie Biochar into the story of the resurrection of the auto industry in Ontario and Canada, we might actually eventually be able to claim that we are making “Carbon Negative Cars”.

We could start by getting the Canadian auto sector to support the development of a Biochar industry in Ontario.

For many people, particularly the Ontario government, Biochar’s main purpose is to sequester CO2, but this is also an economic stimulus opportunity for Ontario. And what a economic stimulus this would be! Not only for Ontario and Canada, but also for the rest of the world. It's also an export opportunity for Canada. Magna is eyeing the Russian auto market as well, so this could quickly go international. Magna currently operates 326 manufacturing plants, engineering centers and sales offices across North America, South America, Asia and Europe - and employs about 82,000 people in total.

Keep in mind also that when these coal plants are shut down in Ontario this could also mean significant further job losses in some Ontario communities (especially in Northern Ontario). The replacement of jobs lost running and servicing the coal plants could very easily made up by utilizing decentralized biomass / pyrolysis systems in communities across the north – not just select communities, but nearly all of them.

And a secondary income stream for these communities could actually come from the production and sales of Biochar to the southern Agricultural communities – not only southern Ontario but also southern Quebec, Manitoba and the Northeastern US (the Great Lakes States), who could all become carbon negative jurisdictions in a few short years (or decades) – using (Northern) Canadian biomass.

Possibly the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) and/or the Great Plains Institute’s North Central Bioeconomy Consortium could tie into this as well.

If we could develop a protocol for a regulatory market for Biochar - both nationally and within Provincial Initiatives - and work to develop a set of procedures or rules for soil sequestration by char and soil type, we could quickly see Biochar become one of the Largest GHG emission offset markets in North America and around the world.

And Ontario could be the leader. Something we cannot claim for any other renewable energy. Not solar. Not wind. Not ethanol. And not conventional biomass combustion. Why not pyrolysis and Biochar?