When it comes to the drought in California, Greg Campbell, chief executive of VGrid Energy Systems Inc., believes he has a way to minimize the impact.
The Camarillo company manufactures what is called a bioserver, a device that uses gasification to create solid carbon from biomass, or any type of organic matter, such as chopped up trees, nutshells or corn cobs.
The solid carbon can then be spread around plant roots to hold in water.
“It continually provides water that would not otherwise be there for the plants,” Campbell said.
By making better use of water, the solid carbon – known as biochar – could minimize the drought’s consequences for agriculture. But the carbon is just a byproduct to the main use of the bioserver – to create electricity.
VGrid makes its money by selling the electricity the devices produce from the biomass. As of now it only has two customers for its power, including a dairy farm near Visalia.
The advantage to the customer is they don’t have to pay any upfront costs or operate the machine to get discounted electricity, Campbell said.
“The advantage to us is we get revenue from selling the electricity, but we get to keep the carbon and we monetize the carbon,” he added.
The company can also use its solid carbon as an additive to livestock feed where it can absorb mycotoxins. Only California and Nebraska have approved the sale of biochar as a food additive as the company waits on approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to sell it throughout the country.
“Once we are able to sell it nationwide, we believe we will be selling very large volumes of carbon, which means we would need to install larger numbers of machines at multiple customer sites,” Campbell said.
Until the company can sell large volumes of carbon that are produced by the bioservers, it doesn’t make sense to add machines or customers if there is no one to buy the carbon, Campbell continued.
And when FDA approval will come is a “million-dollar question,” he added.
The company has other products that bring in money – Scent Away, a pet and animal deodorizer and Persist, a soil additive.
A three-quart bag of Persist sells at retail for $12.99, while when sold to businesses in “super sacks” of one cubic yard the cost is $500, Campbell said.
ScentAway for cat litter boxes, small animal bedding and for horse stalls is sold in a 10.5 oz bottle for $12.99 retail or $10.99 at Amazon, he added.
Raymond Baltar, director of the Sonoma Biochar Initiative in Glen Ellen, said the market for biochar is still in the early development stage and so far it has been mostly focused on agriculture.
“Many of us feel the highest and best use of biochar is in agriculture because of its benefits for building healthy soils, moisture retention and increased production in some situations,” Baltar said.
Other uses of biochar include as a feed additive for cattle, stormwater filtration and construction of buildings and roads, he continued.
“There is a South African company that is building roads with biochar added to concrete and it has shown there is less cracking, more durability, more flexibility, things like that,” Baltar added.
According to a 2018 study on the U.S. biochar industry by Dovetail Partners Inc., a Minneapolis environmental management nonprofit, the U.S. produced between 35,000 tons and 70,000 tons per year of biochar.
Baltar put the number higher – at between 50,000 and 100,000 tons a year.
The driving factor behind biochar production is from its use as a carbon drawdown. For every pound of biochar that goes into the soil, 2.8 pounds of CO2 is prevented from entering the atmosphere, Baltar said.
“On a large scale that can be huge,” he added. “It doesn’t solve the climate problem, but it’s one slice of the pie.”
With more than 100 million acres of dead trees in the U.S., the vision of VGrid is to work with the Forest Service by thinning out those trees and convert them into electricity and take the biochar and plant new trees.
“We are preventing that immediate or eventual release of the carbon back into the atmosphere by converting it into electricity and solid carbon, which can then be sequestered in the soil and thereby not going into the atmosphere,” Campbell said.