March 23, 2007 | General

Balancing Carbon Management And Renewable Fuels Production

BioCycle March 2007, Vol. 48, No. 3, p. 61
Mark R. Fuchs and Chery Sullivan

DISCUSSION of the atmospheric impacts of our dependence on fossil fuels seems to have finally been pulled onto the center stage. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide concentrations have increased in the atmosphere. The net affect is that our global climate is warming. A new report from the State of Washington, the Impact of Climate Change on Washington’s Economy ( pubs/0701010.pdf), noted the following observations:
o Significant loss of glaciers in the mountains that feed stream flow through the summer;
o Decline in average mountain snow-pack and earlier spring runoff;
o Peak flow in streams occurs earlier across the state;
o Large wildfires (those greater than 500 acres) have increased from an average of six in the 1970s to 21/year in the first part of the 21st century;
o In Puget Sound, rising sea levels from one to five inches will result from a combination of tectonic subsidence and further rises in sea water level on the land.
Washington is beginning to address these issues. Governor Chris Gregoire announced on February 7, 2007 Washington’s Climate Change Challenge, an initiative to address climate change in Washington State ( Acknowledging that our state is vulnerable, the challenge identified a range of actions being taken in Washington to begin to address climate change. These actions include tougher auto emissions standards beginning in 2009, retrofitting school buses to reduce diesel emissions, ensuring that fuel suppliers sell at least two percent renewable ethanol and biodiesel fuels, and building high performance green buildings, among others. Last November, the citizens of Washington supported I-937, an Energy Resources Initiative, which establishes a renewable energy standard requiring the state’s larger electric utilities to supply 15 percent of their power from either conservation or eligible new renewable (nonhydro) resources by 2020.
We are seeing the beginning of the strategic public policy development and discussions necessary to balance carbon management with renewable fuels. Washington made a start toward evaluating organic waste “resources” that could generate renewable fuel several years ago. This project asked, “How much organic material is currently available for use as a renewable resource for fuel and energy?” The answer to that question begins a discussion on how best to proceed with development of renewable fuels from our organic resource base, while considering carbon management strategies.
Washington is not typical of states where ethanol from corn crop production is the potential dominant renewable fuel. Washington is blessed with a broad range of physiographic and climate circumstances from coastal and inland mountain ranges to dry inland valleys, to prairies and upland grasslands that result in a variable set of production conditions. Weather is dominated by the Pacific coast climate regime in Washington, with moist winters and dry summers that range from rainforest conditions in the Olympic west to desert in the center and east. On the leeward side of each mountain range, precipitation decreases mark-edly, and then begins to increase approaching the next range. Average precipitation rises from the center of the state in the Columbia Basin at an annual 6-inches precipitation to about 18 to 24 inches along the Idaho border in the east. Why is all this important? These conditions of climate and terrain result in a broad range of organic products from forestry, agricultural, industrial and commercial processing, and municipal sources. And, biomass production rates in forestry and agriculture are directly correlated with total annual rainfall and the seasonal timing of precipitation.
The Washington Biomass Inventory and Bioenergy Assessment: An Evaluation of Organic Material Resources for Bioenergy Production in Washington State (2005) was conducted to evaluate the amount of organic waste “resources” available across the state from the variable production conditions (available at: biblio/0507047.html). The evaluation included 45 waste types on a county-by-county basis. Statewide totals for five categories of materials are shown in Figure 1. Biomass tonnage on a county basis is shown on the map in Figure 2. Biomass tonnage is highest in the forested mountains and most densely populated counties.
These materials can be used for renewable fuel and energy or be used in sequestering carbon or in processing combinations to achieve both ends. The report shows that there are 17 million tons of annually renewable and sustainable organic materials potentially available for applications for energy, fuel, and bioproducts, and to support carbon sequestration in compost, soils and within forests. Fire hazard reductions/healthy forest actions may increase this amount by another three to 13 million tons. But, can we really use all this feedstock? Our challenge is to figure out how to value this diverse set of carbon sources for fuels, energy and sequestering carbon while creating a renewable, regionally based sustainable bioeconomy.
With the leadership of our Governor, and the state legislature, Washington has begun moving toward a renewable fuel future that will create energy freedom and independence, build sustainable economic vitality by keeping our energy dollars in our local economy and create local business enterprises and livable wage jobs – while balancing the large environmental challenges we face. This is the opening of a series of commentaries and articles that will present a considered, and we hope a balanced approach to atmospheric carbon management and renewable fuels development from biomass. Future topics will include: carbon and nitrogen in agricultural soils – analyzing the sustainability of straw harvest; the wood opportunity – looking to the future; anaerobic digestion research and applications and municipal organics resources.
In the meantime, we leave you to mull over these observations:
Climate change will drive organics recycling. Climate change means we have to get to carbon neutral in terms of release of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Therefore, we must recognize climate impacts in the game as the “King of Issues.” As king, carbon in organic material must be managed aggressively with the intent of carbon cycle management. Carbon sequestration must become a high priority.
Resource inventories provide critical data. The Washington Biomass Inventory is a set of both the numeric source and type data points and embedded value statements on appropriate harvest levels for our state resources. It is the expression of what the state produces – in indirect terms, organic ‘waste’ resources generated at this point in time.
Develop resources that have been catalogued. Our efforts must be directed to an orderly development approach to resources and appropriate technologies. We should start from current resources, move to expand resources in the future, and finally grow resources.
Industry development should support broad ownership and diverse technical solutions. “Best fit” technical solutions must provide sustainable economic and broad ownership opportunities, as both near term and long-term solutions are developed. We must be open to conservation practices as well as a range of energy and fuel options so that we are not bound by a single solution.
As we move toward terrestrial carbon management strategies, we must implement sustainable long-term policies and business practices that balance economics and profitability with community values, and enhance the natural carbon cycles in the environment. Our goals should be to use terrestrial carbon for energy, for products (especially carbon substitution for materials that are energy and carbon dioxide intensive), and for long term storage in soils and forests. Let us in the organics industry address ourselves to the opportunity of creating a system of management strategies that will result in stabilizing the increase of atmospheric carbon, while building sustainable businesses that our communities value.
Mark Fuchs is a Hydrogeologist in the Washington State Department of Ecology, Eastern Regional Office in Spokane. He can be reached at Chery Sullivan is an Organics Specialist with the Department of Ecology in Olympia. She can be reached at

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