Building climate resilience and energy independence with biochar


Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) are finding a way to turn a tricky problem into an energy and climate solution for their local communities. An important part of keeping California forests fire resilient is managing and removing highly flammable dead trees and other hazardous fuels. Most often, hazardous fuels are destroyed on-site in controlled “burn piles,” or transported to mills to be turned into wood products. Though both strategies are important management tools, burn piles release carbon back into the atmosphere and for many communities, a wood processing facility is not near enough to be a viable option.

Looking toward innovative solutions for dealing with large amount of woody biomass, both the Sierra RCD and the Fall River RCD are investing in biochar production machines for their communities. Biochar production machines use pyrolysis (a high heat and high pressure reaction) to convert biomass into combustible gases and biochar. The combustible gases are converted into clean, renewable energy for the community. The biochar—essentially, charcoal— can be used as a soil amendment to increase water holding capacity, nutrient capacity, and soil carbon, among other benefits which are currently being researched. Compared to the common practice of open burning, the biochar production can significantly reduce emissions up to 95% and creates a useful byproduct.


Burn piles are commonly used to reduce hazardous fuels, but release carbon back into the air. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

The Sierra RCD received $250,000 of funding through CAL FIRE’s Healthy Forest Grant Program for the establishment of a mobile biochar production unit. Through the Dinkey Creek Landscape Collaborative, the District has initiated discussions with Sierra National Forest-U.S. Forest Service on the targeted management of over 3,000 acres of massive slash/log piles. These piles are scheduled to be disposed by open burning and the District is working to target these piles on public lands for biomass conversion into biochar with the mobile production unit. Additionally, the District has begun targeting non-merchantable logs on private forest lands for managed processing into biochar.

In October 2019, an electrical service panel was connected to the mobile production unit with 220 and 210 volt receptacles and battery storage. As the program develops, they hope to bring in additional mobile biochar machines to create a viable and sustainable way for their community to have healthier forests.

Sierra RCD’s mobile biochar production unit was funded by the U.S. Forest Service’s Wood Innovations Grant

Sierra RCD’s district manager, Steve Haze, points out the newly connected electrical service panel

The Fall River RCD’s Bioenergy Cluster Project is an initiative to create three small-scale community-based bioenergy facilities. The project would sustainably harvest 90,000 bone dry tons of biomass per year from both public and private lands, and over a twenty year period the project would restore over 14,000 acres. Of the three biomass facilities, Burney-Hat Creek Bioenergy is farthest along in the planning phase, and is anticipated to be one of the first community-scale biomass facilities in California. The project is funded by the U.S. Forest Service Wood Innovation Grant, and more funding has come in from the California Energy Commission’s Electric Program Investment Charge program to purchase new equipment and construct the one of the facilities.

Along with producing energy, the facility will produce biochar as a bi-product which will be sold and utilized as a long-term form of carbon storage and soil enhancer. Full time positions and ancillary positions will provide long-term employment for the local community.

Funding from the U.S. Forest Service’s Wood Innovations Grant, the California Energy Commission, and local sources have allowed forest managers to explore more climate smart ways to dispose of hazardous fuels. And with increased state and local interest in forest health, reducing carbon emissions, and energy independence, RCDs will continue to explore biofuels and other options that are right for their communities.