By Marcy Stamper
All three state lawmakers who represent the Methow Valley have thrown their support behind a pilot project that would convert logging slash and organic waste to biochar, which is added to soil to retain moisture.
State Sen. Brad Hawkins and reps. Mike Steele and Keith Goehner (all 12th Dist. Republicans) have requested $160,000 in the 2021-23 state operating budget to assist C6 Forest to Farm, a local nonprofit, in launching their research and demonstration project.
The biochar process uses pyrolysis to heat biomass — wood chips and logging slash — beyond typical combustion temperatures in a nearly oxygen-free environment that prevents the material from burning, according to C6.
C6 is seeking permits from Okanogan County and Washington state for a one-year project that would determine the optimal processing time and temperature for different types of trees — mainly Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, said C6 executive director Tom McCoy. They would also study the effects of adding different amounts of biochar to soil to measure its effectiveness at retaining water and nutrients and increasing productivity.
“This is a worthwhile and innovative project using our forest resources. With the potential benefits of biochar to forest health and agriculture, it is promising to see this happening right here in the 12th District,” Goehner said.
The goal is to reduce air pollution that would be caused by burning logging slash and the county’s stockpile of woody waste material. 6C would produce 40 tons of biochar, which would use about 120 tons of fuel (30 truckloads of green fuel chips), according to C6’s application with the county for a temporary-use permit. For the pilot project, the pyrolizer would be installed at the county’s 22-acre gravel pit on the Twisp-Winthrop Eastside Road.
The county received half a dozen comments about the proposed permit. A person who lives near the gravel pit said he was concerned about noise and air pollution and suggested the project be located in an industrial area. Another was concerned the biochar process could exacerbate winter air pollution. Two others said the project would be a benefit by reducing air pollution and wildfire risk.
The project may also require an air-quality permit from the state Department of Ecology to ensure compliance with state and federal emission standards and to guarantee that the equipment is using the best-available control technology, said Ryan Vicente, an environmental engineer with Ecology.
For a proposal like this, with few comparable projects in the state, the applicants are typically required to quantify the emissions, Vicente said. The application review process typically takes three to six months, he said.
C6 has been working with the owner/designer of the research pyrolizer to demonstrate to Ecology that the emissions would be below Ecology’s threshold for requiring a permit, C6 treasurer Gina McCoy said. The pyrolysis should reduce air pollution, since the woody debris would otherwise be burned in the traditional manner, C6 said.
For the test project, C6 plans to lease a small pyrolizer that fits on a utility trailer. The unit would process about 1.5 cubic yards of organic matter per batch, which takes about eight hours. Processing time would be from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. C6 says the electric motor makes very little noise.
If the pilot project is successful, C6 hopes to create an industrial-sized facility in the Methow Valley.
“This demonstration project makes sense on many levels and could have big benefits if it proves successful. I’m glad it is gaining support,” Hawkins said.