Search for Methow Valley options didn’t pan out
After an in-depth search for a facility in the Methow Valley for biochar production, C6 Forest to Farm has found what it says is an ideal processing site in Plain, west of Leavenworth.
C6, the Methow Valley–based nonprofit that has been developing plans to make biochar from logging slash and small trees removed in forest-restoration projects, has spent months evaluating properties. The Plain facility would accommodate their pilot project and have the potential for increasing production, C6 board chair Gina McCoy said.
C6 had hoped to set up shop in the Methow, to use biomass from area forests and create local jobs. They evaluated every option in the valley but, with few industrial sites in the Methow — the only industrial zoning is in the towns, where C6 would need a variance — and the high cost of property, C6 cast its net wider, McCoy said.
The Plain property, near Coles Corner, “checked all the boxes,” she said. The C6 board unanimously supported the location and C6 is currently in discussions with the property owner about a lease. If planning goes smoothly, C6 could be up and running in Plain in a year, at the earliest, C6 Executive Director Tom McCoy said.
The site already has a 100,000-square-foot steel-frame building, which C6 would share with a composting business that’s setting up operations there.
C6 needs between 8,000 and 20,000 square feet for pyrolysis, the indoor phase of biochar processing. The entire site is 80 acres, with a paved log deck and outdoor storage areas. The building is already equipped with electric infrastructure and fire-suppression equipment, which should significantly reduce capital costs, C6 said.
The potential for working with the composting company would enhance the value of biochar, since combining biochar and compost early in the process — rather than simply adding both to soil — reduces composting time and increases nutrients, Tom McCoy said.
In addition to using the building for pyrolysis, C6 would use outdoor space for unloading trucks, sorting material, grinding trees into smaller pieces, and drying, Tom McCoy said. They would also need space to package and handle the biochar once it’s been produced.
Pyrolysis heats biomass beyond typical combustion temperatures in a nearly oxygen-free environment, which prevents the material from burning and eliminates the volatile compounds, according to C6. When added to soil, it helps retain moisture and nutrients and reduces composting time. Once it’s in the soil, the biochar will sequester biomass from the wood it’s processed from for hundreds of thousands of years, Tom McCoy said.
C6 is especially enthused about the potential for developing a “green-forest economy” at the site, where outdoor space can be used to sort forest materials for different products. For example, small-diameter trees could be used for higher-value products such as flooring or furniture. Tree tops from larger trees cut for commercial timber and logging slash would be turned into biochar.
C6’s plans call for pyrolyzing between 10,000 and 12,000 tons of green feedstock annually, the minimum that would be economically sustainable. They hope to harness the gas from pyrolysis to generate electricity to run part of the operation, Tom McCoy said.
C6 already has engineering designs for the system and has been in touch with equipment manufacturers around the world. They have a business plan for the facility lease and equipment and are currently raising money to fund operations, Tom McCoy said. Selling carbon-offset credits is a significant component of their business plan.
Although their original vision was to process wood from forests near the Methow, it’s not cost-effective or environmentally sound to truck materials to Plain for processing. C6’s business plan encompasses the entire carbon footprint of making biochar — getting woody biomass from the forest, processing it, and getting biochar to farmers to use as a soil amendment, Gina McCoy said.
C6 anticipates that producing biochar in Plain would create 16 jobs at the facility, plus additional employment connected with logging and forestry work and with equipment maintenance, Tom McCoy said.
If the pilot project is successful, C6 could easily increase production at the facility, Tom McCoy said. “Going up in scale in 10,000-ton increments isn’t that difficult,” he said.
C6 has been talking with representatives from the U.S. Forest Service and Washington Department of Natural Resources and with logging companies about obtaining forest materials that don’t have commercial use and would otherwise become slash or be burned, Tom McCoy said.
C6, which was launched in February 2020, is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit that’s funded by donations. The Washington Legislature appropriated $160,000 to C6 for a research and demonstration project toward operation of an industrial-sized facility in the Methow Valley in the 2022-23 budget.
C6 is using the appropriation to develop its business model and for plant design. They’ve also put the money toward data collection for an analysis of greenhouse gas emissions, but need to raise money for a consultant to perform the analysis, Gina McCoy said.
The appropriation was supported by the three lawmakers representing the Methow in the Legislature. The contract officer agreed to the change in focus from the Methow to the Wenatchee area, with the proviso that C6 inform its legislative sponsors and key stakeholders, Gina McCoy said. “We have done so, and the feedback we have received has been uniformly positive,” she said.
“I’m a big supporter of finding creative ways to reduce our risk of catastrophic wildfire. The C6 biochar project is a great opportunity for fire-prone areas in North Central Washington to do just that by processing excess woody debris without burning it,” state Sen. Brad Hawkins (R-12th Dist.) said this week.
C6 kept him abreast of challenges in finding a site in Okanogan County and of possibilities in Chelan County, Hawkins said.
A successful C6 demonstration project could support efforts in Okanogan County and could be a first step toward a larger facility (or facilities) in North Central Washington, Hawkins said. “We certainly could benefit by partnering with each other to reduce our wildfire risk, as wildfire knows no jurisdictional boundaries,” he said.
C6’s ultimate goal is to reduce the risk of extreme wildfire by supporting wide-scale forest health treatments and removing small-diameter trees that aren’t commercially viable as timber. Because C6 is a nonprofit, its model doesn’t depend on using only the least-expensive feedstock — the intention is to process the biomass that’s most important for protecting the forest, Gina McCoy said.
“It needs to be soon. Time is the most expensive resource there is,” she said.