Biochar Q&A: Rick Wilson

The Center for Carbon Removal recently spoke with Rick Wilson, who leads the company Element C6 in market development for biochar, and works with Agromin in manufacturing, blending and trucking of the material. Biochar (a.k.a charcoal) can be used as a soil amendment and as a carbon sequestration tool, but its commercialization for these purposes is in its early days. Below I’ve summarized an email exchange with Rick about how their commercialization efforts overlap with the idea that biochar can serve as a carbon removal solution.

Noah Deich: Thanks for taking the time to speak with the Center! Would you please tell us what biochar is, and how your company manufactures it?

Rick Wilson: Biochar is made from biomass such as wood by subjecting it to an anaerobic environment (known as pyrolysis) at temperatures ranging from 325 to 700 degrees Celsius. Biochar can be made from urban wood waste (which is our long-term business model), or as a byproduct of other biomass-based energy and/or manufacturing processes. Pyrolysis conditions and feedstocks can vary so we assess the suitability of biochar from its physical properties. Our focus is on improving soil health, so we do not limit ourselves to using only biochar in our products – we mix in other soil amendments like compost to provide the greatest overall value to our customers.

Samples of Element C6's "Turf Rescue" biochar-based soil amendments

Samples of Element C6's "Turf Rescue" biochar-based soil amendments

ND: Would you tell us a little about where you are focusing your commercialization efforts – and what the greatest value proposition is to customers – today?

RW: Most of our focus is on reducing water use in turf grass.  We’ve seen our product reduce water use by over 50% in some cases. While there are many other applications for biochar, it takes at least a year of testing before you can prove the value proposition, depending on the crop, and then you have to prove its efficacy at scale, which can take another year or more. Turf grass grows quickly, which is why it is the first application for which we have conducted sufficient testing at scale to completely characterize our commercial offer.

Applying biochar at a golf course to reduce watering needs.

Applying biochar at a golf course to reduce watering needs.

ND: What are your biggest challenges in selling biochar?

RW:  It’s still difficult to get customers to take a leap on trying our product, even with UC Riverside’s multi-year studies with biochar and compost, and other validating independent studies. Endorsements from happy customers would go a long way, but many times the customer of our product is an employee of the company, and not authorized to give an endorsement.

So too would endorsements from academics. There are an incredible number of (good) publications on biochar, but the conclusions are not entirely consistent due to the use of different biochars, different soils, etc. Advocates also explain how biochar works in different terms, which creates another source of confusion to prospective customers.

We also run into some challenges around financing. Many prospective customers don’t have money in their budget (although we price the product to give less than one-year payback, offer a money-back guarantee, and can offer financing in some cases).  

ND: What factors will be most helpful for you to overcome these challenges?

RW: When potential customers are in dire straits with water, avoiding pain is a big motivator. For us, the UC extension faculty who have worked with the product have been a key enabler in commercialization. The CA Department of Food and Agriculture requires statistically replicated studies to validate the claims on your packaging, which we have done, another enabler for us.   We have moved to using the language of agronomists - established soil science metrics for healthy soil, to describe our offer, which resonates well with professional turf managers.   

ND: Biochar is often proposed as a climate solution for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, but this does not sound like it is part of your sales pitch at all. Do you measure the carbon sequestration impacts of biochar applications?

RW: We don’t measure carbon sequestration, or even estimate CO2 sequestration.  We don’t spend the money to estimate CO2 sequestration because it costs thousands of dollars per project, and there is no way to monetize the carbon sequestration benefit. We have not yet met a customer who buys the product to sequester CO2 from the environment, although customers uniformly feel very good about the impact they have on rebalancing the carbon equation by using our products.

ND: Sounds like we'll need some significant innovation, policy, and informational efforts to make carbon sequestration a real selling point in the future. Thanks again for taking the time to speak Rick!

PS: The Center for Carbon Removal will be at the US Biochar Initiative's 2016 conference next week -- we'll be posting highlights from the event later in the week!