Published on April 9th, 2015 | by James Ayre


Biomass + Carbon Capture Could Drastically Reduce Pollution, Making ‘Carbon Negative’ Power System A Possibility By 2050 In Western US, New Research Finds

April 9th, 2015 by  

The large-scale utilization of electricity generated from biomass partnered with carbon capture technology — dubbed bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS) by the researchers — could result in greatly reduced emissions and a “carbon-negative” power system in the western US, according to new research from the University of California at Berkeley.

Study lead author, Daniel Sanchez, noted in a recent press release that this combination could potentially offset the carbon emissions associated with other sources as well — such as fossil fuel power plants, and the transportation sector (diesel- and gas-powered vehicles).


To be specific, the new research found that BECCS when combined with aggressive renewable energy deployment and fossil fuel–associated emissions reductions could result in a “carbon-negative power system” in Western North America by the year 2050 — with an up to 145% emissions reduction as compared against 1990 levels.

Reductions that significant could occur with as little as 7% of total electricity coming from BECCS, according to the new findings — which were arrived at via computer modeling.

In many of the other scenarios explored by the new research, the offsetting of carbon emissions provided by BECCS was more valuable to the electric system than the electricity produced itself was. Of course this kind of “value” is a relative one — as all values are. If governments don’t value the offsetting of carbon emissions, for instance,…

Those behind the new research admit that biomass + carbon capture is still a bit of an unknown in many ways, so the findings are tentative ones, until put into practicem that is — which is what the researchers want.


“There are a lot of commercial uncertainties about carbon capture and sequestration technologies,” stated researcher Sanchez. “Nevertheless, we’re taking this technology and showing that in the Western United States 35 years from now, BECCS doesn’t merely let you reduce emissions by 80% – the current 2050 goal in California – but gets the power system to negative carbon emissions: you store more carbon than you create.”

Possibly… that is. I admit to having some doubts about this, but interesting work nonetheless.

Image Credit: UC Berkeley

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • Just stopping by

    In case the author reads this…please include more direct info / links to the study in your pieces; even with the info given I am having a hard time tracking down the actual study, and I am not bad at that.

  • Graphite Gus

    What surprises me is that only 10% of available biogas opportunities are being captured today, and yet they are thinking of new greenfield (pun intended) biomass plants at easily 7-8 X the cost. Hello! Look at the pig shit all around you. Or is that not sexy enough?

    • Larmion

      That pig shit could be used as top grade fertilizer instead. If you digest it, you’ll still get a nice enough soil conditioner, but it’s not going to offset nearly as much artificial fertilizer as simply spreading that muck would.

      And guess what? Making artificial fertilizer is a huge energy. On a system emissions basis, it’s better to simply gather that pig shit and using it directly.

      Some European countries already have very efficient programs for collecting manure, i.e. through manure vaults below that sty, and then selling it to arable farmers. America doesn’t yet have anything like that, but it could easily be done.

  • Matt

    CCS is to expensive, that is why every pilot has been stop. Will someone find a way by 2050, maybe. But FF lobby has been selling this a long time so don’t count on it. First build a working CCS system, should the added cost per MW. Then write up your paper. Right no it is a blue sky paper with no basic in reality. Why not say, by 2050 Nuke will make power to cheap to meter.

    • ToddFlach

      Hi Matt, there are several CCS projects up and running around the world and several more nearing operational start despite some projects being cancelled. Please read up on Boundary Dam, Gorgon, Sleipner, Snøhvit, Weyburn, North Dakota Gasification Company, Kemper County, Peterhead, White Rose, Emirites Steel Project and more. Costs are high but similar to CO2 abatement costs for several other technology solutions depending of course on a number of site-specific parameters, like amount of sun and wind a location receives. Nuclear power is a viable low-CO2 technology but it is seen from the history of projects the last 30 years that nuclear is expensive to build and prone to a number of nasty failure modes.
      Biomass-based CCS is also already being demonstrated at the Archer Daniels Midland project in Illinois. Although this project produces ethanol and not electricity, the concept is essentially proven to be very cost effective, simple and can be scaled up to up to 100 million tonnes/year globally with very modest modifications to existing plants.

  • SecularAnimist

    First of all we need to end ALL anthropogenic CO2 emissions ASAP, which requires ending ALL fossil fuel use ASAP.

    Forget about “offsetting” ongoing emissions from fossil fuel use. The emissions must STOP. Which can be accomplished much more easily, more quickly, and at much lower cost than most people think — especially in the electricity generation sector.

    In addition, we need to draw down the already dangerous anthropogenic excess of atmospheric CO2 to preindustrial levels. We can do that by sequestering carbon in soils and biomass with organic agriculture and reforestation — both of which have huge POSITIVE “side effects”.

  • Craig Teller

    The article is not very clear but one has to deal with what is given. First point, in the Western U.S.? Uh, where are they going to get the water as the droughts deepen?

    There are effective biomass projects on a small scale but that doesn’t translate into anything large scale.

    As for carbon capture, the technology exists but fossil companies want the costs for such technology to be socialized, meaning yet more subsidies to prolong fossil fuels.

    Wind and solar are already being installed at double digit rates. With consistent effort, they can put oil, coal and gas out of business far faster than yet another theoretical biomass project that may not prove itself for 40 years.

    Global warming is not the only reason fossil fuels are problematic. Oil, for example, has reached a point where it no longer helps stimulate a strong middle class. The wild swings of prices plays havoc all over the world. The national security issues alone are corrosive to economic growth.

    Nothing new is mentioned in the article. No new breakthroughs and no new technology. I’m all for experimenting but serious money should not be diverted from proven technology for a project that may not succeed for years to come.

    • Larmion

      Wonderful though wind and solar are, they do nothing to adress three crucial challenges modern agriculture (and society in general) currently faces:

      a) Remedy the now nigh inevitable carbon budget overshoot
      b) Reverse the loss of biodiversity, fertility and soil structure in large swathes of the world
      c) Reduce carbon emissions from land use change

      “As for carbon capture, the technology exists but fossil companies want
      the costs for such technology to be socialized, meaning yet more
      subsidies to prolong fossil fuels.”

      Who says anything about FF? The study doesn’t just propose abating carbon emissions from FF through CCS. It proposes REDUCING atmospheric carbon levels through a very simple and elegant mechanism:

      1) Grow some nice plants.

      2) Harvest plants. Burn or pyrolyse them. Collect the CO2 escaping and sequester it using CCS. In the case of pyrolysis, a lot of excellent biochar will be left over too that can be used to sequester carbon for centuries in soils, all while improving soil structure and fertility.

      “Nothing new is mentioned in the article. No new breakthroughs and no new technology.”

      The study quantifies the potential of the aforementioned carbon capture strategy. That is a breakthrough all right, since you can’t design policy without this kind of data.

      “Uh, where are they going to get the water as the droughts deepen?”

      Uh, why would they need to use water? Neither pyrolysis units nor digesters nor dry cooled biomass plants use water.

      • Craig Teller

        “Study lead author, Daniel Sanchez, noted in a recent press release that this combination could potentially offset the carbon emissions associated with other sources as well — such as fossil fuel power plants, and the transportation sector (diesel- and gas-powered vehicles).”

        It doesn’t say replace, it says “offset.” I take it to mean that fossil fuels would still be burning.

        Biomass generates CO2. At least some of that biomass is simply debris removed from the perimeters of towns and small cities during fire prevention programs in the west. Burning such biomass is curiously beneficial but only on a small scale. The study is combining this program with imaginary carbon capture systems that are far from economical and whose implementation has been delayed for decades. Expect decades more. (If the federal government picks up the cost of carbon capture for biomass burning, and does not subsidize fossil fuels, that might actually help, but it’s a marginal call given the current technology.)

        We need longterm solutions. We have no real idea what the U.S. West will look like after 40 years of drought and fires. The last ten years raise serious questions. Also, removing biomass eventually removes nutrients for future biomass growth.

  • Marion Meads

    The BEST carbon capture system from biomass fuel feedstock is through the production of electricity and making sure you will have a byproduct called biochar!!!

    When incorporated into the soil, the long term effects is outstanding. You don’t get the results right away. But through time, as the carbon in the soil builds-up and a deeper soil profile forms, like those of Amazon’s Terra Preta, fertilizer use and water use efficiency dramatically increases. The soil microbial flora and fauna also diversifies, making agriculture more robust and less dependent on synthetic pesticides.

    When biochar is incorporated into the soil, carbon will never burn, except perhaps through magma overflows or nuclear blasts and large meteor strikes. This makes the process a net carbon capture while helping the earth, especially the plants, thrive very well, as evidenced by scientific studies done on Amazon Dark Earth. There are no known environmental risks when biochar is incorporated into the soil, no possibilities of leaks, explosion, fires, contaminations. In fact, it helps mitigate and enhance the degradation of chemicals and other pollutants.

    The only worst thing why this is often neglected and no one wanted to develop this further is because of greed. There is no intellectual property that you can make money out of this. The technology is more than 5,000 years old. Government should instead start marketing and strategizing over this approach and educate may farmers about this net carbon capture since no other companies would invest into this.

    • Larmion

      “When biochar is incorporated into the soil, carbon will never burn”. Not entirely correct. It is very gradually broken down by the soil microbiota until only a small amount of plastic-like sticky mess is left. However, that process is very slow and easily avoided by adding more biochar. After equilibrium sets in, you’d need to replace only about 1-2% of biochar content annually.

      • Marion Meads

        Can you explain the persistence of carbon in the soil of Amazonian Dark Earth that has persisted for more than 5,000 years now?

        Compounding 1-2% annually for 5,000 years doesn’t make mathematical sense. Can you explain the science behind the amount of needing to replace 1-2% annually with respect to the Terra Preta soil properties?

        • Larmion


          All known Tera Preta is dated between 500 and 2500 years old, with the majority being closer to 500. The oldest one is dated around 450BC. But that’s splitting hairs; as you rightly point out, you can’t get to a 1000 years assuming that rate of decay. So why is it still there?

          Well, there’s something you didn’t mention in your post. Tera Preta is self-replenishing. Because of its extreme porosity, it readily traps organic matter and its breakdown products in a mostly anaerobic matrix. At equilibrium, CO2 release through microbial activity is roughly identical to carbon influx – that is, in a natural ecosystem. In farmland, we cannot assume that biochar would similarly renew itself since we do that annoying little thing called harvesting.

          If one applies biochar to farmland, without any form of renewal, most biochar will decay slowly but steadily until only a small core of mostly non-degradable polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other petroleum-like compounds remains. At that point, the soil still has a lovely deep black color and retains moisture a bit better than normal, but that’s about it.

          So how did Amazonians do it? Well, they cheated. Their Tera Preta was in use for relatively short periods of time spanning a few decades (‘slash and char’ agriculture). More importantly, they only intensively farmed small areas that received significant other nutrient inpunts (human excrement, fishbones, food waste,…). More remote farmland seems to have been in a rotation system that allowed natural replenishment.

          We don’t have that luxury. There were an estimated 6 million Amazonians. Compare to current global population density.

          In short, you would still need to reguarly add (small) amounts of biochar, perhaps while tilling. You’ll also need to add some fertilizer to the biochar mixture for optimum results, since you’ll be reducing that too at each harvest. Of course, fertilizer input would be vastly lower than it would be without biochar – the high cation exchange capacity reduces leaching to almost zero.

      • Steven F

        microbes feed on organic carbon which is a mixture of cabon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen made by plants.

        Biochar is not organic carbon. It is elemental carbon. microbes don’t eat it because it has zero food value. Scientist can easily date bichar by measuring the naturally radioactive carbon in it. Archaeologist south carolina radio carbon dated a fire pit to 50,000 years (near the limit of radio carbon dating).

        Biocar has foam like structure that makes it an excelent sponge for nutrients and its voids provide a home for pant benifical bacteria and fungus

        • Larmion

          Biochar IS organic. You might want to cite some proper sources. Here’s one example:

          Fresh biochar does not have ‘zero food value’. It still contains significant amount of residual linear organic molecules, including energy-dense carboxyl groups and such like. There is also significant residual sulphur, phosporus, nitrogen etc. (until broken down by bacteria).

          Over time, all that is degraded by said soil microbiota until only poly-aromatic hydrocarbons are left. At that point you’re left with something with zero food value, though PAH is still considered organic.

          The last point is true. I’ve been referring to the advantages of biochar’s porosity above.

          • Steven F

            biochar stable for a soil amendment typically have less than !% by mass of PAH. It has 80% or more carbon, 15% minerals (iron, calcium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus), and about 5% gases (oxygen,

            biochar stable for a soil amendment typically have less than !% by mass of PAH. It has 80% or more carbon, 15% minerals (iron, calcium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus), and about 5% gases (oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. The vast majority of the hydrogen is cooked out when biochar is made. There is almost no residual linear organic molecules left.

            Biochar is more similar to Anthracite coal (which doesn’t decay) than it is to the original plant material.

            Biochar is very similar to activated carbon. It is a sponge that soaks up nitrogen, and minerals. Terra pita soil is not self sustaining in the sense fresh organic material replaced the rotting Biochar. Instead the biochar is permanent and simply soaks up the nutrient washed out of decaying vegitation. the plants then soak up the material in the Biochar



  • Will E

    no doubts, this is totally nonsense. We have a new coal plant, 1600 Mgw, promised filters and co2 capture. now they start it up with no filters, too expensive, and no co2 capture, too expensive.
    instead now woodpellets are shipped in from Canada and now its a green coal biomass plant. The Netherlands.

    • Larmion

      None of this is nonsense. The only viable strategy we have to reduce carbon levels in the atmosphere is to sequester it into biomass and then store it, either through CCS or through some variation on biochar (preferably both).

      On current trend, we are due to overshoot our carbon budget massively. Even in agressive scenarios that assume a faster than anticipated transition to renewables, we are unlikely to reach 2°C (though 3°C still seems doable).

      That leaves us with two options: adaptation, or large scale carbon sequestration. Both are possible from a technical point of view, but nobody knows yet which one would have the most limited economical and social impacts.

      • Ronald Brakels

        I’ll mention that after biochar the most cost effective method of sequestering carbon is likely to be the dumping of biomass into suitable bodies of water. Either deep ocean, cold water lakes, or areas of sedimentation. This has the potential to lock up carbon for quite extended periods of time. Rather than refine biomass into biofuel, it may be more cost effective to simply dump the biomass in the ocean and use oil instead. Particulary if the electrification of road transport results in the cost of a barrel of oil dropping down to a single figure. Before the carbon price is added, of course, which would probably have to be at least $70 a tonne for this method to be cost effective.

        • Rita

          Well what plant is to be the best candidate for sequestering carbon?
          Perhaps the world can look back a number of decades and find a plant that grows fast, has minimal impact on the environment, does not need FF to grow, can be grown almost anyplace.
          A number of plants come to mind, some types of grasses, bamboo and hemp, of but hemp was outlawed in the US because it would have competed with oil and timber decades ago!


          • Larmion

            Hemp doesn’t come to mind. For it to achieve very high biomass production, it needs significant amount of nutrients. There’s this persistent myth that hemp grows on poor soils with minimal input and achieves high yields. If you look in the literature, you’ll find that hemp can indeed grow with limited nutrient inputs, but with low biomass yields. For it to achieve really high yields, it needs no more or less nutrients than other crops.

            Hemp deserves more attention as a fiber crop for textiles though. Its main competitors, flax and cotton, are both notoriously hungry for water and nutrients. Hemp is pretty average in both areas, so that’s a big improvement.

            For maximum biomass yield, two types of crops are obvious candidates: grasses (including bamboo, which is a grass botanically speaking) and short-rotation coppice trees (willow or poplar).

            Which one is best will depend heavily on where you live. In places like the US that have a lot of land too dry or hot for normal agriculture, you’ll want to use (native!) grasses. These are very drought tolerant, and can be combined with extensive grazing if desired.

            The likes of Canada, the Pacific Northwest and Western Europe have the opposite problem: large stocks of land too cold or too wet for farming. Fast growing trees, willow in particular, really shine in those circumstances. They tolerate both extreme cold and wet conditions remarkably well.

          • Ronald Brakels

            What Lamion said, with the proviso that non-native grasses can have the ability to grow like weeds thanks to the lack of pests adapted to feed off them. The best crop will vary from area to area, and to begin with the best areas will be those that have low value for other purposes and existing infrastructure that can handle and transport the biomass at low cost.

            Other sources of biomass could be agricultural wastes, waste from timber production, and noxious weeds and bushes. (Noxious as in farmers are obligated to destroy them and can pay people to do so.)

            Currently I can get sludge for free from the sewage treatment plant (because I’m special) but I’d have to spend time and effort turning that into sinkers and it seems a shame to waste such great fertiliser.

          • Larmion

            The pest argument is true, if you assume that phytosanitary measures are perfect. Your native Australia is the only nation in the world that comes close to that, and it has the significant advantage of being, well, a big wealthy island in the middle of nowhere. Elsewhere, pests travel at least as quickly as plants.

            All in all, there are few instances where non-native grasslands are more productive than native ones – unless you go for monocultures, but then your resilence argument fails by definition. What is very effective, however, is hybridiation: well-designed crossbreeds between native and non-native species are generally much more productive and pest-resistant than either parent without much loss of adaption to the local clime.

            Either way, diverse grasslands tend to be very resilent towards pests even without human intervention. Trees aren’t, but there is a lot of work going on with breeding those for resistance (mainly through DAMP engineering).

          • Ronald Brakels

            Conversely, taking plants out of Australia seems to work well with almost 19 million hectares of cultivated eucalypts outside of Australia and record Brazillian harvests of over 100 cubic meters of wood per hectare, with a more typical yield of over 35 cubic meters still being very impressive.

          • Ronald Brakels

            DAMP = Damage Something Something Something.

          • Larmion

            Damage associated molecular pattern. It’s a general term used for molecues that appear when pathogens invade cells (think fragments of the damaged cell wall, or compounds that leak out of the damaged cytoplasm). Some of those fragments are recognized as an early warning signal by the plant’s defense mechanisms.

            Adding or altering the cell’s ability to recognize DAMPs specific to a certain pathogen has the same effect in a plant a vaccine has on us: the pathogen gets dealt with before they can cause major harm.

          • Ronald Brakels

            I knew that! A brief period of time after I read your kind explanation.

          • Steven F

            The best candidate for a biomass source is the biomass we currently through away every day. Food scraps, scrap lumber, and paper that cannot be recycled. Also, after a farmer harvests his crop a lot of the dead plants are left on the field to rot. Much of that can be collected and converted to biochar without reducing soil fertility. In fact adding biochar to the soil can significantly enhance soil fertility

    • Ross

      What’s the ratio of coal to imported Canadian biomass burned in the plant?

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