Best of the West: Biochar and biomass markets expand; Generating solar power in space; Electric tractor rideshare; Rescuing lions from Ukraine

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting October 31, 2022. (Photos courtesy of tchara, The California Institute of Technology, and Jerilee Bennett)

As many western communities look to reduce fire risk and protect watersheds by thinning overgrown forests, transforming the wood that cannot be used for lumber into useful material is key to making the projects financially viable and more widespread.

The Yuba Water Agency in California recently approved a loan for a three-megawatt forest biomass plant that will use the wood chips from forest thinning projects in the nearby foothills to provide power to the local residents and create a regional market for forest waste material.   

The Oregon Department of Energy recently announced that Deschutes County will receive $1 million through its Community Renewable Energy Grant Program to develop a sustainable biomass facility at Mt. Bachelor ski area.

In Montana, a group of local land managers, stakeholder groups, ranchers, and scientists are using an incinerator to transform the biomass from small trees and branches cut down during forest-thinning projects into biochar, a charcoal-like substance that can be used as a kind of organic fertilizer – locking carbon into the ground, enhancing soil health, improving water retention, and increasing crop yeilds – as well as a renewable fuel or a carbon sink. It can even be used as a food supplement to reduce methane emissions in cattle   

While biochar is still being studied in much of the west, it’s been used to great effect all around the world for thousands of years. Its use as a carbon sink, however, is now seen as perhaps its most valuable asset, one that corporate giants like Microsoft and Shopify are taking advantage of by buying up biochar CO2 removal certificates.

As the use of biochar becomes more widespread, the potential to make it from any matter of biomass, including crop residues like corn husks and fruit pits, or even animal manure, makes it incredibly valuable. Transparency Market Research recently forecasted that the biochar market will surpass 6 billion by 2031.

Space Power: A team of researchers at The California Institute of Technology is working to deploy a constellation of modular spacecraft that collect sunlight, transform it into electricity, then wirelessly transmit that electricity wherever it is needed—including to places that currently have no access to reliable power. "This is an extraordinary and unprecedented project," said Harry Atwater, one of the project’s main researchers and the Otis Booth Leadership Chair of Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science. "It exemplifies the boldness and ambition needed to address one of the most significant challenges of our time, providing clean and affordable energy to the world."

Tractor Rideshare: Efforts to electrify transportation in urban areas have been underway for years now, but rural advocates say electric vehicle needs in rural areas have long been misunderstood. To help break down the barriers to electric transportation and support rural farmers’ assimilation of the technology, Sustainable Northwest launched a new “rideshare” program in Oregon that allows farmers to test electric tractors. “Our whole energy system is moving from a centralized grid and centralized power plants to distributed energy, and we’re here to ensure that this transformation is equitable and provides benefits to rural communities too,” said Bridget Callahan, senior energy program manager at Sustainable Northwest. 

Soil Regeneration: Researchers at Colorado State University are analyzing microbial survival after wildfires to gain insights into how the soil in charred ground restores itself. “We can basically reconstruct these genomes of like hundreds of different microbes and work out how they might be interacting and what processes they're carrying out,” Michael Wilkins, an associate professor of soil and crop sciences at Colorado State University, said. Using this knowledge, the researchers can help pinpoint which microbes are best to plant alongside new trees to promote growth and help wildfire-affected landscapes recover.

Lion Rescue: Nine lions rescued from war-torn Ukraine have arrived safely at their new home in a 10,000-acre animal refuge operated by The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado. According to the sanctuary, the lions needed to be “urgently relocated” from the Bio Park Zoo in Odessa, after the Russian invasion began. But as you can imagine, transporting nine lions nearly 6,000 miles around the world is no easy task. Read more about their incredible journey here.  

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