Best of the West: Investments in biochar and biomass; a pollinator sanctuary; artificial photosynthesis; a rocketry engineering competition

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting July 4, 2022. (Photos courtesy of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Washington state Department of Enterprise Services, and Sarah A. Miller/Idaho Statesman)

As energy markets diversify, the global market for biochar, a charcoal produced from plant matter that acts as a fertilizer, is anticipated to reach $454 million by 2030. Within that same time frame, the market for biomass, organic matter that can be used as fuel, is expected to reach $210 billion

Recognizing the vast potential for western states to capitalize on these markets, Western Governors have strongly advocated for the development of woody biomass and biochar markets as a tool to help increase the scale of forest management projects and bolster rural economies - a policy outlined in the WGA policy resolution, National Forest and Rangeland Management and discussed at the Working Lands, Working Communities Intativate Workshop in Salt Lake City, Utah.   

In recent weeks, there have been some notable stories on the issue. 

New Mexico State University students are helping local agricultural producers improve crop sustainability by researching biochar as a soil health treatment. The project allowed farmers to participate in a 'Biochar and Soil Health Field Day' that demonstrated how to make biochar and taught attendees how the soil amendments can sequester carbon. Wineries in California are also incorporating the ancient technique of biochar to enhance soil quality. Interfaith Food Ministry, a nonprofit in California that provides food to families in need, plans to sustainably manage leftover food using biochar. Additionally, the organization is raising money to purchase a biodigester that processes green waste to provide backup power from hydrogen fuel cells.

To further expand the use of biomass and biochar, the federal government and private stakeholders recently announced several major investments. Red Rock Biofuels Holdings, Inc., a Colorado-based company, received funding from the U.S. Forest Service to convert post-fire charred waste woody biomass to renewable diesel fuel and sustainable aviation fuel. Lincoln, Nebraska, is one of seven cities globally to earn a $400,000 matching grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to produce biochar from felled ash trees. The U.S. Forest Service is also allocating $100,000 for the state to improve soil health, reduce stormwater runoff, and reduce crop chemicals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, and Oregon grants to install thermally led community wood energy systems or build innovative wood product manufacturing facilities through the Community Wood Energy and Wood Innovation Grant Program

Pollinator Sanctuary: A 1,000 sq ft pollinator garden recently opened on the Washington State Capitol's campus to protect bees, butterflies, and birds. The space provides bees, birds, and butterflies with food, water, and shelter and displays signs that educate visitors on the importance of pollinators, along with how to attract and protect species. “Washington is the most beautiful state in the country and our pollinators are a contributor to that,” Gov. Jay Inslee, said. “They allow for diversity in our environments and are crucial to the health of those environments.”

Grow in the Dark: Researchers at the University of California Riverside developed artificial photosynthesis that allows plants to grow without light. Using a two-step chemical process, the groundbreaking technology is  18 times more efficient than natural photosynthesis — which uses only 1% of energy from sunlight. Artificial photosynthesis could also sustain life on Mars one day. "Imagine someday giant vessels growing tomato plants in the dark and on Mars – how much easier would that be for future Martians?" said Martha Orozco-Cárdenas, the director of the UC Riverside Plant Transformation Research Center.

Planning for Resilience: Hawaiian Electric unveiled a $190 million 5-year Climate Adaptation Transmission and Distribution Resilience Program to help the system withstand severe weather. Improvements could include hardening utility poles and enhancing tree management to prevent them from falling on power lines. Residents' bills would increase by less than $1 per month, and the company is exploring federal funding opportunities to offset costs.

World's Oldest Spider Monkey: Elvis, a 60-year-old spider monkey, recently celebrated his birthday at Zoo Boise in Idaho. The zoo staff is verifying his age but believes Elvis is the oldest spider monkey in the world because the average lifespan is 20-40 years. His estimated birth year is 1962, but an exact date is unknown because a private individual donated him to the Denver Zoo. In 1973, he moved from the mile-high city to Idaho's Treasure Valley where he’s called home since.

Race to Space: Recently, New Mexico hosted the Spaceport America Cup — the world's oldest intercollegiate rocketry engineering contest. The event held its inaugural competition in 2017, and this year was the first in-person competition since 2020. More than 5,000 students from 20 countries participated in this year's event. "We're brand new, and we're the only English team out here at the competition," said Theo Youds, a student from the Leeds University Rocketry Association. "We are honored to be here, and we are honored that we are given this experience."  

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