This Innovative Company Helps Tackle Wildfires and Drought in California

VGRID Bioservers convert waste biomass to valuable biochar and electricity.

Irrigated California farm field contrasts with dry desert

Ashley Cooper / Getty Images

California is in crisis—a battleground when it comes to climate change. Most readers will be well aware of the threats posed by increasingly frequent wildfires and drought across the state. Mitigation and adaptation are both key, so what can landowners and farmers do? 

One interesting solution is offered by V-GRID Energy Systems, a company based in Camarillo, California, that's showing how it is possible to switch to renewable electricity, to help with the costs and energy requirements of running irrigation pumps, while reducing wildfire risk and producing biochar, a useful soil amendment, at the same time. Not only does this sequester carbon in the soil, but it provides solutions for arid climate farming—and has potential to improve the health of livestock, as biochar is a natural, organic feed additive.

Waste biomass, from farms or beetle kill trees, is converted into electricity and biochar in VGRID Bioservers through a gasification process. This could have great potential in mitigation and adaptation in California, and elsewhere. Treehugger spoke to the company recently.

Treehugger: VGRID Bioservers convert waste biomass into biochar and electricity. Can you tell us more about the gasification process?

VGRID: Gasification is partial combustion. Biomass is loaded into an airtight vacuum vessel and a small amount of air is introduced as it is ignited. The combustion releases the stored energy of the biomass and heats up to 1300˚C (2373˚F). 

The byproducts of combustion are H2O and CO2. Because only a small amount of air is introduced, there remains a lot of carbon... The leftover carbon is removed from the gasifier. [It] is very porous due to the removal of carbon atoms from the lattice and very pure due to the high temperature.

The hydrogen and CO gases are combustible and, after cleaning and cooling, are fed into an internal combustion engine and used to generate electricity as the engine turns an alternator.

TH: The benefits of renewable energy and biochar are clear. Can you share your thoughts on why these two things are important?

VG: Renewable energy replaces fossil fuel, so it prevents the CO2 emissions from fossil-fueled power plants. The biochar is carbon that has been removed from the atmosphere by the biomass and sequestered. If this process had not been performed, the carbon would have returned to the atmosphere as the biomass decomposes.

handful of biochar in a farmer's hands

Jeff Hutchens / Getty Images

TH: Can you give us some figures on how much energy and biochar are produced for how much biomass?

VG: Two hundred pounds of biomass produces 100kWh of electricity and 40 pounds of biochar.

TH: How will these help tackle wildfires and drought in California?

VG: By clearing the forest of dead beetle kill trees, we prevent a future fire—which, in addition to all of the damage and danger it creates, releases all the stored carbon in the tree as CO2. If we convert the dead tree to electricity, we offset fossil fuel electricity. If we use the biochar to plant new trees, the new trees will be drought-resistant and will absorb CO2 as they grow. Biochar absorbs and holds water like a sponge because of its porosity and active carbon surfaces.

TH: Can you explain why directing agricultural waste in this way is so beneficial? Where would agricultural waste otherwise go?

VG: Agricultural waste will decompose and put all the carbon back in the atmosphere as CO2. It is usually chopped up and spread out over fields or orchards or is hauled away to landfills.

TH: How many VGRID Bioservers are currently in operation and how scalable is the system?

VG: We currently have eight systems in operation with demand for dozens more. Each 100kW gasifier unit is compact, mobile, and modular. It is straightforward to add ten units and generate 1MW of electricity. The footprint is 16 times smaller than solar and runs 24/7—and not only when the sun shines.

TH: Do you have some quotes to share from farmers or landowners who are benefiting from one of these systems?

Fred Leyendekker, farmer at South Corner Dairy, says, "VGRID not only reduces my energy costs but we have seen a reduction in mortality and disease since we started feeding carbon to our calves."

By making two useful byproducts from one waste biomass source—renewable energy and biochar—farmers and landowners can benefit. These bioservers can help in tackling the root causes of climate change, and in making sure that those who use them are more resilient in the years to come.