No one knows exactly how many social enterprises were founded around the world over the last 12 months but the conventional wisdom is that about 95% of these will go bust in the first year.
Re:char is an ancient company by these standards.
The four year-old scrappy startup thinks it can improve the livelihood of the world’s energy poor by converting 6 billion tons of agricultural farm waste produced annually in developing countries into sustainable biomass fuel (like briquettes or biodiesel, for example) and biochar, a valuable soil additive that can dramatically boost a farmer’s crop yields.
Biochar is best described as charcoal created by pyrolysis of biomass, and differs from charcoal only in the sense that its primary use is not for fuel, but for capturing essential soil nutrients and for storing CO2 in the ground.
Another important distinction is that biochar is produced at a very strict temperature range (450-500C). This temperature range gives biochar a much higher surface area than fuel charcoal. This important factor gives biochar its soil amendment properties.
Re:char’s idea is simple: manufacture low-cost kilns that pyrolyze crop residues and turn them into char, which can be added to soil to boost crop production or converted to fuel briquettes for sale as a sustainable alternative to wood, charcoal, or animal dung.
Re:char’s potential impact on energy poverty relief, Climate Change through carbon sequestration, and poverty alleviation caught the eye of Echoing Green, a group that invests in social enterprise startups through its annual fellowship program.
We talked to Aramburu to find out more about re:char.
The Charcoal Project: Jason, walk us through this. How will re:char make money and provide social benefits to its recipients?
Jason Aramburu: re:char is an effort to promote low-cost, sustainable production of carbon-negative energy technologies. We think our technology can help produce energy and biochar, two commodities with huge potential for the base of the pyramid.
Right now we’re working on two lines of products, a low-cost kiln aimed for the typical 1-acre farmer, and a “fast pyrolysis” kiln for large-scale production of char for urban areas. These would most likely be adopted by actual charcoal-producers.
TCP: Let’s take the biomass fuel first. What’s the big idea here?
JA: The idea is that by adopting the kiln technology, the small farmer can choose to produce biomass briquettes for sale or for personal consumption. The briquettes will need to be price competitive with existing alternative fuels, of course. But the farmer will have the choice to use the kiln’s char production as either biochar or convert it to fuel briquettes.
We realize the local price of charcoal will play a key role in the farmer’s decision on how to use the char. That’s why we are also working on larger “fast pyrolysis” kilns that will provide sustainable, alternative biomass fuels for urban areas. The rationale is that by providing a less expensive fuel alternative to urban populations, the demand for traditional wood charcoal will diminish. This allows farmers to hedge against fluctuations in the price of biomass fuels. That is, if the price of alternative sustainable fuel briquettes is to high compared to, say, charcoal, the farmer can use or sell the biochar as a soil additive. But if the price of biomass briquettes is high, he can use the char to make briquettes.
UNEP published this valuable resource: Converting Waste Agricultural, Biomass into a Resource — Compendium of Technologies.
TCP: Tell us more about the larger, “fast pyrolysis” kilns?
JA: Increasing the temperature of kiln has different results on the pyrolysis of biomass.
The “fast pyrolisis” process is useful because it generates biocrude oil, which can be used to power a diesel-type electric generator, for example. The large kilns will be able to carbonize biomass more efficiently, in greater quantities, and with fewer emissions. And all this while also generating energy for the larger community.
TCP: What about deployment and prices of these technologies?
JA: Right now we’re in the pilot state for both technologies. Our plan is to begin testing the smaller kilns by deploying 500 of these in Kenya and Tanzania over the next 12 months. The goal is to validate the technology and make sure people want to use them. We’ll also be using this first batch to refine the education and social marketing strategies.
Despite our progress, we want to make sure we get it right, which is why we are still probably 1 to 2 years away from large scale deployment.
We don’t have a date set yet for the larger kilns. We’re still fine-tuning the technology.
As to the price, we’re still studying the issue but our best guest right now is that the smaller kilns it will go for between $20 and $50. The larger units will be more expensive, obviously, but they will also provide higher margin products. To keep costs down and avoid local tariffs (which can significantly add to the final cost) we are contemplating local production of the units, so we’ll be looking for local partners.
TCP: How are you financing re:char?
JA: Right now it’s self-financed. We have some angel investing and some grant money, too. The Echoing Green Fellowship has really helped drive attention to our work, so perhaps that will translate into financing down the road, too.
TCP: What about selling carbon offsets?
JA: We think the kilns have the potential to capture and sequester large quantities of CO2, but we’re not basing any of our business model around the sale of carbon credits. However, if it does happen, it will be icing on the cake!
TCP: Switching gears, let’s talk about the biochar. How’s the acceptance of biochar as a valuable sustainable development tool going?
JA: Biochar is a tougher sell in industrialized countries but not in the developing world where there is limited access to modern fertilizers and technology. One reason is that labor is less expensive in developing countries, so the overall cost of producing biochar is cheaper. We’re reaching out to policymakers to talk to educate them about biochar. We’ve been to the World Economic Forum, the UN, and we were in Copenhagen. We’re trying to get more attention from other influential development groups like the Clinton Global Initiative and the Gates Foundation.
 Biomass wastes include agricultural wastes, such as corn stalks, straw, sugarcane leavings, bagasse, nutshells, and manure from cattle, poultry, and hogs; forestry residues, such as wood chips, bark, sawdust, timber slash, and mill scrap. Municipal waste, such as waste paper and yard clippings, are also part of the cellulosic biomass waste stream.