18 Jan 2006
EPRIDA – too good to be true?
Last week I listened in to a lecture **Bernard Lietaer** gave at Schumacher College called ‘Tools for a Planetary Wisdom Civilisation’, which looked at his thoughts on a new approach to international economics, what he called ‘Intentional Economics’. The last part of his talk looked at a technology he is involved in promoting called Eprida. When looking at solutions to the peak oil challenge, I tend to work on the basis that anything that sounds too good to be true generally isn’t true. Eprida sounds very promising, and I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on it.
According to Lietaer, the origins of Eprida are, ironically, in Brazilian rainforest clearance. In certain parts of the Amazon, where there had been tales of an advanced civilisation hundreds of years ago, settlers found soils, which came to be known as ‘terra preta’, which unlike most rainforest soils, didn’t become exhausted after 3 years. This, it turns out, was due to high levels of charcoal in the soils. The people had developed a method for burning charcoal which was then added to soil as a very long term slow release fertiliser.
The Eprida model is an international, decentralised, self supporting approach to carbon sequestration. Because making charcoal locks up carbon which can then be added to the soil, it is offers a method whereby agriculture can become a form of carbon sequestration. The machine they have developed for doing the charcoal burning basically takes 10 tons of any woody or plant biomass and turns it into 1 ton of charcoal and 3.2 tons of diesel. You can see a Flash animation of the process here. Because carbon credits are now bought and sold internationally, the idea is that farmers have one of these units on their farms, grow their crops, put the residues in the machine, get paid in carbon credits for doing so, make the charcoal which they add to their soils, and produce diesel for themselves and to sell. Lietaer said that a land mass the size of France using this system could lock up all the carbon the world needs to. The company they have set up is a social purpose company, with 50% of its profits going into social development work. You can read more about the technical aspects of Eprida here.
It certainly sounds good, although when he claimed that it was a solution to peak oil, I felt he really underestimated the scale and urgencyof the challenge. Eprida is about a year away from being ready to be rolled out, and initially Brazil and China are to be the pilot places. So it’ll be a few years until any units start popping up in the UK or US, so any hope of having a fallback in place for the 2007-2010 peak is just not feasible. Another concern I had was that people in the Amazon, once there is a cash incentive to obtain biomass to feed these things so as to make more money, will obtain it from all over, further threatening biodiversity and habitat. His response was at the moment people slash and burn, with Eprida they will slash and charcoal instead.
Eprida could also create a dependence on the international price of carbon credits, working well at first, but as more and more people get into it, the returns decrease and then these people are back where they started. It also, and perhaps most dangerously, creates a sense in the West that business as usual is viable again, these guys in China and Brazil are busy locking up all our carbon for us and we don’t need to do anything.
Ultimately, I feel that the best option is to reorient agriculture to become more tree based, along the lines of agroforestry, where nuts, fruit, fuels, medicines and much more can be produced using a form of agriculture that is constantly locking up carbon, along the lines put forward by the wonderful folks at Badgersett Farm in the US. This offers a truly sustainable agriculture, one that is producing useful produce for local markets, building biodiversity, locking up carbon, producing a wide range of products. I wonder about the full energy breakdown of growing the crops in the first place for the Eprida system? How much biomass would it take to produce enough diesel to run all the UK’s cars? In terms of conventional biodiesel it is said to be something like 3 times the UK land mass. As Robert Hirsch is wont to point out, peak oil is primarily a liquid fuels problem. Can Eprida be scaled up to be able to produce enough diesel for the UK car and transport fleet? I suspect not. With the addition of the fuel it takes to grow the biomass in first place, I imagine it would have a place as an on-farm source of sufficient diesel to run farm machinery, but to run our current transport based globalised economy, it wouldn’t appear to me to be a runner. As I said at the beginning, tend to think that something that looks too good to be true is generally not. What do you think?