Startup Profile: Interra Energy Forges Path to Sustainable Agriculture and Energy with Biochar
November 22, 2011 | Jessica Vernabe
After Interra Energy, Inc. President Thomas Del Monte started researching the “carbon negative” energy process of biochar used for sustainable agriculture, he knew he was onto something big.
That is what launched the third-year law school student into an MBA program at the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego, where he transformed interest and knowledge into a biochar-focused company. Interra Energy, which is currently in its research and development stage, is based on a plan to bring new edge to an ancient agricultural practice, Del Monte said.
The biochar process, which dates back about 2,000 years, breaks down agricultural waste into a solid, charcoal that serves as a soil enhancer and that can hold carbon in soils for hundreds to thousands of years, according to the International Biochar Initiative’s website. The charcoal material is produced through pyrolysis or gasification, or processes that heat biomass in the absence or under the reduction of oxygen, according to the organization.
Interra Energy aims to use its patent-pending technology, the Interra Energy Forge, to achieve sustainable goals on multiple fronts.
The company’s plan is to open a facility in San Diego where waste haulers can dispose of green waste instead of dropping it off at landfills, Del Monte said. The green waste will then be processed through the Interra Energy Forge, which will heat it and break it down into biochar, water and a flammable gas that can be used to make renewable electricity. The water and power will be used to run the facility and its processes, with excess renewable power being sold to public and private utilities. The biochar will then be combined with compost at Interra Energy’s site and sold to farms, nurseries, home garden supply retailers and others.
“It’s a very important climate change and atmosphere carbon dioxide tool,” Del Monte said. “It’s the only one that actually takes carbon out of the atmosphere, not just putting less.”
Del Monte said commercial entities will have the option to purchase carbon “reset” credits, or credits that show they are helping to offset their carbon footprints. The company is also considering licensing the Interra Energy Forge design in the future. Del Monte and Interra Energy co-founder Eren Yar said they hope to expand the company within 20 years to include more than 1,000 facilities operating all over the country.
Interra Energy is set to bring its biochar product to market in spring 2012 and start producing more significant volumes by the fall or winter of that year, Del Monte said. The company’s founders also hope to operate their own facility by early 2013. The carbon “reset” credits are already available online starting this month.
When Del Monte entered law school, he figured he would get into something related to green building. (His father was a general contractor and owned a wholesale tree nursery.) However, once he started doing research with the University of San Diego School of Law’s Energy Policy Initiative Center and learned about the biochar process, he was intrigued, he said. That fed into his idea to start a business in the industry.
Del Monte said he read a book about various areas of needed improvement for biochar-producing technology, and he decided he would take it upon himself to come up with a better design, he said.
“There’s a lot of technology already out there about making electricity or power out of biomass, but there really wasn’t anything that was optimizing for charcoal production and producing a gas of good enough quality to generate power with,” Del Monte said.
In his last year of law school in 2008, Del Monte started as an MBA student the University of California, San Diego, where he channeled all of his education and resources toward building Interra Energy, he said. Interra Energy was a winner of UCSD’s Entrepreneur Challenge business plan competition in the CleanTech/Sustainability track in 2009 and 2010.
Earlier this year, Del Monte partnered with Yar, an engineer who graduated from the University of Arizona in 2008, and who was looking for an entrepreneurial experience with a cause.
“I had a couple of internships and jobs in different places (before this) and just wasn’t satisfied with my work—didn’t feel very passionate about it or very purposeful about it,” Yar said. “When I heard about the opportunity with Interra, it definitely aligned with my interests. … I could feel proud to tell people we’re making a renewable energy, (that) it’s a sustainable company helping agriculture (and) feeding people.”
Del Monte, Yar and other employees currently work out of their home office in San Diego. The company now has technology that operates beyond the abilities of previous designs in the industry, Del Monte said. He noted that the Interra Energy Forge allows for a continuous feed process, as opposed to a batch process. It is also more thermally efficient because it does not have to add extra heat sources.
While the company is still getting off the ground, one local grower says he looks forward to buying Interra’s biochar product.
Dean Libs, owner of edible garden company Dean’s Greens, said he currently spends time with Interra Energy’s team as they conduct their bochar-making process. He has even tried some of the business team’s biochar on his own garden.
“Everything in (my) garden’s growing healthy,” Libs said, noting that he has been using it for a few months now. “I plan to have every garden that I build or maintain or consult for use their biochar and use it on a consistent basis.”
Libs said he discovered the company after moving back to Southern California from Hawaii where he was working as an apprentice for a soil and composting consultant and had first learned about the biochar process. He found Interra Energy after learning that Del Monte was going to be speaking about biochar at an event.
“I went and contacted them right away,” Libs said. “I’m totally in support of what they’re doing.”
Del Monte says that while use of biochar is definitely not new, it has only recently started to spur more interest from researchers and governments around the globe. There are many mom-and-pop-level operations operating throughout the United States, but not many large-scale commercial operations like the one he hopes to build, he said.
“We’re trying to be the people that actually put enough production online that will be able to serve the demand out there and grow the interest in it,” Del Monte said.
Del Monte said the company received about $100,000 in investment capital from family and friends more than a year ago, and it is currently raising its second round of capital, this time with a lead investor. The hope is to obtain at least $100,000 more, he said. The company will need to raise a total of about $1 million in funding, but Del Monte noted that there are opportunities to receive loan money from the state of California.