How bioenergy from waste could power regional renewal and decarbonise transport
Willow Aliento | 12 October 2017
Bioenergy could power an explosion in new industries and jobs for regional communities, the new chief executive of Bioenergy Australia Shahana McKenzie says.
McKenzie took the helm of the organisation six weeks ago, and told The Fifth Estate she was excited by the massive potential of the sector and her to ability to make a real impact in terms of sustainability.
Unlike overseas, where there has been some controversy about feedstocks such as palm oil or food crops being used to create biofuels, she says the focus for the local industry is all about utilising home-grown waste.
That includes materials such as starch residues and used cooking oil, sawdust and wood waste from forest industries, agricultural by-products – even human poo and animal manures.
The use of wood waste turned into pellets could for example be used as a feedstock in the conversion of coal-fired generators to a more benign alternative.
“We have enough waste in Australia to generate significant amounts of energy,” McKenzie says.
One of the major opportunities, she says, is for agricultural producers and regional industrial facilities to both reduce energy bills and become “energy independent”.
“They could utilise their own waste to get off the grid.”
Ethanol – now commonly available as part of fuel blends for regular vehicles – is a good example of biofuel that is gaining traction.
McKenzie says it is doing particularly well in Queensland, where it is manufactured from sugar cane waste and red sorghum.
Virgin also recently announced that flights out of Brisbane Airport will utilise biofuel aviation blends.
McKenzie says the airline will initially be using imported fuel, but it’s hoped the move will stimulate a local biodiesel industry on a “much larger scale”.
“In terms of opportunities to do that – it’s massive.”
The opportunities include decarbonising transport, particularly for heavy applications where electric vehicle batteries may not be suitable.
McKenzie says she would love to have a conversation with Sydney Ferries, for example, about doing a carbon neutral ferry powered by biodiesel.
There is also plenty of scope for expanding the everyday consumer uptake. Currently there are a number of operators in Australia making and selling biodiesel made from used cooking oil and tallow – the residues and wastes from abattoirs.
“They are giving that waste a second life – it’s fantastic,” McKenzie says.
First generation fuels such as ethanol are another example, and there are already refineries using ethanol or sugar waste biomass to generate part of the energy requirements.
Yarra Valley Water is also doing good work in the space, with a waste to energy initiative. Canberra has a “poo to power” project in the works, and Visy is also using biomass for energy generation.
The proposition is clear – being able to reduce energy costs and achieve greater energy independence by using waste is a winner.
Australia behind the eight ball
McKenzie says Australia is behind many other countries in use of biogas, biofuels and biomass for energy.
However, that also means we can take advantage of the lessons others have learned internationally as we get up to speed.
One of the reasons for the slow uptake is the policy settings around excise, McKenzie says, and a low level of public investment and support.
“There have been policy ups and downs. There have been times [the sector] has really thrived. But over the past five years a number of Australian plants have closed down due to issues around excise.”
She says part of her task will be to work with governments to achieve sound, bipartisan policy settings for the bioenergy sector.
Huge jobs potential
The opportunity for the industry to create regional jobs is one McKenzie is very positive about.
“It is a valid solution in transitioning regional economies away from coal, and can create significant numbers of jobs.”
Wherever there is a supply of organic material, there is scope to create biofuels, bioenergy or biogas.
Communities have the opportunity to create their own systems that are most suitable for the feedstocks to hand, whether that is canola waste, animal manures, forestry waste or other organic waste materials.
“It can create new industries and new economies in regional areas.”
Another opportunity this opens up is reducing greenhouse emissions from the methane generated from decomposing waste and also from animal manures.
Methane has a high global warming potential, so if sewerage plants, farms and landfill operations can capture that methane and burn it for energy it’s a huge plus.
There are some innovators already in the space, including a farm in North Queensland that has used big skins over manure pits to capture the methane and burn it for energy generation.
Landfill gas capture has been established for many years.
Gas crisis offers an opportunity
The current gas crisis could offer a real opportunity for biogas to gain traction, McKenzie says.
Some home owners may not even realise they are already using bioenergy in the form of biomass if they have a wood-fired wetback stove installed that heats hot water and potentially supplies heating for hydronic systems or radiators.
Australia needs to be cautious of not signing away too great a proportion of its feedstocks to eager overseas markets such as China and other south east Asian neighbours where there is increasing uptake of bioenergy fuels.
“One of the big challenges is offtake agreements.
“There is a lot of interest in buying our feedstock – both waste and other feedstocks. The problem with that is these are 15 to 20 year agreements.
“We need to make sure we are getting the right policy frameworks around the local industry first, or we will effectively end up in the same situation we are in with gas, where we have to buy it back from overseas because so much gets exported.”
McKenzie says it’s important for the industry and for government to get “all of these things right at the outset”.
“Or we could miss the boat in terms of creating local industries.”