Australia: Biomass the answer to renewable energy woes

Last Updated: 16 February 2010
Article by Peter Fagan

As a renewable energy target, 20 percent by 2020 has a nice ring to it, but drawing one-fifth of Australia's energy from renewable sources in just 10 years will be a stretch, based upon the wind and solar projects currently under development and the sharp decline in investment in the sector. The implications of this are serious, as a slow start means efforts will have to increase rapidly as the 2020 deadline approaches, potentially causing the number of projects and necessary investment to reach almost undeliverable levels.

Late last year, Michael Fraser, Managing Director of Australia's largest gas and electricity retailer, AGL Energy, expressed doubt about the future of the company's planned $800 million Macarthur wind farm in western Victoria - and several others across Australia - amidst falling Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) prices. Similarly, Solar Systems, halted a 154-megawatt solar farm - which would have been the world's largest - in Mildura after going into administration last year. The company is now being acquired by Silex Systems.

The drop to $25 per REC (from $50+) was spurred by a move to issue RECs to consumers who install solar hot water systems and other products that do not generate power. The government has come under criticism for this decision, with some saying it threatens Australia's ability to achieve its renewable energy target.

Australia requires solutions that deliver multiple benefits to the nation, communities and individuals in a sustainable manner. The time to explore and implement other alternative energy forms in that context is now, and biomass has significant potential to deliver those multiple benefits.

Biomass production is growing in popularity and farmers world-over are looking at several options. In the recent past, this included the now-questioned use of food crops for the production of liquid fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, a practice that temporarily resulted in soaring grocery prices in the United States and Europe after a large percentage of their corn supply was distilled into ethanol.

More recently, Australian farmers have explored the use of native vegetation for a range of purposes, including biomass production, a move that offers environmental, economic and social benefits, such as:

  • Lower demand for water resources. Native tree plantations, which can be sustainably harvested and processed as biomass, are naturally drought tolerant and require little to no irrigation.
  • Increased financial stability. Biomass production from native vegetation introduces income diversity, leaving farmers less reliant on traditional intermittent harvests and crops.
  • Increased employment for rural centres. Biomass production provides new employment opportunities for people in declining rural communities, reducing loss of residents from rural areas and dependence on social welfare. In some instances, these activities are providing opportunities for indigenous communities.
  • Improved biodiversity outcomes. This is occurring in areas that have historically been limited by large-scale land clearing.

Mallee trees have been harvested to produce eucalyptus oil in the central west of New South Wales for nearly 100 years and have been used extensively in Western Australia for the last 25 years to control the salinity impacts of rising ground water tables. Native tree cultivation, in particular mallee, also helps combat climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it underground in their large root systems. The biomass products from these plants have potential as a sound fossil fuel alternative, burning cleanly with a net reduction in greenhouse gases.

A pilot-scale plant in Western Australia has demonstrated the overall feasibility and economic viability of the industry. The benefits appear to be far reaching, with positive impacts for not only farmers, but also suppliers, agronomists and other service industries.

Additionally, spin-off businesses are developing to provide new equipment for establishing plantations, harvesting trees and processing biomass. These technologies have application beyond local farming communities and reach into the more extensive and traditional global forestry industry.

Government policy in the area of renewable energy cannot afford to be developed and considered in isolation. We have already seen too many occasions where the unintended consequences of a policy in one area has devastated a key set of desired outcomes in another. In some ways, this is already the case with the solar water heating inclusion and its impact on the REC price. Equally, initiatives in water conservation and the buyback of water for environmental flows have impacted the viability of many rural communities, inadvertently growing demand for welfare and social services. Truly integrated and considered solutions to these issues are needed and, if developed appropriately, the production of biomass has the potential to deliver sustainable outcomes and a brighter future for our nation.

About the Author: Peter Fagan has more than 35 years of experience and is MWH's Asia Pacific Sustainability Practice Leader. His extensive experience spans the technical and organisational aspects of sustainability through public and private sector roles, including more than 30 years with New South Wales' largest water provider. Mr Fagan currently serves as a member of the Technology and Sustainability Standing Committee of the University of Sydney's Warren Centre for Advanced Engineering.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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