What a waste: the underutilisation of bioenergy


By Nichola Davies

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation has identified the investment potential for bioenergy in Australia is huge – $3.5 to $5 billion in fact – from urban and agricultural waste, as well as forest residues. That’s a lot of potential in today’s energy climate where generation investment certainty is touted as a pragmatic step in lowering energy prices.

Bioenergy is generated from the conversion of solid and liquid biomass products for use as electricity, heat, gas, liquid fuels and bio-based products and delivers a range of benefits such as employment and economic development of rural/agricultural communities, energy security, utilisation of waste streams and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The recent Bioenergy State of the Nation Report by Bioenergy Australia made a convincing case for the potential for bioenergy in Australia, as well as clearly showing the barriers to bioenergy uptake and where each state ranked, with some faring better than others.

Australia’s biomass for energy purposes comprises around four per cent of the nation’s energy consumption, lagging behind other OECD countries, placing 19 out of 24 reviewed.

Finland is a global leader in bioenergy, with it representing nearly 70 per cent of the country’s total energy generation. Sweden follows at nearly 50 per cent, with New Zealand and the USA coming in at around 12 per cent. Finland has been investing heavily in bioenergy research and development since the 1980s, becoming a pioneer in forest-based biomass for energy production.

A recent market analysis and forecast report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted modern bioenergy will over the next five years have the biggest increase in renewable energy resources.

The IEA’s executive director Dr Fatih Birol said modern bioenergy is the overlooked giant of the renewable energy field.

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“Its share in the world’s total renewables consumption is about 50 per cent today, in other words as much as hydro, wind, solar and all other renewables combined,” she said.

“We expect modern bioenergy will continue to lead the field, and has huge prospects for further growth. But the right policies and rigorous sustainability regulations will be essential to meet its full potential.”

Social movements towards waste reduction in recent years suggest the Australian public would be supportive of the uptake of bioenergy. It emits little to no greenhouse gases, is a useful way of managing waste disposal and is dispatchable, compared to other renewable energy generation sources. So, why is it trailing behind?

For one, it is more expensive than fossil fuels in a resource-rich country, plus there are concerns it can, if not sustainably managed, lead to deforestation and compromise food security through using agricultural land. But, the State of the Nation report states the key impediment to developing the sector is a policy void at both the state and federal level.

The report reveals the states that are leading the way for bioenergy in Australia are Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, with the majority of the 179 commissioned bioenergy projects in Australia (77 per cent) being in these states. The main technologies comprise combustion (56 per cent) and anaerobic digestion (29 per cent).

But in terms of policy development and effectiveness, and advocacy and education, it’s Queensland, Victoria and South Australia that are far outpacing their counterparts.

While there is room for improvement in these categories, it was found these states had well-defined bioenergy strategy and policy objectives, and their policies are aligned with the needs of the bioenergy industry to support its development. In terms of advocacy and education, the states were found to be promoting bioenergy within the industry and general public as well as focusing on the key strengths of bioenergy in regional areas.

In Queensland, the government has partnered with agricultural and waste industry leaders to develop the 10-year Biofutures Roadmap and Biofutures Program. This program has been implemented to achieve the objectives of planning and waste reduction Acts, as well as generate $1 billion of investment. Funding of almost $20 million over three years has been approved to implement Queensland’s biofutures plan.

Bioenergy Australia CEO Shahana McKenzie said the report reviewed the policies of states and territories in order to share learning and facilitate policy transfer across Australia, with much to be gained through adoption of ‘best practice’ approaches throughout Australia.

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“Queensland has adopted a number of successful policies, which can be adapted and deployed to drive bioenergy uptake across the country,” Ms McKenzie said.

Areas where all states and territories ranked low were sustainability guidance, project development and technology, and feedstock diversity. Addressing the criteria for sustainability guidance, referenced as guidance for the industry that encourages the sustainable management of feedstock from domestic and international supply chains could be a crucial step in the management of bioenergy projects and their long-term effectiveness.

As well as producing energy, Australia’s biofuel debate was exacerbated recently with reports revealing that Australia’s fuel reserves were alarmingly low – stockpiles at the end of October 2018 were at 22 days of petrol and 17 days of diesel. This once again opened the debate that Australia is behind other nations in its fuel independence – something the domestic production of biofuel could alleviate. There is also economic potential in creating biojet fuel – currently Australia imports 93 per cent of what it uses.

Bioenergy Australia says the way forward for Australia’s bio-economy is, as with any emerging sector, government support, which plays an important role in removing barriers and accelerating the development of new projects. It says a national vision, policy objectives and/or policy levers would unlock Australia’s bio economy.

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