Bioenergy: too good to be true?

Generating energy from biomass is greenhouse-gas neutral, low cost, flexible and helps to reduce landfill waste, among other benefits. So how does bioenergy work and what’s stopping it from revolutionising the power industry? Juliet Langton speaks to Stephen Schuck of Bioenergy Australia to find out.

Reducing carbon emissions by switching to clean and renewable power is a hot topic around the world and a driver for creating new technology. Wind turbines and photovoltaic systems are increasingly common sights; particularly in Australia, whose homeowners put more solar panels on their roofs than anyone in the world last year. Geothermal, wave, tidal and hydroelectricity, though less ubiquitous, are similarly well known. Around 13 per cent of global energy consumption comes from renewable sources. However, many people don’t know that the large majority of this comes from a source seldom mentioned: biomass.

This organic matter, commonly a by-product from waste streams, produced by photosynthesis, is responsible for 10 per cent of the world’s energy consumption.
The most familiar form of biomass is wood, which people have burned for heat since history began. These days, biomass feedstock also includes agricultural, forest and livestock residues, aquatic plants, landfill gas and wastes produced by cities and factories. Much biomass is an otherwise unwanted waste product from either natural or industrial processes. It is continually being produced and found everywhere on earth. So why are we still going to the effort of mining coal and developing complex renewable technologies when this natural resource is available here and now?

This is the question asked by Bioenergy Australia, a not-for-profit organisation committed to supporting the development of energy generated from biomass, known as bioenergy. It seeks to highlight bioenergy’s potential to play a vital role in Australia’s clean energy future, while delivering multiple environmental, social and economic benefits.

Benefits aplenty

Bioenergy Australia manager Dr Stephen Schuck says bioenergy’s main benefit is that it’s carbon-dioxide neutral – meaning it has the potential to mitigate climate change and global warming. “Even when you start to examine the energy involved in building a bioenergy plant and decommissioning it, it still has good credentials for greenhouse gas reduction,” Schuck says.

It also has advantages over other types of renewable energy – the greatest being its capacity to provide a controllable and continuous (base load) supply of energy, as fossil fuels do. This allows bioenergy to meet energy needs flexibly. “Bioenergy is not dependent on the sun shining or the wind blowing, like solar and wind energy,” Schuck explains. “It can be dispatched to meet consumer’s requirements when they need it, rather than it going into storage.” He also claims bioenergy has potential to be one of the lowest-cost renewable energy sources.

Not only is bioenergy low cost – if you consider its additional economic benefits, you could almost say it pays for itself. The nature of biomass means bioenergy generation can be linked to waste management (reducing methane emissions and requirement for landfill) and the production of co-products such as resins, fertilisers and other value-added products.

Schuck claims bioenergy provides economic stimulus to rural and regional areas, through providing “opportunities for diversifying farming income”. Biomass is a local fuel, so power plants can be built in rural areas – providing construction jobs in the initial phase, as well as permanent jobs in the production, harvesting and transportation of fuels once the plant is in operation. In addition, bioenergy provides a market for otherwise worthless materials, such as weeds and unmerchantable timber, and in doing so disposes of waste and could contribute to reducing bushfire risks.

The environment can benefit as well. Schuck claims that planting biomass-producing trees can mitigate erosion, improve soil structure and tackle salinity problems. “In Western Australian soils particularly, there are salinity problems where the water table has risen and brought salt to the surface, poisoning the land,” he says. “By planting a particular type of vegetation within your crops you can combat that salinity problem while simultaneously using that biomass as a feedstock for other industries.”

What’s holding it back?

Bioenergy clearly has many advantages in its favour, particularly in regards to rural Australia. It also supports energy security, in that it will always be domestically available. So why aren’t we seeing more of it? Schuck argues that bioenergy is in fact a more prominent source of energy than it may appear to the average consumer. “The federal government’s Australian Energy Resource Assessment report indicates that 78 per cent of Australia’s renewable energy [including heat] is bioenergy,” he says. “It’s a misconception that bioenergy is ignored… but when governments and politicians want a quick description of renewable energy, they’ll say wind and solar because they’re publically visible.”

Schuck offers various examples of where Australia has embraced bioenergy. “Australia is one of the world leaders in landfill gas generation, and in the sugar industry we’ve got around 27 operating sugar mills that use waste from the process for power generation,” he says. The country’s wastewater treatment plants and paper mills are also involved in producing biomass for fuel.

However, he acknowledges that biomass has failed to meet expectations when it comes to fulfilling Australia’s large-scale renewable energy target. He claims a lot of that is due to the price of renewable energy certificates and competition from heavily subsidised renewable energy sources, such as rooftop solar panels.
There are also several wider issues holding bioenergy back – largely the economics and hidden technicalities of generating energy from biomass. “There are onerous conditions placed on biomass suppliers in terms of supplying biomass that is compliant,” Schuck says.

“There is also the cost of transporting biomass to the conversion plants and because we don’t have a renewable heat obligation in Australia, there’s no regulatory incentive for generating heat from it. Furthermore, the people developing bioenergy projects are generally not currently in the power industry – they’re in the agricultural industries, and the larger energy generation industry doesn’t necessarily want to welcome bioenergy into the generation mix. So it’s a whole range of things.”

He adds that bioenergy technology is still in need of further development in order to achieve great energy conversion efficiency and modularity.

Easing into it

We know that biomass is commonly available and has the potential to provide a low-cost renewable energy source. However, building new infrastructure for large-scale bioenergy production – including power plants and mass transportation from source to plant – is a large investment that few are willing to risk at this point. These costs can and have been reduced by burning biomass at power plants built to fire coal.

“If biomass is co-fired with coal in a pre-existing power station, you are using the existing infrastructure of generators and turbines,” Schuck says. “Possibly the front needs to be modified for the biomass, but it’s not a big change in operations – it’s relatively easy. There are many forms of biomass that are burnt just for disposal, such as logging residues.”

He explains how, although firing biomass with coal is not a carbon-neutral process, it is a relatively simple way of reducing a coal plant’s carbon emissions. “For every kilowatt hour of power an Australian black coal-fired plant produces, it produces just under a kilogram of carbon dioxide emissions,” he begins. “So if you replace 20 per cent of your fuel with biomass such as wood pellets – and this has been trialled in Australia by Delta Electricity – you could probably produce a fifth of your energy from the biomass. This means a 500MW power station would produce 100MW of renewable, carbon-dioxide neutral energy. A plant that used to produce 1kg of carbon dioxide would now produce 800g.”

There are power stations in Europe, Schuck says, which have converted totally from coal to instead run on wood pellets derived from woody biomass. “In Belgium, the Les Awirs Power Station has converted a 120MW coal-fired unit to an 80MW wood-pellet-fired plant,” he adds.

Future viability

The International Energy Agency indicates that bioenergy could sustainably contribute between 25 and 33 per cent to the future global primary energy supply in 2050. It expects biofuels to generate $11-$13 trillion in production between 2010 and 2050, and the global share of biofuel in total transport fuel to grow from two per cent today to 27 per cent in 2050. Theoretically, Schuck claims, bioenergy will have the potential to generate around 1,500 exajoules of energy in 2050 – more than that year’s estimated global energy demand of 1,000 exajoules. In Australia alone, a report entitled Biomass in the Energy Cycle identifies 54 million tonnes per annum of broad acreage crop residues available now that could be used for bioenergy.

Evidence suggests that biomass is certainly a sustainable and viable energy source, yet the future of bioenergy depends on people taking it up. Schuck says a lot will need to happen before it becomes widely adopted in Australia, where fossil fuels are especially plentiful. “It will require a number of favourable factors,” he says. “Market conditions, the economics… We’ve introduced a price for carbon in Australia and we need more of those kinds of incentives, whether it’s higher energy certificate prices or a transition to emissions trading. Australia’s future emission trading scheme will be linked to the European Union’s trading scheme, but will require sufficiently high prices on carbon to incentivise alternatives.”

Carbon taxes are already a big issue for the airline industry, he says. “Airlines flying into the EU have to pay taxes for their emissions and using biofuels would make them carbon neutral [negating that tax],” he adds. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has reported that second-generation biofuels, created from biomass, could replace between 10 and 140 per cent of current petrol-only use over time. However, Schuck says biofuels still require a great deal of development.

Getting the message out

Bioenergy Australia doesn’t lobby for change – instead, it provides the resources to help such change happen. It is essentially an information and networking forum, involving a range of government and private sector organisations, along with universities and research institutes.

“We haven’t yet targeted the person in the street – instead we’ve been working at higher levels with policy makers and shapers, other government organisations and so on,” Schuck explains. “We’ve participated in a number of national forums; we’re the vehicle for Australia’s participation in the International Energy Agency’s bioenergy program.”

Bioenergy Australia has grown and diversified dramatically since it began in 1997, founded by a small group of federal government agencies. It became an independent not-for-profit organisation early this year. “We’ve grown our membership from four founding members to 83,” Schuck says. “It’s a mix of organisations and we try to cover all aspects of bioenergy.” The membership is diverse – from entrepreneurs trying to develop small biogas systems, to large industrial conglomerates trying to set up biofuel projects for aviation.

In the near future, Bioenergy Australia aims to expand its profile through upgrading its website and to commission further reports. Up to this point, its main public showcase has been its 12 annual bioenergy conferences. “We hold Australia’s premier bioenergy conference, which usually has around 300 delegates with 100 speakers,” Schuck says. “It covers the whole spectrum of bioenergy, covering heat, power and fuels.”

Bioenergy Australia’s thirteenth annual bioenergy conference takes place on 26 and 27 November at the Sebel & Citigate Albert Park Hotel in Melbourne.

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