Biomass Down Under

Although slow to develop, Australia’s biomass industry has potential.
By | January 04, 2011

Slightly larger than the continental U.S. with a drastically smaller population, Australia seems to offer great potential in the growth of biomass crops. At the same time, the biomass resources the country already possesses are vastly underutilized.

According to the Australian Clean Energy Council, in 2008, biomass and biogas accounted for less than 1 percent of electricity generation in Australia. The small fraction of biomass energy produced is mainly derived from bagasse, wood and wood waste at about 50 facilities nationwide, and nearly all of those plants are sugar production plants in Queensland. Notably, only about 50 percent of the cane biomass available for use is collected.

Aside from bagasse, Bioenergy Australia Manager Steve Schuck says wood waste is one of the most underutilized resources in the country. Bioenergy Australia is a government-industry forum, formed in 1997 to foster and facilitate the development of biomass for energy, liquid fuels and other value-added biobased products.

 Interest and activity in growing new biomass crops for energy generation is coming around, Schuck says. He points out, in particular, that Delta Electricity, one of Australia’s largest utilities, is embarking on an AUD $200 million project to grow oil mallee eucalypts as an energy crop in central New South Wales.  “They wish to produce energy pellets from coppiced mallee, and then cofire at 20 percent rates at Wallerawang Power Station initially,” he says. “So far they have engaged 10 farmers, and also conducted a trial burn at this level. The units are 500 megawatts (MW), so this equates to 100 MW of biomass per unit.”

Regarding suitable, available land for growing energy crops, approximately 70 percent of Australia is desert/semi-arid land, but Schuck believes there is sufficient land, pointing out that mallees are adapted to grow in arid conditions.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any biomass-specific government incentives in the country, as they generally target renewable energy, Schuck points out. “Our main driver is the Renewable Energy Target, which supports the target of 20 percent renewable energy—essentially electricity—by 2020. This requires 41,000 gigawatt hours of new renewable electricity by that year.” 

Besides that market mechanism, there are few specific incentives for bioenergy.  “At a state level in New South Wales, there is an incentive for diverting wastes from landfills, where the material would be converted to methane,” Schuck says. “One plant, a 3-MWe digester in Sydney, takes advantage of this incentive under the New South Wales Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme.” 

So what are some current hurdles that need to be overcome, and how does Australia compare to the U.S.? “The wholesale price of electricity has fallen by a third over the past 18 months, mainly due to a drought breaking in Queensland, freeing up cooling water for large, efficient coal-fired power,” Schuck says. “Also, the REC (renewable energy credit) price is volatile and depressed, due to unintended consequences of a PV (photovoltaic) and solar hot water stimulus measure.”   

 The [Australian biomass] industry is probably behind the U.S., he adds, but the hurdles aren’t all that unique in comparison. “Many [hurdles] are economic and social,” Schuck says. “Issues such as food verses fuel, land use competition, and water resources will remain issues, even though I believe there is enough land for both food and fuel.”