Bioenergy: the forgotten renewable
ANYONE WHO’S been watching the national debate would know that energy security and affordability is a top issue, nowhere more so than in my home state of South Australia.
The debate centres around a highly ideological argument regarding lowering emissions.
For over a decade, Governments at both State and Federal level, here and abroad have focused their energy policy around the need to transition to a lower emissions future in the energy sector. Some Australian states have adopted unrealistic targets and have compromised both the security and affordability of our power supply.
The debate around renewables is focused heavily (at least in South Australia) on wind and solar as the key renewable sources of energy.
What hasn’t yet been discussed in this debate is renewable bioenergy sourced from sustainably produced ‘wood waste’ such as, sawdust waste from saw mills or the branches of plantation trees that are not suitable for wood product manufacturing that are left on the ground to rot.
Renewable bioenergy sourced from wood waste is a reliable renewable which can create both baseload and dispatchable power, but can also provide economic development and jobs in forestry, wood and paper product manufacturing in regional and rural areas.
Renewable bioenergy sourced from wood waste is essentially “carbon neutral” over its life cycle because combustion of biomass releases the same amount of CO2 as was captured by the plant during its growth. This is a natural part of the carbon cycle. Renewable bioenergy is part of making the most use from materials sourced during forest harvesting and the production of wood, paper or bio-based products (which store carbon long term). By contrast, fossil fuels release CO2 that has been locked up for millions of years.
The current debate born from our energy security issues should, in theory, lead to energy policy reform. I hope that reforms will include investment in reliable baseload renewable bioenergy sourced from wood waste.
Globally, renewable bioenergy from biomass including wood waste accounts for around 77% of renewable energy, which represents 13% of the world’s primary energy mix. The International Energy Agency estimates that bioenergy could provide 7.5% of world electricity generation by the year 2050, and heat from bioenergy could provide 15% of global final energy consumption in industry and 20% in the building sector.
However, despite having the highest area of forest per capita of the developed nations, in 2015 bioenergy only contributed 9.1% of total renewable energy and 1.3% of total electricity generated in Australia (CEC 2015). In contrast, bioenergy contributes more than 24% of the total energy consumption in Finland, more than 22% in Sweden and more than 17% in Denmark (IEA).
There are companies in Australia who manufacture renewable bio-pellets from wood waste, ship them to Japan, that are then used to co-fire existing nonrenewable (coal and gas) electricity generators. As they are renewable this reduces the carbon footprint.
So much attention has been given to wind, solar and traditional forms of fossil fuels while very little has been given to the potential to add biomass to this mix.
We need to reform our energy policy and I’ll be pushing for biomass to be part of that conversation.