As the Covid-19 disruption pushes Australia to rethink its energy security, minister Angus Taylor is championing a national bioenergy road map. But is this plan as green as he claims? By Max Opray.

Angus Taylor’s bioenergy plans

About 20 years ago, fourth-generation West Wimmera farmer Steve Hobbs was sorting out his deceased grandfather’s belongings when some photos inside an old shoebox caught his eye. They were of the family farm back in the 1920s, grainy black-and-white snapshots of thatched haystacks and teams of horses working the land.

“It struck me that with the hay, my grandfather had been growing his own energy really, to feed his horses,” says Hobbs, a member of Farmers for Climate Action. “Farmers have their own energy business. We use plants to harvest sunlight and store it as sugars. That energy can be used as food, but it could also power our farms.”

Sick of buying petrol and concerned about the prospect of peak oil and climate change, Hobbs embarked on more than a decade of experimentation growing and refining biofuel. He even produced about 8000 litres of biodiesel from his own crop of mustard seeds.

Hobbs saw these biofuels as a cleaner option because they cycled atmospheric carbon and generated byproducts useful for pest management and heating for greenhouses, rather than releasing the stored carbon in fossil fuels, as petrol does.

But without government support, and up against the economies of scale enjoyed by big petroleum, it simply wasn’t sustainable. Hobbs mothballed the operation. “We need government investment and certainty,” he says. “This virus could be a backhanded blessing. It’s got us all thinking about energy security, local manufacturing and how to kickstart economies.”

In answer to the question of energy security, Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor saw things somewhat differently.

Last week, having surveyed the chaos enveloping international supply chains due to the Covid-19 shutdown, he snapped up $94 million worth of unrefined oil for Australia’s national energy reserve. Taylor moved quickly to capitalise on record-low oil prices, but his purchase throws up two major problems.

First, the oil is stored on the other side of the Pacific Ocean within the Strategic Petroleum Reserve of the United States, which is not ideal for Australia’s emergency access. At the same time, burning crude oil, a finite fossil fuel, remains one of the key drivers of climate change and its devastating impacts.

However, on Tuesday, Taylor followed up with another announcement – the promise of a fuel source produced in Australia, which would generate regional jobs and offer the long-term security of a renewable resource.

He revealed that the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) is calling for public submissions to develop a national bioenergy road map. “Bioenergy has the potential to grow as a future energy source in Australia, providing dispatchable energy while at the same time improving our fuel security and playing a role in reducing emissions,” Taylor said.

Bioenergy draws on organic materials, such as the mustard seeds on Steve Hobbs’ farm, to produce heat, electricity, fuel and fertiliser. In the case of Hobbs’ mustard crop, the plant absorbs carbon as it grows, offsetting the emissions from when it is burned, meaning the only net emissions generated are in processing.

Australia lags behind much of the world in bioenergy, with ARENA estimating it represents only 4 per cent of the country’s energy mix, compared with 10 per cent in Europe.

In a statement provided to The Saturday Paper, shadow Energy minister Mark Butler declared this road map too little, too late. “For seven years this government’s lack of vision, policy and commitment to bioenergy has stifled the sector,” he said, warning Australia had missed out on “the billions of dollars of investment that bioenergy would unleash”.

For Shahana McKenzie, the chief executive of Bioenergy Australia, the starting line is even further back.

“We’ve got about 15 years of catching up to do,” she says. “But one benefit of being 15 years behind is to learn from the mistakes of other countries and to harness the new technologies they’ve developed.”

McKenzie blames the slow progress on the lack of incentives in Australia’s economy, such as a carbon price.

During the government’s consultations for the road map, she will be pitching similar structural measures, including a clean fuels target and a net zero organic-to-landfill target, pointing to Australian-grown ethanol used in domestic manufacturing of hand sanitiser as proof of how a local bioenergy industry can fuel Australia’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.

In countries where bioenergy is big business, however, there have been plenty of challenges.

If crops are grown to be turned into biofuel, the sector consumes land that would have otherwise produced food – and it encourages further land-clearing, leading to decisions such as Brazil’s move last November to open up the Amazon basin to biofuel plantations.

Professor Kadambot Siddique of the University of Western Australia’s Institute of Agriculture says bioenergy should be derived from agricultural waste that would be going to landfill anyway, rather than from purpose-grown crops. “I’m absolutely against burning food-quality grains for fuel, whether that’s canola or maize,” he says.

Taylor’s road map, however, has raised concerns about the prospect of crops being planted solely for biofuel because it does not expressly rule this out – while also employing a broad definition of bioenergy that includes the burning of waste plastics.

Shahana McKenzie doesn’t exactly agree that biofuels should be obtained only from waste and byproducts. She says there was “no need to even have the conversation” because there are already such significant untapped waste streams from agriculture and forestry in Australia that can be harnessed.

However, she declined to back the idea of a bioenergy road map that ruled out purpose-grown crops, citing the hypothetical example of a contaminated mining site converted into a biofuel plantation. Hobbs echoed her concerns, noting that biofuel crops can produce their own byproducts, used in everything from natural insecticides to animal feed.

One entrepreneur to have found success with waste-fed bioenergy in Australia is Biogass Renewables director Hamish Jolly. He has overseen the development of a commercial-scale 2.4-megawatt anaerobic digestion plant in Perth, which converts waste from food processing, supermarkets, breweries and abattoirs into energy and biofertiliser.

He tells The Saturday Paper that “we recycle these organics using what is essentially a big mechanical gut”, rather than sending waste to landfill.

But a bioenergy sector drawing on waste alone would prove lucrative for Australia, according to analysis by KPMG that will inform the government’s road map.

The firm delivered a report, never released to the public, to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in January, and estimated that building a network of biogas plants fuelled by agricultural waste could deliver an $8.8 billion increase in Australian GDP, in present values, by 2047-48, and an increase in real consumption in the economy by $12.1 billion.

The report examines the potential contribution of Australia adopting circular economy solutions that improve the recycling of waste, energy and water, with other recommendations including the recapture of nutrients embedded in agricultural waste such as phosphorus and nitrogen. In total, the measures could deliver a potential economic benefit of $23 billion in GDP by 2025.

The report author, KPMG economist Dr George Verikios, tells The Saturday Paper that lower energy costs for farmers will mean lower food prices in general for consumers. “This would have a stimulatory effect on the economy, which would help our recovery from the current shutdown,” he says. Verikios emphasises that his analysis only factors in bioenergy that’s created from waste. “Bioenergy solutions based on biomass fuel sourced from non-waste or non-byproduct sources, such as tree harvesting, are not circular,” he says.

Verikios refers to a circular economy, one in which everything is designed to cycle materials, energy and water at as high a value as possible, for as long as possible.

So even in the case of bioenergy that draws on waste, simply burning it for energy is something of a last resort in circular economics, as the material obviously cannot continue to be recycled once vaporised.

Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt acknowledged to The Saturday Paper that bioenergy solutions reduce reliance on petrochemicals. However, he is concerned that Taylor’s announcement referenced the burning of all sorts of waste, including plastics. “We believe that the most value is in creating fertiliser to produce the next round of crops, not burning it for energy,” he said. “Plastic is not a bioenergy source. This approach doesn’t only cause the waste crisis to fuel the climate crisis, it will hinder the development of a genuine circular economy based around reusing resources to build up local industry.”

As ARENA opens up to public submissions on the road map during May, including a series of online workshops and interviews with key stakeholders ahead of its release in the second half of 2020, the bioenergy sector is waiting for its moment.

Back on his farm in Kaniva, Hobbs still experiments with his old fuel equipment every now and then. “I tinker around,” he says. “You know, to keep my eye in.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2020 as "Fuelling new ideas".

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