Monday, February 26, 2024

Stepping up to the bioenergy challenge

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Now is the time for the energy, pastoral and forestry sectors to come together with a shared vision, says a bioenergy lobbyist.
With extreme weather events becoming more common, we need a national strategy that gives local councils flexibility, Alan Emerson says.
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By Brian Cox, executive officer of the Bioenergy Association

In 2023 Cyclone Gabrielle provided an exclamation mark to New Zealand’s climate change consciousness. The fierce cyclone was the worst – but not the only one – of several that ripped through many provinces and dragged the reality of intensified storm activity out for all to see. 

The masses of forest waste and debris challenged the wisdom of past forest plantings, and brought to the fore the issue of what was to be done with it all.

As the claims and counter claims about forestry’s role in resulting storm damage fade somewhat, we are at least starting to see the discussion move to how we can plant forests more intelligently, including looking harder at what can be done with those trees when, and if, they are harvested in the future.

As new ministers settle into their roles, the Bioenergy Association sees a window now firmly open for NZ to better explore its options for how forestry and agriculture can work together to generate a viable, sustainable pool of raw material that can be used to generate fuels that replace hydrocarbons. 

Rather than being viewed as simply an option for the “waste” stream, both sectors offer materials that are a source of closed-loop, sustainable, low-emitting bioenergy and fuels.

The opportunity for NZ Inc to prove to the world it is capable of meeting its Paris Accord obligations is literally on the back doorstep of our forestry and pastoral sectors. The residue resources already on hand in the forestry and pastoral sectors offer a low-hanging (literally, in some cases) option when seeking alternatives to traditional carbon-emitting fuel sources.

Within the arable and pastoral sector, farm crop residues can be recycled for the production of biogas, food grade carbon dioxide production (whose supply has been unstable in NZ recently) and biofertilizer. 

This biofuel production stream offers another income source for landowners with the raw material, whether they be farmers or foresters. 

Arable break crops, for example, are critical for maintaining soil health, but they can also be a feedstock source for energy production. 

Almost a decade ago the emergence of a rapeseed oil biofuel sector was cut short, but not before many farmers had expressed a strong interest in committing to the crop’s establishment. Ten years on, farmer awareness and interest in such crops will only have intensified.

Forest residue will also find a ready market among large-scale processors seeking a raw timber source to replace coal-fired heating processes. 

The potential for regionally focused solutions to deal with unwanted forestry slash could mean the likes of vegetable processing plants in Hawke’s Bay for example, have a viable biofuel source on their back door. This is utilising technology available now, and, unlike some emerging tech, is already well proven. 

The success of wood firing Huntly power station has also given significant confidence to the energy sector that forestry residue can be a viable fuel source, and having a large player underwrite such a source will do much to prompt others to explore the option. 

Such a move also means the millions that would have been needed to replace a coal-fired Huntly station for base load electricity supply do not need to be spent, with Huntly continuing to be able to provide a solid base load without the emissions. 

Meantime, also sourcing biomethane from farming residue and organic waste will provide a “green” gas source to fuel gas turbine generators used to smooth out peak electricity needs, and ensure more efficient utilisation of solar and wind energy.

More focus on “right tree, right place” on the 10% of land on most farms that is sub-optimal for pasture would encourage more cross-sector forestry-pastoral co-operation, drawing together the sectors in a more co-operative and mutually beneficial manner.

The coalition government finds itself at a point in time when the opportunity has never been timelier to bring the energy, pastoral and forestry sectors together in a shared vision to provide not only food and timber, but also fuel and energy. 

A commitment to supporting areas like arable break crops capable of being an energy source, on-farm tree planting rather than wholesale farm conversions to forestry, crop residue use as a biofuel, and recognising bioenergy solutions in Farm Environment Plans would all be valuable cross-sector first steps. 

But because bioenergy and biofuel fall across multiple sectors, we badly need the government to step up and bring all parties around the table, enabling NZ to tap into the sustainable resources its foresters and farmers already have at hand.

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