Bioenergy, with all its array of feedstocks, technologies and products, has the potential to be providing far more of Australia’s renewable energy, though even now it provides more all the other renewable energy sources combined. This potential, using mature technology available for up to 30 years, will be mainly in the form of heat and cooling, of transport biofuels, and only last and least as electricity. This has been the situation for a decade or more across the EU, and in a number of other OECD countries, and in a number of US states.
Australia is the only OECD country that produces a significant annual supply of biomass but that, as yet, has no coherent development strategy for bioenergy. In any another country this would be inexplicable, since bioenergy is the renewable energy source that generates most jobs per unit of energy produced, is most cost-competitive with fossil sources, is associated with the greatest sequestration of atmospheric CO2, and is the only renewable that produces all three of the required energy forms.
In any country where there is a significant part of the population strongly supportive of development of renewable energy options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the option for using mature technologies to produce up to 30% of final or utilised energy from an estimated 50 million tonnes a year of available biomass would surely be advocated by every group committed to this goal. But not in Australia.
The blocking or obstruction of bioenergy in Australia has resulted from the blinkered push to close down all native forest logging. So, in effect, the opponents of native forest logging, who also appear to the public to be the most vocal advocates of ‘low emissions energy’, are prepared to see the development of the most effective of the renewable energy sources blocked in order to achieve their anti-native forestry aim. And in this drive they are prepared to lie or misrepresent to their followers, the general public, the media and policy makers, about the relative effectiveness of the various renewable energy sources in their real potential to substitute for fossil-fuels.
A relevant saying is that ‘if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem’. Because of their irrational but effective obstruction of development of bioenergy the Greens, The Wilderness Society, Markets for Change, GetUp!, and their array of follower organisations and supporters are clearly part of the problem. Their campaign against eligibility for inclusion in the RET accounting of electricity produced from native forestry harvest waste, is based on no solid facts. Their case against ‘eligibility’ simply does not stand up for one glaringly obvious reason.
It is for the simple reasons of economics and logistics that the instatement of the eligibility will not result in the outcome so hysterically forecast by the Greens of ‘forest furnaces’. Quite apart from the restrictiveness of state regulations, to chip and transport the necessary large amounts of forest residues will simply be too expensive. At under about $150/dry tonne it is not economic to produce woodchip for export. But the break-even price that a power plant of economic size (usually regarded as a minimum of 15 MW-e capacity) can afford to pay for dry woodchip is far less than this.
A second reason why the anti-native forestry groups are part of the problem is because they studiously ignore the fact that native forests in Australia are the most renewable and sustainable source we have for hardwood timbers. These timbers are otherwise imported and coming from far less sustainable forestry practices in countries with far worse governance. Where the imported timber is a plantation timber (like Acacia mangium) it has almost invariably been grown where rainforest has been cleared, and where forest dwellers or indigenous small holders have been displaced and have no rights. This is often the case even when the product has an FSC certification swing tag.
In reality, it is the native forests of more temperate Australia that have provided the timber that makes up the flooring, cladding, beams, studs, joists, roof trusses and battens of the many millions of Australian homes and other buildings built before the 1990s. Of the millions of family homes built until this time most will contain 3-5 tonnes of hardwood timbers, equating to almost that many tonnes of atmospheric CO2 being sequestered for 50 to 100 years or more. In most cases the forests that produced this timber are still there, being managed for the third or fourth rotation.
A further key issue is that the residues from hardwood (and softwood) logs at milling and later processing constitute over 50% of the initial log volume. Elsewhere this biomass is used locally for production of heat and electricity, and this energy is produced on-demand, and so able to fully replace or displace use of fossil fuels. This means CO2 emissions otherwise coming from fossil fuels are cut by this actual amount of this substitution. This full displacement is not something that happens with wind and solar PV. This is a key reason why, for example, Sweden is getting over 34 % of the national final energy (i.e., energy actually utilised) from biomass, and less than 2% as electricity from wind turbines.
But it needs to be repeatedly emphasised that whatever the amount of biomass from native forest log processing it is still only a tiny part of the biomass we have available. Far larger amounts come from agriculture, urban waste wood streams, municipal putrescibles wastes (including sewage and food residues), plantation harvest wastes, and flammable non-recyclable municipal wastes.
However, the decades of reviling of bioenergy by the various anti-native forestry groups has meant that the utilisation of all these waste streams for reduction of greenhouse gas missions has been stalled, so we are now up to 30 years behind the leading countries in this respect.
This has been the unacceptable consequence of a cynical and ill-informed opposing of bioenergy, so that the population at large, the media, and many politicians and policy makers, are either ignorant of Australia’s largest form of renewable energy, or regard it as illegitimate.