The government has introduced regulations into the Senate surrounding the use of native timber wood waste for renewable energy production. The changes are jeopardising renewable energy project proposals and appear to be driven by an ideological opposition to harvesting native forests rather than environmental reasoning.
The Renewable Energy Target (RET) scheme was introduced in 2009 to ensure that 20 per cent of Australia’s electricity supply will come from renewable sources by 2020. This created a market for renewable energy certificates (RECs), which acted as an extra incentive to trade and invest in renewable energy projects.
Originally, electricity generated by using waste products from native wood processing was recognised under the RET scheme. The government claims that the proposed exclusion is designed to protect biodiversity in natural forests despite there being no evidence that biodiversity would be threatened by the carbon price and RET incentives. The proposed RET amendment would actively discourage the utilisation of a by-product of existing sustainable timber production and forgoes the related investment to secure renewable energy gains.
If the proposed amendments are made then native timber sawdust, offcuts and wood fibre will continue to be burnt, sold off cheaply or dumped in landfill. Perversely, some companies may opt to ‘pelletise’ wood waste in future and export it to countries where renewable energy credits are awarded to native forest bioenergy projects.
Impacted projects include a proposed $20 million investment at Eden on the South Coast of NSW. The South East Fibre Exports (SEFE) Bioenergy Project would be the largest investment on a single project in Eden’s history. It would utilise over 51,000 tonnes per annum of pine bark fine residues, hardwood fine residues, the chip mill’s own waste, sawmill sawdust and shavings.
The project would create 25,000 megawatt hours per annum, equivalent power to supply 3,000 houses. It would provide a peak of 50 jobs on site during 18 months construction, as well as ongoing employment for a plant superintendent and five trade-based plant operators, plus 20 indirect jobs.
Meanwhile, Australian Solar Timbers, near Kempsey in Northern NSW, is investigating a cogeneration plant to achieve energy self-sufficiency and feed into the general supply grid in the 5 to 10 megawatt range. AST plans to utilise bark, sawdust, export and local woodchip, milled offcuts.
AST was an international pioneer in solar kiln drying but still consumes approximately two megawatts of the entire Macleay Valley’s ten megawatt consumption. The company has discovered that it has the capacity to be more than energy self-sufficient by utilising existing residues which it currently sells as sawdust for boiler fuel to a locally based international firm, chip for export, chip for landscaping and milled product for potting mix to Sydney.
Similarly, Boral Timber has proposed projects near Port Macquarie, Murwillumbah and Kyogle, which may need to be reconsidered due to the regulation changes.
It is been estimated that there is enough woody biomass from forest industry activities in Australia to supply 3000 gigawatt hours of renewable energy per year from existing waste streams without harvesting a single extra tree. This is equivalent to seven per cent of the nation’s renewable energy target.
Despite Australia having the highest area of forest per capita of the developed nations, we lag behind in the use of bioenergy. It represents just 0.8 per cent of our energy production. In contrast, 13 per cent of Finland’s and 6 per cent of Denmark’s energy generation comes from bioenergy. Perhaps surprisingly, WWF International backs the use of wood waste from forestry in its report A Biomass Blueprint to Meet 15% Of OECD Electricity Demand By 2020.
The proposed amendments still need to be approved by Parliament. The industry has put its case forward and rebuked claims that the RECs would have any adverse impact on sustainable forest management practices and biodiversity values. The industry only wants to do something productive with an otherwise wasted by-product, which would have no influence on existing world best practices in forestry management.
The industry is keen to ensure that an adequate public discussion about this issue occurs as it is incongruous that the government’s Clean Energy Future (CEF) would discourage the use of a resource which otherwise would be burnt, disposed of in landfill or sold as lower value gardening products.
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