Mayor of the Bundaberg Regional Council Jack Dempsey and Utilitas CEO Fiona Waterhouse.

Australia has an immense opportunity to unleash biogas to fuel industry, but we need precincts to make this energy source commercially viable, according to chief executive officer of Utilitas, Fiona Waterhouse.

At the centre of these “circular economy industrial parks”, or “biohubs”, is anerobic digestion technology, which takes organic waste (such as agricultural waste and sludge from wastewater treatment), digests it in big tanks, and then captures the carbon neutral gas.

Waterhouse, former director of strategic policy for the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency, is a big fan of biogas and has spent around a decade building a business that delivers this energy source.

Biogas is “not only carbon neutral but is also a flexible fuel”, she told The Fifth Estate. It can be converted into heat or electricity, or upgraded into biomethane (very similar in chemical composition to natural gas) to be injected into the gas grid and used for transport fuel (bioCNG, paraffinic diesel, bio-hydrogen).

The next 10 years, Waterhouse says, will be about delivering the company’s pipeline of projects.

It has already launched its first at Bundaberg in regional Queensland, which involves repurposing a retired wastewater plant into a manufacturing precinct that produces renewable natural gas (RNG), biomethane and hydrogen to support local food and beverage producers meet their net zero emissions production and logistics targets.

The second will be in Dandenong, Victoria, which will leverage Schneider Electric’s automation and digitalisation services as part of a new ongoing partnership between the two companies.

But this is just the start. The company wants to bring 100 bioenergy precincts online in a range of regional communities.

“It’s an incredibly flexible fuel and very mature in other parts of the world; we’re a long way behind but starting to catchup,” Waterhouse says.

In Australia’s favour is an abundance of biogas feedstocks. On the negative, it’s still only a fraction of our overall energy mix.

Signs that this is changing and that Australia is finally catching up to international leaders include projects such as Jemena’s $14 million project trial of biomethane in the NSW gas network, which is jointly funded by ARENA.

Germany is a leader

Germany is one of the global leaders. It has more than 12,000 bioenergy plants and has been upgrading and decarbonising biogas to inject it into the gas grid for around 30 years. In France, one new biomethane project is being connected to the gas network each week.

This energy source now makes up 6-8 per cent of the country’s energy mix.

Other leading countries for producing and using biogas include the United Kingdom, the United States and China.

Bundaberg biohub

Waterhouse says among Australia’s biggest challenges for biogas is unfavourable policy settings, especially in relation to injecting biogas into the grid.

The other obstacle is achieving scale to make projects commercial. It takes between 10 and 20 truckloads of organic waste a day to make a utility grade commercial scale biogas project viable.

Waterhouse says that’s why precincts make sense, with food, beverage and logistics businesses all collocated or near the bioenergy facilities to act as a community or network. Regional areas are ideal, especially now, she says.

That’s because a by-product of anerobic digestion is fertiliser so biohubs near farmland create good synergy.

“It closes the loop … it’s local fuel and fertiliser.”

These hubs have the potential to improve local food and energy security and create and retain jobs.

It’s also an attractive proposition post-pandemic.

“Covid is turning the tide, and one of the things it’s doing is getting people as individuals and governments to really think about localising and food security and local manufacturing and production, and de risking some of our big exposures to markets.

“It’s just a no brainer.”

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  1. The versatility of biomethane compared to biogas is very significant—especially as related to transportation in heavy duty trucks that are now using diesel fuel. Biogas cannot be used as a transportation fuel because of impurities that damage the internal combustion engine. Conversion of biogas to biomethane, however, gives pipeline pure Renewable Natural Gas with identical properties to natural gas. If the internal combustion engine is modified to run on natural gas, the biomethane is the best replacement fuel for diesel. It is a carbon negative near zero emission fuel with widespread available of trucks commercially available today using Westport Fuel Systems technology. Biomethane units are large and expensive. Xebec Adsorption, however, has developed their Biostream unit. It is a pre-manufactured unit that can be transported to the waste site on a flat bed trailer. Placed on a concrete slab, plugging in the biogas source, and you have Renewable Natural Gas with on a day or two of “on-site setup.” The unit is specifically designed for smaller waste sites and farms.

  2. ‘Agricultural wastes’ shouldn’t be used for anything other than re-enriching the soil that we so assiduously mine for nutrients. To continue to perform soil needs to be given back as much as we take away. For many years that was the primary role of artificial fertilisers. We’re starting to know better. Mulch and compost, both very necessary in the plant growth cycle, are products of the processing of agricultural wastes. Organic farming is a circular economy process. Burning agricultural products as gas is not.