In ‘Community energy’ Category

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Biomass potential in rural communities

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This community energy project is not just about energy, it’s also about improving agricultural practices and creating a new industry—definitely a trickier proposition, but potentially more rewarding, writes Robyn Deed.

Not that long ago, say about 60 years ago, before we moved to a more centralised grid, it used to be the norm in regional Australia for country towns to manage their own power supply. Residents in Cowra, 300 kilometres west of Sydney in NSW, are exploring options that could reinstate that local control, and at the same time bring new industries to the area.

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CLEAN (Cowra Low Emissions Action Network), a local group of sustainability advocates, is working on a pilot system to run a portion of the town of Cowra on a microgrid using energy produced from biomass, and start up a bioenergy regional hub.

The proposal has gained broad support— from industry, the council, locals and farmers. The proponents believe it could provide a way of improving sustainable agriculture practices and reducing reliance on the grid, potentially decreasing costs for the local community.

Architect and local Dylan Gower, one of the people involved in initiating and developing the proposal, says that community engagement is particularly important for this type of project.

“It’s a community energy project that relies on creating a new industry around what’s already there, and in some ways that’s more complex than importing in renewable technologies such as solar and wind,” says Dylan.

The ‘what’s already there’ is the resource stream for a biomass-based plant. There are two streams that the proposal is considering as input, one of ‘dry’ waste from agriculture and the other from ‘wet’ municipal waste, such as green waste and waste water.

The latter is one reason that the local council is behind the project: pre-treatment of waste water by a biomass system could reduce the running costs of the local (newly built) waste water treatment plant, which currently has high energy needs—and would also yield energy in the form of biogas to run the plant.

In this mixed farming community with intensive cropping of canola and wheat, plus dairy and poultry, there’s also a lot of residual material from agriculture that could feed into a biomass plant.

Dylan resists calling the residual material ‘waste’, as much of the agricultural by-products are already reused. For example, the stubble from canola or wheat production (the two intensively farmed crops in the area) is currently left on the soil as mulch or used to create compost.

“That is something we’re discussing with farmers,” he says: whether there is higher value in using the stubble as compost or mulch (as is done currently), or in using it in the biomass process to generate biogas and biofertiliser.

The feasibility of a pilot system to power an industrial estate in Cowra on biogas is currently being investigated.

Read the full article in ReNew 129.