Up until now, Australians have enjoyed the benefits of a low-energy-cost economy: this is rapidly changing. In 2012, a report by CME to the Energy Users Association of Australia showed that household electricity prices have risen by more than 40 per cent since 2007, and are projected to rise by another 30 per cent by 2013–14.

For some industries, there are alternatives to a pure reliance on grid-connected supply. Brisbane-based Utilitas Limited is demonstrating that it is now viable to use safe, reliable, mature biogas (anaerobic digestion) technology in Australia to recover energy, water, nutrients and carbon from Australia’s organic waste streams.

Internationally, biogas has already emerged as a major alternative source of fuel, electricity and heat. In a recent study by Global Industry Analysts Inc it was noted that “today, biogas competes on par with petroleum-based fuels in terms of performance, cost and other additional benefits such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions.” Although Europe is currently the dominant player in terms of biogas production, the Asia-Pacific market for biogas plants is displaying strong appetite for growth, and countries like Japan, New Zealand and the United States are also catching up fast.

Here in Australia, Utilitas is seeing increasing demand for biomethane potential testing, feasibility analysis, approvals, connection arrangements and the design and construction of biogas plants, coming from a broad spectrum of owners of organic wastes including:

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  • Source-segregated municipal organic waste
  • Animal manures
  • Food waste
  • Algal processing waste.

Biogas: often overlooked in Australia

According to the Clean Energy Council, there are currently 29 biogas projects – more than 100 kilowatts equivalent (kWe) – in agriculture/food processing and wastewater treatment (WWT), providing installed capacity of approximately 49 megawatts equivalent (MWe). At least two of the biogas plants in WWT in Australia use co-substrate digestion, using a mixture of wastes, to optimise plant health, produce higher gas yields and earn additional revenues from gate fees.

Biogas technology has been proven in both an international and national context, however, up until now, plants have not been built in Australia with a focus on achieving an internationally competitive levelised-cost-of-energy.

Politically, waste-to-energy has been a tad ‘on the nose’ in Australia with a couple of high-profile failures in biomass combustion/pyrolysis, which seems to have tainted the whole market.

As a renewable energy source, biogas is also often overlooked, with analysis tending to lump biogas in the broader category of biomass, or subsume it within data about the extraction of landfill biogas. Occasionally, biogas from sewage gas will be identified separately, but rarely is there an in-depth analysis of the full spectrum of the biogas opportunity in Australia. To make the biogas market opportunity story even more difficult, a large percentage of reports into the waste industry in Australia are considered unreliable.

Notwithstanding this, in 2011, a report by Zero Waste Australia indicated that Australia produces approximately 20 million tonnes of organic waste per year from domestic and industrial sources. Table 1 shows estimations of manure volumes, biomethane potential and electrical generation potential, which is based on data from just four sources of agricultural wastes.

If all of this organic waste (domestic, industrial and agricultural) was treated in biogas plants, there is potential for in the order of 650 MWe of installed electrical capacity, enough to power almost 1 million Australian homes.

In addition to the issues previously mentioned, the lack of supporting services has been another barrier to the development of the biogas industry in Australia. To help overcome this, Utilitas has established Australia’s first specialist commercial biomethane potential testing facilities at its headquarters in Brisbane Technology Park, using an automated biomethane potential testing unit to enable accurate modelling of the energy potential of waste streams, amongst other modelling.

A further impediment to biogas deployment has been the fact that negotiating network connection arrangements with distribution network service providers is currently both time-consuming and costly. The ‘sweet spot’ for biogas plants is typically between 200 kWe–3 MWe, and unfortunately, this scale of generation seems to fall into a ‘no-man’s land’ where they are considered by network service providers as large-scale generation, but clearly are tiny in comparison to a large power station or other facility, for which the providers’ processes and procedures seem to have been developed.

There is an urgent need to streamline connection process to enable the deployment of this scale of distributed generation from biogas projects. A comparable streamlined connection and approval process for this type and scale of generation was successfully implemented by the Ontario Power Authority in Canada as part of its Renewable Energy Standard Offer Program, catering for projects with an installed generating capacity of up to 10 MW.

There is also a critical need for the nascent biogas market in Australia to move early to earn the community’s ‘right to operate’. Other renewable energy developers have been surprised at the community outrage they have experienced. Although biogas technologies are mature, well-proven and widely-deployed as mainstream community infrastructure in other parts of the world, there is a need to move early to help the community understand the role they can play in making the most of this resource.

There is also a need to expand on this analysis, to more deeply quantify the biogas market’s potential in Australia and to comprehensively address its constraints. Surely, as Australia moves from being a low energy-cost economy to a high-energy-cost economy, it is time to stop wasting our organic waste.

Fiona Waterhouse is the Chief Executive of Utilitas Limited, a company that provides biomethane potential testing, approvals processes, negotiation of grid connections and project financing for biogas projects. The company’s current focus is to demonstrate that biogas plants can now be deployed at internationally-competitive levelised-cost-of-energy. It has provided services to 20 projects in Australia, including for feasibility and concept design and for construction contracts. In 2013, Utilitas led development of a Carbon Farming Initiative method for destruction of methane from piggeries using engineered biodigesters, approved in January 2013.