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Bioenergy is the chemical energy derived from recently living organisms or their metabolic by-products, also known as biomass. Bioenergy technology extracts this energy using conventional power generation technology, such as combustion, to produce low emission, renewable energy.

Sources of biomass include agricultural crop waste, plantation wood waste, urban garden and food waste, bagasse (sugar cane residues), sewage and animal wastes.

Bioenergy can be categorised according to traditional bioenergy methods, which include small scale operations such as the use of wood and charcoal for domestic cooking and heating. This traditional form of bioenergy is widespread in developing countries, but is generally less efficient than modern bioenergy technology, which involves operations on a much larger and more efficient scale and produces electricity comparable to non-renewable energy sources.

How it works

In order to convert biomass to usable energy, biomass energy is released through combustion, often in the form of heat, and the carbon is re-oxidised to produce carbon dioxide. In a reversal of the process of photosynthesis, the carbon originally absorbed by the organism is returned to the environment to be reused in the natural carbon cycle.

Biomass can be used directly for electricity generation, to create steam for industrial uses, for cooking, heating or indirectly by converting to a liquid or gas. Bioenergy is unique because it can be stored to be used when needed and as a result can provide reliable base load power. According to the Clean Energy Council, one megawatt hour of bioenergy-derived electricity avoids approximately one tonne of CO2.

The bioenergy market in Australia

Bioenergy currently dominates Australia’s renewable energy production. Bagasse, wood and woodwaste, and biofuels – including biogas, black liquor, crop, and municipal waste – accounted for 78 per cent of Australia’s renewable energy use but only 4 per cent of Australia’s primary energy consumption in 2007–08, according to Australian Energy Resource Assessment 2010.

Bioenergy and sustainability

A key factor in the growth of the bioenergy sector is the sustainable management of biomass production and the avoidance of potential negative environmental impacts. Potential competition for land use and impacts on biodiversity must be considered. In 2009, the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation undertook a review addressing this issue entitled Sustainable Production of Bioenergy - A review of global bioenergy sustainability frameworks and assessment systems.

The report recommends that Australia develop a cohesive and comprehensive bioenergy sustainability framework – in terms of both institutional systems and sustainability assessment systems.

Future prospects

Australia has a rich supply of economically viable and accessible biomass resources, with most regions engaged in agriculture, forestry and food production producing waste that could be used for bioenergy production. Australia’s bioenergy use is projected to increase by 60 per cent from 2007–08 to 2029–30.

The Bioenergy Roadmap

To ensure that corresponding conversion technology is developed, Australia’s bioenergy industry compiled a Bioenergy Roadmap in 2008, setting out a strategy to increase awareness of the technology, foster growth in the industry, provide advice on national policy, and encourage long term investment in bioenergy projects.

The report sets a target, based on the average Australian household using about 8 MWh of electricity every year, of 11,000 GWh from bioenergy by 2020 – enough energy to power approximately 1.5 million homes. The report also found that bioenergy has the potential to provide 73 TWh of electricity generation per year to 2050.

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