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Western Power's Integrated Wood Processing Demonstration Plant: Combining renewable energy generation with salinity abatement

Western Australia's wheatbelt town of Narrogin is home of an innovative project (The Integrated Wood Processing (IWP) Demonstration Plant) which addresses global warming and farmland salinity - two of Australia's most pressing environmental concerns. Western Power is building the IWP plant to generate renewable electricity and produce activated carbon and eucalyptus oil from locally planted mallees. Producing three products at the one plant will ensure the commercial viability of the operation. The demonstration plant will generate enough renewable energy for 1,000 homes and provide farmers with a stable cash crop.

Background

Western Power has a proud history of pioneering the development of renewable energy systems. Australia's first commercial wind farm was constructed at Esperance in 1993, followed by the first large grid connected solar photovoltaic facility at Kalbarri in 1995 and Australia's largest wind farm at Albany in 2001. The Denham Wind farm is an example of the innovative application of renewable energy technology, with the state of art wind-diesel system, a world first.

In WA, where extensive areas of agricultural land are affected by salinity, the Department of Conservation and Land Management and the Oil Mallee Company have supported farmers to plant mallee trees in rows across the farms. The mallee trees are very well adapted to the low rainfall and infertile environment in which they grow and their deep roots are soaking up the ground water, which helps to prevent the rising of the saline watertable. They store food and energy in their underground lignotuber, which allows regrowth when the above-ground branches are removed. The re-sprouting ability of the mallees will be exploited to harvest branches every second year indefinitely without replanting.

Young mallees integrated with cereal crops

Young mallees integrated with cereal crops

Four-year-old mallees

Four-year-old mallees

The Integrated Wood Processing (IWP) project seeks to provide an economic incentive for mallee-tree planting on farms, while addressing another major environmental concern, global warming.

The Process

While the mallees produce a very good fuel for combustion and electricity production, with the cost of harvesting, transport and return to farmers, electricity generation alone would be far too expensive to be considered commercially viable. Similarly, while the mallees produce the best quality eucalyptus oil in the world, the scale of planting requires penetration into the very large solvent market and the returns would be marginal.

The Narrogin IWP demonstration plant under construction

The Narrogin IWP demonstration plant under construction

The concept of integrating production of multiple products from a single harvesting operation was developed by Enecon Pty Ltd. Enecon subsequently introduced the concept to Western Power and the Oil Mallee Company. Because there were insufficient trees available for a full-scale plant and the technology was not yet proven at an industrial scale, it was necessary to build a smaller demonstration-scale plant to initiate and facilitate the development of the new industry.

Cleaner Production Initiative


Industrial ecology

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The primary goal of industrial ecology is to promote sustainable development at the global, regional, and local levels. Key principles inherent to sustainable development include: the sustainable use of resources, preserving ecological and human health and the promotion of environmental equity. More information about Industrial ecology.

Western Power is building an IWP demonstration plant at Narrogin that will generate renewable electricity and produce activated carbon and eucalyptus oil from locally planted mallees. The 1MW demonstration plant will generate renewable energy for 1,000 homes.

The plant uses modern fluidised bed technology developed by CSIRO, which partially burns wood producing charcoal. Steam activation technology then converts the charcoal to activated carbon. Eucalyptus oil is distilled from the leaves and the spent leaves will then be gasified to produce fuel to the boiler. Activated carbon is used in air and liquid purification, while eucalyptus oil has many applications in the pharmaceutical industry and is currently being imported into Australia.

The process is shown below:

Modern fluidised bed technology developed by CSIRO

Benefits

The electricity produced will be carbon dioxide (CO2) neutral. As the trees are specifically planted for the project the CO2 is first fixed from the atmosphere as carbon, before being later released during the power generation. The greenhouse savings are summarised in the following table:

Greenhouse Gas Abatement
Renewable Energy Generation 7 300 tonnes/annum
Rootmass Fixation 4 300 tonnes/annum
Standing Biomass Fixation 54 000 tonnes

Another major benefit of the project will be the control of salinity. Mallees are native of the dry agricultural areas that are suffering from the salinity problem. They are very deep rooted and salt tolerant creating a massive permanent carbon sink while providing annual yields of fuel for the power generation plant. The need for extensive plantings of mallees presents a crop that can provide farmers with a stable means of living.

If the project expands to a big enough scale, the cost of production of eucalyptus oil could become very competitive and replace petro-chemical solvents for a variety of applications. Eucalyptus oil has no harmful effects and is biodegradable.

Incentives

Western Power participates in the development of abatement initiatives for the Australian energy sector under the National Greenhouse Strategy and remains committed to the Greenhouse Challenge.

In December 2000 the Federal Government passed the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act. The Act establishes a scheme to encourage additional electricity generation from renewable energy sources. It sets a Mandated Renewable Energy Target (MRET) for new renewable energy in Australia, rising each year from 3000 GWh in 2001 to 9500 GWh in 2010, and then maintained at that level until 2020. Western Power has met the 2001 requirements.

Barriers

The goal of the project is to prove the technological and economic viability of the integrated process. While most of the equipment has been tested at bench or pilot scale, the integration of the technologies is one of the key challenges. The production of products at competitive prices, and the willingness of farmers to participate are also key factors. Coupled with this is the delivery price of the biomass, which is linked to the harvesting/transport system currently under development.

Further developments

The demonstration plant in Narrogin will aim to prove the viability of the technology, the harvest and delivery systems and the potential markets for the products. If successful there is a potential for many integrated wood processing plants throughout the wheatbelt of Western Australia.

Acknowledgments

A grant for $1 million was received from the Australian Greenhouse Office through the Renewable Energy Commercialisation Program. A further $760,000 grant was obtained from AusIndustry - Department of Industry, Science and Resources, as part of a program to demonstrate new innovative projects in Australian industry.

Western Power acknowledges the continued work of the following organisations in the development of the project: the Oil Mallee Company of Australia, the Department of Conservation and Land Management, Enecon Pty Ltd, and CSIRO.

Contacts

Adrian Chegwidden,
Manager Sustainable Energy,
Western Power

Ph: (08) 9326 4902,
Email: adrian.chegwidden@westernpower.com.au
Web: www.westernpower.com.au

Date of implementation: Up to 2002 and ongoing.
Case study prepared: March - May 2003 by the Centre of Excellence in Cleaner Production, Curtin University of Technology
Date last modified: June 2003