Socio-Economics of On-Farm Renewable Energy
Left: Amy and Tor presenting at the Inaugural Hub Workshop at
University House ANU, May 2008.
This project assesses the economic, environmental and social feasibility of utilizing on-farm wastes to produce biofuels (biodiesel and ethanol). Our idea is based on a small-scale, regional model whereby a group of farmers pool resources (farm wastes) which are converted to biofuels at a small-scale, locally-situated plant. The fuel is then sold to the farmers, or others if that is determined in the business plan.
The latter part of 2007 was spent visiting the key biofuel producers along the Australian east coast. In 2008 we have been in search of waste. This has taken us to a variety of farming districts.
In order to be economically and environmentally viable, the waste stream must be relatively large, come from growers in a concentrated geographical area, be based on crops that are not prone to huge swings in seasonal variation, with minimal costs associated with the collection and treatment of the waste. While the task of finding such a waste stream initially seemed impossible, meetings with a number of industry bodies allowed us to sort through the various agricultural industries and narrow the search down to a few promising candidates.
We have excluded tallow from our most recent investigations as there are already plants operating in Australia, a large one in regional Victoria and a much smaller one outside of Brisbane. A number of other plants are in mothballs due to the dramatic increase in tallow prices over the past 18 months. We have also excluded poppy waste as a Tasmanian farmer has constructed his own processing plant.
Our investigations led us to north Queensland to explore the potential waste streams from fruit and vegetable farms. The high rainfall, well-established industries, and high concentration of growers in this area makes it an ideal location for a regional-scale plant. Consultations with farmers, DPI officers and industry bodies helped us to identify the potato, mango and banana industries as having substantial waste streams. The other products we investigated include peanuts, avocados, pawpaws, various exotic fruits (eg. lychees), straw plus animal products.
Extensive questionnaire-based surveys have been designed and distributed to farmers from Tully, to the Atherton tablelands, with more to be sent over the coming months. Once data are collected, they will be analysed to gain an accurate picture of the waste generated from the production of these crops, as well as current disposal costs. This will be important information in the cost-benefit analysis.
The team has also been investigating small-scale conversion technologies suitable for on-farm biofuel production. We have met with manufacturers to assess the practicalities of their products, and to establish the costs and benefits associated. Our initial findings have been promising, with further research to be carried out in the New Year.
The coming year (2009) will be another busy year, with data collection and analysis dominating our work for the next few months. A major focus of our initial investigations has been establishing good working relationships with the farmers, industry bodies and DPI research stations so as to gain their support. We shall continue to work closely with these groups in developing a business model (and undertake a cost-benefit analysis) that is well suited to and supported by the major stakeholders.
The above research has been done by Prof. Tor Hundloe and Amy White. Jonathon Evers has continued to build a theoretical model by which to close the loop in ethanol production, particularly with regard to "first generation" feedstocks such as corn. There is much controversy, claims and counter-claims with regard to corn-based ethanol and only through a thorough life-cycle approach - and closing the loop - will an accurate picture develop. As Jonathon's project is for a doctoral dissertation, we expect steady but slow progress.