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Harnessing the energy in wood may help wean Australia off fossil fuels. Flickr/chriscardinal

Bioenergy a burning question for Tasmania’s forests

With Australia trying to meet renewable energy targets and reduce emissions wherever possible, we should be considering bioenergy.

Bioenergy can be made by burning biomass in a variety of forms, including agricultural by-products such as rice husks, poppy seeds, sugarcane waste and manure. It can also be made from forestry by-products such as sawmill and wood wastes.

Tasmania is a prime candidate for such developments. Visiting international researcher Professor Andreas Rothe of the University of Applied Sciences, Weihenstephan, has recently released findings of a six-month study he conducted for Forestry Tasmania. He suggests that energy produced from wood “could lift Tasmania’s bioenergy contribution beyond 30%”.

There seem to good reasons for Australia to transition towards greater use of bioenergy. It is a renewable and relatively secure energy source that can reduce CO2 emissions by replacing fossil fuels.

It seems a relatively straightforward proposal, especially given Prof Rothe’s experience in Europe. People of forested parts of Europe - such as Prof Rothe’s home state of Bavaria in Germany, and Scandinavia - have longstanding cultural practises and economies based on forest resources, with considerable uptake of bioenergy produced from wood.

But people in Australia have a different relationship with forests. Unlike much of Europe, Australia has forests with little or no history of industrial resource extraction. Australian people have different values and perceptions about how those resources should be used.

These differences are reflected in bitter conflicts over native forests in most of the states, not least in Tasmania. Recent efforts to forge peace in the Tasmanian forests signal progress. Professor Rothe takes some of these issues into consideration, and excludes the use of old-growth forest from his research.

Tasmania’s bioenergy aspirations aren’t new. In 2002 Forestry Tasmania planned for a 30 megawatt bioenergy plant at a site south of Hobart, meant to burn wood residue and provide electricity to run the site and a surplus to the grid. It now includes a modern regrowth sawmill, log yard and rotary peel veneer mill.

But the power plant has never been built. The proposal was submitted to the State’s planning authority but it failed to attract investment.

This financial hesitation reflects uncertainties around the benefits of bioenergy. Can bioenergy substitute fossil fuels? Should we put new pressure on resources such as forests, clean air and water, which are already critically scarce (and key to other services including biodiversity conservation and food production)?

Early on environmentalists and some industry sectors supported bioenergy in North America and Europe - backed by significant subsidies. But recently this support has started to unravel as mainstream economists question the logic of the subsidies, investors move away, courts intervene, and environmental organisations question the cost of the growth in biomass demand.

Even before these doubts were raised in the Northern Hemisphere, there was a wariness in Australia about claims to make use of “waste” or “residue” wood in biomass.

The experience of the rise of the wood-chip industry, initially slated as an industry sideline for waste logs, into a driver of native forest logging, is still fresh in the memories of many Australians.

Tasmania is a prime candidate for any developments in bioenergy. Local and rural communities across the state are undergoing major changes. Bioenergy could be part of innovations as the forestry industry is restructured.

But a lot more work will be required if the use of bioenergy from wood is to have any chance of going ahead with widespread community support, especially if native forests are involved. This issue, towards which the Tasmanian Forest Agreement is perhaps making some fragile first steps, concerns the need to forge a broader social consensus on how native forests are used and valued.

It might be some time before Australia is ready for bioenergy. By then, ironically enough, Europe and North America might be winding back from their initial enthusiasm.

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