It’s time to get serious about bioenergy, says an Australian company looking to rollout energy and resource recovery as a service.

There is no waste in nature but it’s human nature to produce a heck of a lot of waste. The industrial processes we rely on to fill our supermarkets and stomachs are vast sources of organic material that could be used to produce energy, if only business owners saw the value in it. Food and drink companies have other things on their minds, however, so all that latent energy mostly goes nowhere.

As companies get serious about targeting net-zero emissions, Australian company Utilitas has set out to offer energy and resource recovery as a service, where clients in the food and beverage sectors are looking for sustainable waste and wastewater management. “They don’t want to spend their capex to do that because they’re already busy scaling their own production to meet demand for their products,” says Utilitas CEO Fiona Waterhouse.

Fiona Waterhouse says hundreds of sites around the country suit the criteria for Utilitas’s bioHub model.

Make it pay

Waterhouse is used to clients setting hard targets for creating value out of rubbish. Other than an unwillingness to invest capital in new infrastructure, the waste-producing businesses would also like to see no change in operational costs, or perhaps spend less. “They want to report on their progress towards becoming net-zero,” Waterhouse says.

The ambition at Utilitas is to deliver 100 “bioHub’s” around the country, being anaerobic digestors that take organic waste from tenants of industrial zones and nearby sources and turn that into electricity, gas or transport fuel, or all three, including hydrogen. “We’ve scoped 350 sites [around the country] and prioritised what we think are the top 100 sites,” she says.

The equipment is built, owned and operated by Utilitas using off-the-shelf solutions. “We do the site development, process design, manage the equipment procurement and installation, guarantee the process and do the commissioning,” she says, making it sound easy. “People have viewed it as being very complex but that’s because there have been too many people involved in putting one together.”

Where to start

The company redevelops stressed and redundant infrastructure with anaerobic digestion to produce renewable natural gas, biomethane and hydrogen. “We call biogas the invisible renewable,” Waterhouse says. “It’s a renewable energy and it’s fantastic but it may as well not exist in Australia because it’s very, very overlooked and undervalued.”

Utilitas’s partnership with US-based company ReCarbon allows for the possibility of hydrogen production, where microwave plasma is used to dissociate carbon dioxide and methane into syngas and hydrogen, among other things. Waterhouse says hydrogen produced using ReCarbon’s technology is cheaper than using electrolysis.

Utilitas and ReCarbon are working together on producing hydrogen at Utilitas’s Bundaberg plant, looking to produce 200kg a day and then working towards one tonne a day.

The digestate that is left over once all fuels have been produced is largely used in land rehabilitation.

The company is working on a concept for a site in Dandenong, Victoria.

What goes in

Feedstocks in bioenergy are widely varied. Utilitas first of all needs to trial the raw materials produced at a site to have an idea of what it can expect can be produced at the other end. “The science of the waste determines the engineering,” says Waterhouse, a former director of strategic policy for the Queensland Environmental Protection Agency.

Predicting whether a region will qualify for its own bioHub comes down to looking at industrial and population growth in an area, grid constraints, gas and transport fuel constraints and the presence or emergence of food and beverage makers. The company owns a site in Bundaberg, Queensland, is developing a site in the Hunter Valley, in NSW (where it is securing land and offtake arrangements), and a site in Dandenong, Victoria. Its two-year plan is to have at least one plant operational, five under construction and 15 sites optioned.

If they can do it, so can we

The flagship bioHub is a 3.8-hectare industrial site which is repurposing the retired Bundaberg East Wastewater Treatment Plant into Australia’s first master planned bio-utilities precinct, using Schneider Electric’s Ecostruxure technology to support remote operations and predictive maintenance.

So far, the company’s portfolio of utility-grade projects includes 200kW installed capacity and 5MW of projects designed. Waterhouse won’t commit to a deadline for building 100 bioHubs but instead points to Germany as a way of showing the potential for bioenergy here.

In 1989, when Australia’s first non-sewage treatment biogas plant was installed at a piggery in Ballarat, Germany was host to about 100 operational biogas plants. By 2015, when a second biogas plant was connected to the grid at another Australian piggery, Germany had about 8,500 similar plants humming along. Today, about 12,500 biogas plants about 300kW each are connected in Germany.

“And France is connecting a new renewable gas project to its natural gas grid every week,” she says. If they can do it, so can we. “There is at least a thousand-plant potential in Australia, without any question.”

Gas network

Waterhouse says it would take about 1,250 biogas plants to replace about 10% of gas in the network. It’s a goal we can reach, she says, but it won’t be a walk in the park. Bioenergy plants need a steady diet of tonnes of waste to keep turning out contracted power. “You need to back-to-back the risks of your energy contract with feedstock contracts – and the waste industry doesn’t typically contract industrial waste,” she says. “That’s the biggest challenge and it’s something we’ve been working on for a long, long time, to be able to de-risk the feedstock.”

The economics of waste-to-energy relies on state waste levies and council landfill gate fees. Projects that may be identical in every sense might have wildly divergent feasibility prospects depending on where they are located around the country.

The simple savings in transport costs – where 180 tonnes of organic waste a day makes up roughly 20 truckloads – are easier to calculate. “Every day waste gets hauled all over this country,” she says. “If we can put 100 bioHubs in 100 regional communities we are localising that function so the transport logistics will be reduced in time.”