A German energy expert believes Byron Shire is wasting tens of thousands of dollars by burning off gas generated by rotting rubbish at the Myocum landfill facility rather than harnessing it for power generation.
Dr Bertram Ehmann also believes the north coast sugar mills that have been modified to also co-generate electricity are too inflexible and could produce a lot more power if properly geared to do so.
Sewerage treatment plants (STPs) also should be set up to capture and store gas that could run turbines for power production.
Dr Ehmann was a guest recently of local sustainability champion, Dieter Horstmann, at his Eagle Farm in Tyagarah, also known as Byron Ecopark, before flying back to Germany at the weekend.
The energy consultant spent three years in Australia, mostly heading global energy company Siemens’s activities in the Pacific region, as well as a stint for a year as professor of sustainable energy at the University of Queensland.
‘We need to think laterally about this. Big power stations are still needed today but they are quickly becoming a thing of the past; the future is in the decentralisation of power generation using locally available primary-energy sources (wind, solar, water, biomass etc),’ he said.
‘But there are also other energy sources available locally that are not normally harnessed such as biomass, biochar and biogas, which we should use.’
During his recent visit, Dr Ehmann and Mr Horstmann went on inspection and study tours of the Myocum landfill site, Mullumbimby’s upgraded sewerage treatment plant and the Broadwater sugar mill.
Byron Shire Council last year installed a new gas collection and flaring system at the landfill facility after neighbours complained about the smell.
‘They’re wasting a natural energy and ratepayers are paying for it. If they invested instead in landfill gas extraction and bought a gas turbine to produce electricity, they’d make $120,000 profit, so it’s a win-win,’ Mr Horstmann said.
‘I’m getting a quote from Switzerland for a 200-kilowatt turbine that could do the job,’ he said.
Dr Ehmann agreed, saying the equipment to extract and burn off the gas at the landfill site cost ratepayers thousands of dollars of electricity each year to run as well as the cost of maintenance.
‘So when it comes to this landfill, 200 cubic metres (of rubbish) per hour could generate around $120,000 of electricity per year,’ he said.
The same principle can be applied to local sewerage treatment plants (STPs).
‘The technology is available to generate biogas from waste that could then be used for power generation and co-generation (power plus heat),’ Dr Ehmann said.
Mr Horstmann, a former member of Byron Shire’s water committee, said he helped introduce anaerobic treatment of sewerage at the Mullumbimby STP in 2007–08 ‘which has now taken off in Germany and can reduce sludge by 80 per cent, so instead of using power you can make power with it, and it’s free’.
Dr Ehmann said today STPs consume energy to clean water, which costs a lot to ratepayers, ‘and we need to a better way to do it’.
He said sewage could be put into a digester to produce biogas to generate power and heat using a small turbine ‘and turn that process into an energy-production system rather than an energy-wasting system, which is also environmentally harmful with all those greenhouse gases emanating from the plants’.
He said the north coast sugar mills’ power-generating capacity was limited because there was ‘not enough steam for sugar production and they have to buy fuel because the bagasse is not enough to for the power plant’.
He said the sugar mills should be scaled down as they were ‘over-dimensional’ and ‘inflexible’ for what they produced. The steam to power the turbines should be used more efficiently as it was currently treated as a ‘waste product’.
‘We have to think of new ways and need more research and development to experience this new way,’ Dr Ehmann said.
He says there are ‘lots of opportunities’ but ‘very few of the big power producers are interested,’ while Mr Horstmann adds, ‘local consumers should be interested’.
The longtime Tyagarah local said he wanted to get as many companies involved in sustainable energy and industries to set up at the showpiece Byron Ecopark and village to research and develop integrated energy systems and technologies for sustainable power generation.
As well as power generation, the eco park also encompasses biochar soil improvement, water purification and conservation, organic food production, waste management, eco-friendly human buildings, art and culture re-creation and eco-tourism.
‘No-one I know makes biochar like I do; it’s 90 per cent carbon,’ Mr Horstmann enthused.
‘Macadamia nutshells work well for biochar, and it’s also soil improvement, and if we can use it under a photo-voltaic shadehouse, we can grow all our fruit and vegetables.’
Dr Ehmann said the Ecopark would be ‘a great spot to anchor the study of biomass, biochar and biogas sources and potential’ as ‘we need to think laterally and adapt to local conditions’.
‘When it comes to usage and exploitation of biomass, biochar or biogas, this is a local issue,’ he said.
‘In Germany, there are more jobs in green power than big power stations.’
But he says ‘integration of the power system is a key part’.
‘To get power from a wind farm is easy, but it’s much harder to integrate the volatility of power-generation sources such as wind and solar into this system; we flick a switch and need the power to be there.
Dr Ehmann said several green-energy sources, as well as storage (such as gas or batteries) could be used together to overcome peaks and troughs in the system.
For more on the Byron Ecopark visit www.eaglefarmbyronbay.com.