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Pig poo power praised but more needed

The first thing that hits arriving visitors to Corowa’s Rivalea piggery is the smell.

But it’s a stench being put to good use thanks to a mini power plant at the JBS-owned property helping transform waste into energy.

During a tour of the operation near the NSW Victorian border, AAP was shown how the system converts the pigs’ methane into electricity which then powers the farm.

Australian bioenergy experts say there should be more of them.

Michael Crook sits on the Bioenergy Council of Australia and worked with the piggery to develop the plant.

A manager at Evo Energy Technology, he says until four years ago the methane was being burnt onsite through a flare before a cogeneration engine was built to turn it into electricity.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas with the potential over a hundred years to become at least 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“The engine was installed, which is 550 kilowatt engine, which was producing about one quarter of the site’s electricity needs at that time,” Mr Crook tells AAP.

Since then a further two engines have been installed, which now power most of the farm including the abattoir.

“Typically, they’re producing three quarters of the entire site load from the pig manure,” Mr Crook says.

That means power bill reductions of up to half a million dollars a year, while some large operators using similar technology are saving up to a million dollars a month.

The Corowa piggery is no small concern. There are around 170,000 animals, each producing about the same amount of waste as a 70 kg person.

They live in modules, which means the poo gathers in one spot. It’s then gravity fed into covered pits, before being saturated, dried, heated and converted.

“The concept of waste is a human construct … nature doesn’t waste,” says Melbourne University’s Richard Eckard, a leading carbon farming expert.

“The idea that it’s a waste management system, that comes out of a feedlot or a piggery or a dairy … nature sees it as an opportunity and we’ve got to see it as an opportunity.”

Prof Eckard says around half Australia’s piggeries use conversion technology but it needs to be expanded to smaller operations as well as other industries like dairy for the country to fulfil its energy needs.

“The average dairy farm that might have 400 cows, to spend a million dollars on a unit like this isn’t cost effective for them at this stage,” he says.

“Laying out a million dollars to deal with an effluent management system is just out of the reach of most family dairy farms for example.”

At Corowa the operators also turn a profit from carbon credits, achieved thanks to the technology capturing the methane.

As well, the piggery uses left over whey from a nearby dairy to feed some of its pigs, saving more money in the process.

But Australia lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to bioenergy.

The national renewables in agriculture conference was told in August the nation’s bioenergy sector was 20 years behind Europe, where whole towns are powered by biofuel.

But some critics say it’s too costly.

Former CSIRO research director Glenn Platt told the conference bioenergy doesn’t make as much sense locally as it does elsewhere.

“Australia is not Europe, they have a very different energy challenge to us,” said Mr Platt, who played a significant role in pioneering energy projects across Australia.

“As a source of electricity generation, it is too expensive and it will not compete. As a source of dealing with waste or perhaps mitigating carbon emissions it may be very useful.”

But Mr Crook points to the Corowa operation as a contradiction to that message.

“If the cost is so exorbitant, how can we get a payback in less than two years and be carbon neutral at the same time,” he says.

“These technologies have been used to support the grid throughout Europe and globally for over 30 years.”

Prof Eckard agrees. He sees bioenergy as a largely missed opportunity.

“If we could scale the technology, I think you’d get a rapid adoption … from family farmed areas across the country,” he says.

“To wean us off of fossil fuels, we need every possible technology to come into the system … we need multiple technologies and this is just another one.”

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