Turning energy into money is the business many manufacturers are in. They may not look at it in that light – however, turning fuel into product at the best rate of return is essentially what the industry thrives on.
Rising gas prices is impacting the future for many of these processing plants – particularly in the food and beverage sectors – so finding an alternative energy source that can keep both production moving and costs down would be just as momentous as striking oil for the very first time.
For an economy like Australia’s – driven exponentially by the export of its mining and gas commodities – there is an ongoing conflict between the amount of energy the country expels versus its environmental policy, and how that serves the supply chain.
The rise of renewables is seeing more energy sought by cleaner means; including the better-known solar and wind projects and also the lesser-used methods of turning organically occurring wastewater into methane, which scientists have recognised as an area of opportunity.
At CST Wastewater Solutions, director Mike Bambridge is seeking ways to make the process of converting wastewater into energy attractive across more small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Australia, although admits there is some distance to go before energy use of this kind is economically viable on a national scale.
“Most of the technologies are proven and one of the things that we don’t particularly like to do is reinvent the wheel,” Bambridge told PACE.
“The Europeans have had biogas projects for a long time. However, what is often missing is the engineering to apply those processes for industry use in Australia and that is where we come in.”
In simple terms, engineering biogas into the processing plant depends – like any natural resource – on how well energy is packaged to assist productivity.
“It’s about putting something that is always naturally occurring in an environment where it can proliferate and can add engineering solutions for the particular factory you are working,” Bambridge explained.
“For a food factory, for example, the first step is always to look at your housekeeping because wastewater is normally a loss of product through inefficiencies or simple clean-downs of production vessels.
“The first question is whether the factory has the latest technology within its walls, because the truth is this: for the last 30 years, companies have just washed wastewater down the drain. It is often seen as someone else’s problem.”
What companies are coming to realise, according to Bambridge, is that wastewater is not only a loss of product, but also a loss of energy.
On the Ernest & Young’s Renewable Energy Index, Australia is ranked in the top 10 countries in the world for renewable energy investment.
In addition, the Federal Government’s Renewable Energy Target is on track to source 23.5 per cent of Australia’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
According to the Department of Environment and Energy, the Emissions Reduction Fund is a $2.55 billion program “providing a broad range of opportunities to reduce emissions and sequester carbon across the economy”.
As part of the quest to lower emissions, Australian farmers and businesses can earn credits by destroying methane generated by decomposing agricultural manures and other wastes.
“The Australian Government recognises that supporting the development, demonstration and deployment of clean energy technologies is necessary to transition the world’s energy sector to low emissions over the course of the century,” a department spokesperson said.
“The Government is committed to supporting the energy transition while at the same time providing affordable, reliable and secure energy to industry and households.”
Investment in clean energy innovation is also available through projects such as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).
The CEFC uses debt and equity funding to promote investment in clean energy technologies while ARENA provides research-, development- and deployment-grant funding to improve the affordability and supply of renewable energy in Australia.
Together, the two bodies manage the $200 million, government-funded Clean Energy Innovation Fund, to support early-stage and emerging clean energy technologies such as gas engines to generate electricity, or use heat to operate boilers and other combustion devices.
The so-called energy crisis stems largely from inflated prices of electricity and gas versus their availability to the consumer.
Another energy solution manufacturers are using is solar power – which is just as accessible, according to the industry, yet “far less understood”.
That is the view of Andrew Pintar, business development manager at Greenland Systems, who believes processing companies are not making the most of heat-based solutions, such as the role steam and boiling water can play in the plant.
“Advanced solar thermal technologies – such as Greenland Systems’ evacuated tubes (GLX100) – are well suited to industrial processes that require temperatures reaching as high as 200°C,” Pintar said.
“Coupled with thermal energy storage, solar thermal can be considered a viable alternative to replace significant portions of natural gas use in industry.
“The use of a high-temperature capability is the critical aspect.”
While investment is important, Pintar spoke about the role research and development within the company is also playing to improve both sustainability and price competitiveness in the search for a renewable energy solution in Australia’s processing industry.
“Solar power and solar thermal solutions for processing heat are already realities today,” he said. “It is a matter of industry to realise that there are options available to be more environmentally sustainable while significantly reducing their operating costs.
“Over time, it is totally achievable for large parts of industry to reduce their carbon emissions by at least 80 per cent. The only thing that will prevent it is management and political will.”
The government’s Emissions Reduction Fund is an alternative to the short-lived Australian carbon tax, which placed a price on units of carbon dioxide a company would emit and was repealed in July 2014 – only two years after it came into action.
Although the scheme, which was part of the broader Clean Energy Futures Plan, didn’t last very long, Bambridge believes its success was giving those processing companies involved a different perspective.
“Indirectly, we are seeing gas prices going up and anyone who took up new processes during the ‘carbon tax’ period, they are reaping an extra benefit because the value of what they recovered is more valuable due to the price of gas,” he said.
“When the ‘carbon tax’ was implemented, there was certainly an impetus to do something about recovering energy from your wastewater. While Australian business leaders have to be forward-thinking, unfortunately, most companies want pay back within five years, whereas most environmental sustainability projects last five years or more.
“Therefore, you need something else to get it across the line and that’s where the government incentives can help – enabling the company based out in the country more chance to survive on its commercial viability because, in the long term, it will have reduced its energy costs.”
Persuading a country sitting on copious amounts of oil, gas and coal to turn to alternative sources of energy isn’t easy. Bambridge is hopeful that, with new trials and projects to up the ante, more companies will see the benefit of incorporating renewable energy in their factory.
The biggest step is to convince managers that it can be done, which means converting the traditionalist into an innovator.
“At the moment, it is early days but Australia is well suited because a lot of the food factories are out in the country and you can use a mixture of biogas, wind and solar power,” Bambridge continued.
“There is a very bright future for renewable energy [in processing] if we get the policies right. That’s the only thing that is missing – there is not enough direction from the government.
“I would like to see more assistance given to our agricultural sector to get energy projects off the ground – these new processes must happen eventually in time, but whether that is in Australia or not, we will have to find out.”