IEA Bioenergy newsletter features New Zealand biofuel prospects

By Katie Fletcher | September 03, 2015

IEA Bioenergy Task 39, a group of international experts working to commercialize sustainable transportation biofuels, recently released its latest newsletter, featuring an update on opportunities for biofuels in New Zealand.

Newsletter Issue No. 40 distributed by Task 39 includes a feature article on New Zealand authored by Ian Suckling, Task 39 New Zealand member, and various other contributors.

A geographically-isolated country covering a land area of 269,190 square kilometers (103,934 square miles), New Zealand has a comparatively small population of 4.47 million. According to the report, consumer energy demand in New Zealand last year was 573 peta joule, largely from oil, 44 percent, and electricity, 25 percent. There are also significant exports of unrefined crude oil, or 30 percent of total oil consumption, as these sweet crudes are not processed at New Zealand’s only oil refinery. The article reports per-capita use of transportation fuels is relatively high due to the country’s low population density and the nature of the economy.

In 2014, 80 percent of New Zealand’s electricity was generated from renewable resources. The main contributor was hydropower at 57 percent, followed by geothermal at 16 percent and wind with 5 percent. According to the report, New Zealand is on track to meet the country’s target of 90 percent renewable electricity by 2025. The report reads, “Bioenergy, mainly as woody biomass, is used primarily in the wood processing sector as a source of process heat, but a portion is also burnt to heat private homes.”

The article in the newsletter discussed the country’s bioenergy feedstock options. “Wood from plantation forests is the largest biomass resource in New Zealand and also the one with the most potential to expand to allow large-scale biofuels production,” the report said.  Existing biomass resources can only provide 6 percent of the country’s total transportation fuel demand, and purpose-grown feedstock would be required for high levels of biofuels implementation.

According to findings displayed in the report, New Zealand has the potential to supply all of its transportation fuel demand by 2030 from forests grown on lower productivity land. The country has 9.2 million hectares (22.7 million acres) of hill country that is either marginal land or low-to-moderate productivity hill country grazing. Converting 30 percent of this land to forests would be sufficient to meet demand, while still retaining land for food production, according to the report. One last feedstock option is the country’s well-established plantation forest estate and wood processing industry—totaling approximately 1.73 million hectares, composed largely of radiate pine and Douglas fir.

New Zealand has established a bioenergy strategy to supply 25 percent of the country’s energy needs using bioenergy sources by 2040, including 30 percent transportation fuels. Plantation forests are considered the main feedstock to meet goals in New Zealand’s bioenergy strategy, but biofuels from agricultural-sourced materials, algae and municipal and industrial process residues will also be important.

Government support of biofuel implementation is limited, with neither a mandate nor any target for biofuel use in place. The report said fuel ethanol is exempt from excise duty, providing some incentive for its use as a transportation fuel. Government support may change in the future, partly due to greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. Forty-eight percent of the country’s GHG emission are attributed to the agricultural sector and 39 percent to the energy sector.

An estimated 4.2 million liters (1.1 million gallons) of conventional biofuel were produced in New Zealand in 2014, mainly as ethanol from whey and biodiesel from tallow and used cooking oils. Total biofuel consumption was 5.7 million liters last year, including another 1.5 million liters of bioethanol imports. Biofuel remains less than 0.1 percent of total transportation energy, a reflection of the low level of government incentives, the report stated.

The report also highlighted the option to use algal biomass for use as a biofuel feedstock. The idea would be to grow and harvest algae produced as part of the operation of wastewater treatment (WWTP) pond systems. The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research is currently operating a demonstration-scale pond system containing two full-scale 1 hectare high-rate algal ponds. “This system will enable actual measurement of the hydrodynamics of hectare-scale ponds, demonstrate the performance improvements with CO2 addition and provide large quantities of algal biomass for further algal biofuels research, currently being conducted in collaboration with the University of Auckland,” the report states.

The article in IEA Bioenergy’s recent newsletter ended listing some commercial developments underway in New Zealand. LanzaTech, founded in New Zealand and now based in Chicago, has developed a gaseous feedstock-based fermentation process, taking carbon-rich waste gases from sources like steel mill chimneys and converting them into ethanol or green chemicals. The company is currently working on two pre-commercial-scale demonstration plants in China with capacities of 100,000 gallons per year of ethanol. They’re looking at their first commercial-scale plant in China.

Alternative Energy Solutions operates a demonstration pyrolysis plant that turns wood waste into bio-oil and biochar. The company hopes to build small bio-oil plants near where wood waste is produced to cut transposition costs and provide distributed power for rural and provincial communities. A third company mentioned in the article is CarbonScape, a company that uses microwave heating of waste biomass to produce activated carbon products suitable for adsorbent applications or steel making. Solvent Rescue Ltd. develops processes for producing crude oils via hydrothermal liquefaction with a variety of biomass sources like fresh water algae and wood.

The full newsletter can be downloaded on task39.org.