As oil reserves become depleted and less accessible, alternative resources of energy are being investigated. Thinking about possible alternative energy options is an important issue for New Zealand in order to be less vulnerable (at risk) from future fuel shortages.
One such alternative that is being researched is the use of biomass, to provide the energy needed to run some of our daily activities, such as household heating, transportation and so on.
Energy that is being made available through the use of biological matter is also referred to as bioenergy. The most common form of bioenergy used in New Zealand is burning wood, whether small scale (home heating), medium scale (school boilers) or large scale (pulp mill steam boilers). Bioenergy that has been both produced and used locally has the potential to cut down carbon emissions.
A scientist involved in this work was Peter Hall, who works for the Crown Research Institute Scion. Peter was involved in a project that looks at bioenergy options for New Zealand. Other Crown Research Institutes such as the National Institute of Weather and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), Landcare (an environmental research organisation) and CRL (an energy and environmental consulting company) were also involved in the project. This project was completed in 2009.
A main feature of the project was to look at biomass wastes from a variety of sources, such as wastes from agriculture and forestry, as well as municipal waste products (waste from towns, like household rubbish) and industrial wastes. In this project, the scientists investigate the possibility of efficiently converting the biomass to bioenergy.
This means the scientists have to evaluate how cost efficient and energy efficient the conversion of those resources into energy is. The effectiveness of a power plant that converts the biomass to energy needs to be analysed – for example, cost factors in building and running the plant versus the energy produced, levels of pollutants produced by the plant and the cost of transportation are some of the factors that have to be considered.
From this work, Scion produced a report that makes recommendations about types of biomass that could be utilised in the future. The work that they are doing will provide information to engineers who will be able to develop technologies for possible energy generating alternatives for when oil and coal are less abundant and more expensive than today.
The report also identifies information and technology gaps in bioenergy research and development strategies.
The next stage of Peter’s research project will be looking at a life cycle analysis. Such an analysis involves considering an entire production system. For example, if a forest is used for biomass, this evaluation will consider how much energy is necessary to grow the forest in the first place.
From that, the scientists calculate how much energy had to be consumed initially to produce the bioenergy, along with consumption of other resources, and production or reduction of greenhouse gases.
Peter’s work at Scion is concerned with new uses for biomass resources that consider sustainability and smart uses for future generations.
The full reports from the Bioenergy Options for New Zealand project can be seen here on the NIWA website.
More information about Scion's research.
Information about bioenergy on the Bioenergy Association website.
EECA (Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority) focuses on energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources.