In our drive towards a renewal energy future, wind, solar and dreams of endless battery storage capture our collective attention, yet, take a trip to Beaufort and you can visit a project proving that bioenergy also deserves a place in our hearts and minds.
Late last year, Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance (CVGA) board members took that trip, visiting the innovative bioenergy demonstration project underway at Beaufort Hospital.
Funded by the Victorian Government, the project has seen the hospital move away from expensive LPG gas to bioenergy — the first 12 months of operation saw expenditure on LPG reduced by over $40,000 per year, with overall heating costs reduced by almost $30,000 per year.
Bioenergy has been defined as “a form of renewable energy derived from biomass to generate electricity and heat”. Given it is organic matter, it is available in many forms such as agricultural products, forestry products and municipal and other waste.
In the case of Beaufort Hospital, locally sourced wood off-cuts and shavings are being used to fuel the purpose-designed Austrian boiler that is at the heart of the system.
Pyrenees Shire (one of 13 CVGA member councils) has led the efforts at Beaufort Hospital and their pathfinder is Daryl Scherger, the Shire’s Bioenergy Project Manager.
Without a hint of judgment, Daryl acknowledges many members of the community have little understanding of bioenergy and, if they do, tend to have a fairly basic one.
“Perhaps they picture a sweaty, pot-bellied bloke in a blue singlet, spinning round throwing bits of wood into a furnace? That’s about the limit of it,” he laughs.
“But, it is so much more sophisticated than that – before we talk about the Beaufort Hospital site here I’d like you to consider that if you travel to, say, Sweden, you’re in a country where almost a third of baseload energy is now drawn from bioenergy.”
Daryl explains that the success of the Beaufort project has proved to be the ultimate communication tool in conveying the energy and environmental benefits of bioenergy.
“It’s great to be able to welcome the CVGA board and others here because we can then clearly demonstrate how easy and clean this operation is; there’s certainly no smoke billowing or anything like that at all.”
Daryl, it must be said, is quick to eschew any personal glory in the success of the project.
“This project evolved out of the thinking and efforts of a group of people,” he explains.
“To achieve what we have has taken lots of collective effort and partnerships; each group or individual contributing their bit.
“For example, the CVGA’s advocacy for this project was just one of many pieces in the puzzle in our success.”
In terms of everyday practicalities, while Scandinavian systems are fuelled by purpose-grown forests, Beaufort Hospital’s system uses wood collected at the local sawmill after milling is complete.
“Whether it’s gown for the purpose, or essentially the off-cut fuel we utilise here, you have a circle – it’s a balanced system,” Daryl says.
And, as he explains, the benefits don’t just stop there.
“This fuel is grown and milled locally and transported locally, you then also have your local worker who is ensuring the system is running and in good order – it’s local energy creating local jobs.
“We’re talking renewable energy that lowers costs and enhances local employment, you can see why our Shire has led on this,” he says.
Commenting on where bioenergy fits into a renewable energy-powered future, Daryl provides a broad canvas view.
“I think you can make the general comment that we’ve moved away from the notion of some sort of ‘silver bullet’ for our sustainable energy needs; it’s now all about moving to that strategic and fit-for-purpose mix of sources, options and uses.
“In the specific case of bioenergy, one of its great strengths is it can be in operation any time you require it, whereas solar and wind have particular times of the day and year at which they work optimally,” he explains.
CVGA Executive Officer Melanie Tranter said the tour of the site was inspiring.
“Our member councils all came away from the visit thinking about how we can apply this technology in our own work.
“As Daryl underlined for us, bioenergy crosses many areas of responsibility for council — environment, economy, waste; you can see the potential,” Melanie said.
Asked to cast his mind forward fifteen or twenty years from now, and consider what role bioenergy will be playing in our energy mix, Daryl is clear.
“I’m sure this form of energy will just be another part of our everyday lives, in the same way as we now pass by row after row of homes with solar panels, we don’t think about that as being unusual anymore, that will be how bioenergy is regarded.
“It’s a proven technology, cost effective, good for local employment and renewable – that’s a pretty solid recommendation,” he says.