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Growing green power on the farm: green energy projects can be excellent job generators in rural Australia, and help farmers reverse the decline of our natural heritage. But to make it happen, a jump-start is needed from governments.

BIOMASS ENERGY or 'bioenergy' is a mixed bag: everything from sugar cane waste, to diesel pressed from canola, to burning native forestry residues for power. So what makes the grade for sustainable bioenergy?

With the Myer Foundation's help, and together with the Dim Venture Agroforestry Program (JVAP), ACF recently hired consultants URS Australia to figure out what can be done to ensure bioenergy is good for the land, good for the climate and good for local economies. The new report, Fuelling Landscape Repair, concludes that farming native mallee eucalypts in southern Australia's wheat-sheep belt is the most attractive option--financially and environmentally.

Mallee farming can be cost-competitive alongside wheat and sheep, and the cost of electricity from mallee biomass is on par with conventional power options when the trees' capacity for storing (or 'sequestering') carbon is mixed into the equation. Continuously grown and re-grown, the trees soak up as much carbon as is emitted in their processing for electricity and other products, like activated charcoal and eucalyptus oil. Hence, tree-cropping can help to put the brakes on climate change and makes a good green power option.

Unlike tall timber plantations, mallees are adapted to low-rainfall areas and can be harvested every three or four years. When grown in the right spots and on the right scale, mallees keep the watertable in check, making the difference between a salty future and the survival of our precious wetlands, creeks and wildlife.

To date, around 900 properties east of Perth have put in mallee crops, and --with state and federal assistance--a pilot processing facility is near completion in the regional centre of Narrogin. These sorts of compact facilities can boost rural communities' self-reliance and raise their" confidence in the future, attracting new people to the region, and reducing the risks and costs of relying on a centralised power supply.

Each tree-processing facility generates enough power for around 1000 homes, permanently employs scores of people, and offers farmers another income--not to mention that putting the brakes on salinity and climate change today saves us all the cost of environmental repair down the track.

Governments have thrown in some cash to help out, so what's holding the fledgling industry up? For starters, it isn't easy for a new venture to hit the ground running on an uneven playing field: Government subsidies to coal, gas and oil make it hard for 'renewables' to compete. Research dollars are needed to clear the path of technical hurdles, and energy planning needs to be tied into catchment management to capture the full environmental benefits from bioenergy.

Until Australia ratifies the Kyoto Protocol, the mallee industry can't plug into emerging global carbon markets or mechanisms that would enable new Australian-made technologies to be exported overseas. Moreover, the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (or MRET) is too low (at a nominal 2%) to really give sustainable bioenergy a boost.

The moral of this tale is clear: Rural communities can reap the rewards of environmental innovation, but governments need to bring it all together to really repair our country and give Australians a future on the land.

Fuelling Landscape Repair can be found on ACF's website at

www.acfonline.org.au

Other websites of interest:

Joint Venture Agroforestry Program

www.rirdc.gov.au/programs/aft.html

CRC for Plant-Based Management of Dryland Salinity

www.crcsalinity.com

Oil Mallee Information Page

www.oilmallee.com.au

Corey Watts is ACF's Sustainable Rural Landscapes Campaigner.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Australian Conservation Foundation
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Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Watts, Corey
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Aug 1, 2004
Words:568
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