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Huge Katunga biofuel plant a step closer

THE biofuel plant proposed for Katunga has been confirmed, with a public event held at Katunga Fresh last Friday to make the announcement.

The meeting was attended by around 50 Katunga residents, including business owners, farmers and orchardists. 

As reported in the Leader on March 21, 2018, The AgBioEn project, which will be established on land behind Katunga Fresh, which is the local sponsor of the project, is a bioenergy production project designed to create energy from biomass, including agricultural by-products.

It will take waste products such as seeds, pips, leaf mulch, stalks and even manure, and turn them into liquid gas, fertiliser and bio-jet. 

Raw material from the project will be sourced locally wherever possible, and talks are ongoing with local farmers on buying oil producing crops including canola and sunflower.

Their are also plans to introduce carinata seed, which is a crop specifically developed as  a rotation crop that produces a 20% higher yield than similar crops.

40 hectares of greenhouses are planned for the Numurkah Road site, and 75,000 hectares of cropping land should also be established by 2023 to supply fuel for the project.

The project, which will be the first bioenergy project of its size and scale in Australia, was originally anticipated to create up to 300 long term jobs, however Charles Hunting who is sponsoring the project on behalf of Tsing Capital told the Leader on Friday that the estimate is now over 1,000.

“The scale of the project has grown quite a bit and we now anticipate the creation of 1,000 to 1,500 jobs in the long term,” he said.

AgBioEn was originally hoping to have shovels in the ground by October 2018, and for the plant to be operational by the third quarter of 2019, and Mr Hunting said the delay was due to the project being the first of its kind in the world.

“We’ve had to undertake a lot of research and development for this project because what we will be doing here hasn’t been done before,” he said.

“When you do R&D, some works and some doesn’t, and we’ve gone down a few rabbit holes on this project that have led nowhere and had some critical elements that weren’t up to spec when we scrutinised them through the R&D process.

“The technologies we will be using here have all been used before, but not together in an integrated system, so it has taken some time to perfect that system which is not something you can rush. 

“But we’ve completed that process now and are ready to move forward as soon as we have all of the relevant approvals from Moira Shire and the EPA.”

AgBioEn is now hoping to break ground in the next couple of months with a view to having  its first fuel produced in mid 2020, and be operating at full capacity in two to three years.

AgBioEn Managing Director Peter Holmgren said that the project is designed to have a net carbon negative outcome, meaning it will absorb more CO² than it produces, and will make Australia the first country capable of producing liquefied food grade CO².

“In three to seven years time this project has the potential to make Australia a net exporter of CO2 instead of an importer,” he said.

“AgBioEn at Katunga will set the high watermark for renewable energy projects globally.”

The project team said that the project is not just about making Katunga a player in the global biofuel market, but is also about ensuring fuel supply nationally and locally. 

In addition to being able to supply power for local businesses, including biodiesel for transport and agricultural companies, AgBioEn anticipates producing energy to feed into the power grid. 

Former politician Lindsay Tanner, who is a special consultant to the project, told Friday’s gathering that AgBioEn could potentially prove critical to Australia’s energy future.

“Australia has just 20 days worth of fuel reserves, so being able to produce our own fuel at sites like this offers us a lot of security in the future if our outside supplies get cut off.” 

Some at the meeting expressed concerns about the demands the plant would put on local water supplies, which Tsing Capital partner Lubey Lozevski sought to allay.

“We’ve created a closed system in which water will be captured and re-used and it has been designed for water usage to be minimal - less than 10ML per year,” he said. 

The site has also been re-designed to ensure minimal disruption is caused by heavy traffic entering and leaving.

One local at the meeting, Fred Russo, expressed concern that due to Katunga township’s limited capacity to accommodate new residents, and limited capacity for growth, the benefits to the town may be less significant than the plant’s presence would suggest.

“It would be great if the town could grow by another 100 houses, but we don’t have the zoning or the infrastructure. We don’t even have sewage,” he said.

“All of these workers will be living somewhere else when what we really need is to make room for them here so we can see the town grow. If you don’t grow you go backwards so we really need to make this project work for us.”