New Zealand is renowned worldwide for its natural beauty. So as the global focus on decarbonisation intensifies, it’s only fitting that we turn to our local environment for a solution.
With biomass now contributing around 7% of the country’s energy*, unearthing innovative, sustainable solutions through our wood and fibre industry – while retaining focus on preserving and enhancing the nation’s native forests - has never been more vital.
There has been increasing interest in black wood pellets as an alternative fuel source, particularly for process heat, given its ability to replace coal as a like-for-like input in existing boilers. Wood Beca has led several black wood pellet studies in the past year, most notably the Fonterra-Genesis Study.
Wood Beca’s Sachin Ekbote and Mike Pharo connected with Europe’s leaders in the bioenergy field to discover what New Zealand could learn from some of the world’s most sustainable countries. They also attended the world’s leading trade fair for wood processing, held in Hannover, Germany at one of the largest exhibition centres on the globe.
"The LIGNA conference was a powerful and unique opportunity to see innovative energy-fromwood technology developments, as well as the application and experiences of hundreds of organisations, product certifiers and governing bodies under one incredibly big roof" said Wood Beca Wood & Fibre Segment Leader Sachin.
In addition to the eye-opening exhibition which covered everything from log processing and cross laminated timber (CLT) breakthroughs to biomass production and application, the Wood Beca representatives completed several site visits to see first-hand the production and use of biomass at an industrial scale.
"New Zealand is a small country, so being a ‘fast follower’ and learning from the countries - and organisations - who lead the pack, is really important for us to make the most of what we do best," said Wood Beca Process Engineer Mike. "Seeing black wood pellet manufacturing processes first hand and being able to talk to the world’s leading experts in the field gave us a thorough understanding of the advantages and limitations of black wood pellets, and where this technology makes the most sense in the New Zealand context."
How black wood pellets could spearhead New Zealand’s carbon neutral transition.
Black wood pellets have some unique properties compared with white wood pellets which make them a compelling alternative to coal. While white wood pellets have several advantages over raw biomass, black wood pellets go a step further by either torrefying or steam-treating the wood to produce a fuel which more closely mimics coal. Black wood pellets can accelerate the transition to a decarbonised future by minimising up-front capital costs for boiler modification or replacement.
Additionally, depending on the way black pellets are made, they can be sufficiently durable and water resistant to be stored outside uncovered for long periods of time before being used. This property is particularly useful in the context of New Zealand’s hydro-dominant electricity system, as it may allow black wood pellets to be used for long-duration energy storage at a fraction of the cost of alternative solutions – see NZ Battery Project.
From roots to treetops: the evolution of the wood industry
The wood processing industry is changing, with a sustainable focus on utilising the whole tree - not unlike the 'nose-to-tail' movement of the restaurant industry in recent years. With more and more large-scale wood processing opportunities being employed to support low carbon practices – for example engineered wood products replacing concrete and steel in the construction sector – there will be more wood processing residues (e.g. sawdust, shavings etc.) to put to good use.
In addition to these primary processing residues, innovation in harvesting methods, forest management, and better collection and removal of slash are also expected to increase the supply of wood for the bioenergy industry. New Zealand is at a critical juncture to invest in the systems, technologies, and processes necessary to capitalise on this opportunity.
Given black wood pellets have not yet infiltrated the New Zealand market despite the myriad of advantages of the biofuel, and the strength of our sustainable domestic forestry industry, Wood Beca’s Sachin and Mike garnered three key learnings from their recent European visit they believe will help guide the industry as it transitions to more low-carbon solutions:
- Automation: One of the main take-outs from the Ligna trade show was the spotlight on cutting-edge technology and automation. The biggest operating cost for a black wood pellet plant is the cost of wood, but the second is labour. We need to be always on the lookout for opportunities to reduce production cost via automation and stay up to date with latest technology from abroad.
- Investment: In Europe there has been considerable investment in legislative changes and co-investment, which leads to advances in research and development (R&D), as well as uptake from a commercial perspective. With the capital restraint of New Zealand’s economy, two key impacts will be supported investment in clean fuel sources (and innovation) and incentivisation to divert fossil fuel use. Public-private partnership and Government Co-Investment would most likely enable private capital flow to less mature technologies sooner.
- Leverage local strengths: While New Zealand is disadvantaged by lack of adequate infrastructure, challenging geography, and distance to international markets, we have a well-established and sustainably managed forestry industry where we’re continuing to innovate and thrive. Our climate, soils, and tree genetics combine to produce very high growth rates, and we could take this a step further by trialling short-rotation bioenergy forestry on marginal land to well and truly remove our reliance on coal.
Black wood pellets are the closest drop-in replacement we currently have for coal. They offer the potential to extend the life of existing coal-fired assets while decarbonising them at the same time, and their properties make them a good candidate for long-duration energy storage in the power system. New Zealand can learn from global leaders in black wood pellet technology and leverage our strong forestry industry to accelerate our clean energy transition.
If you’re interested in speaking to our Wood Beca team about black wood pellets or you’d like to understand more about how we combine our experience in the wood and fibre industry with the latest in new technologies and partnerships, feel free to reach out with our details below.