Keith Newman discovers breakthroughs in biomass technology are being ignored because short-term budgets favour fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel-fired boiler technology will continue to be used in New Zealand factories until more compelling emission controls and financial incentives force a conversion to carbon-neutral alternatives.

That’s the word from Christian Jirkowsky, a former environmental change advisor to the Austrian Government, now based in Havelock North, who champions the uptake of leading-edge biomass boiler systems.

In Europe, he says, fossil fuel boilers, now frowned upon, are replaced after 20 to 25 years, but in New Zealand many will continue to be used well past their use-by date or replaced by similar burners that continue to pollute the atmosphere.

While there’s potential for several Hawke’s Bay plants to shift industrial heat generation to biomass boilers, Jirkowsky, general manager of Polytechnik Biomass Energy, says that’s unlikely to happen as long as councils believe a certain level of pollution is acceptable.

He’d like to see companies like Watties move to biomass systems, but doesn’t hold much hope as they’re strongly focused on cost cutting, efficiency and reducing staff. The market, he says, is largely uneducated about environmentally friendly alternatives, and there aren’t sufficient financial incentives to encourage change.

Even adhering to World Health Organisation (WHO) limits, he says, you still need advanced technology to stay within proper emission standards. “I’ve never been to a place in Europe which has air pollution to the same degree as Hawke’s Bay in winter.”

Not so clean and green

Jirkowsky and his family moved from Austria to Havelock North in 2007 after he was head-hunted to establish wood and biomass boilers for a national firm with offices in Hastings. It didn’t sit well that after 35 years as a renewable energy specialist, the role turned out to be sales and technical manager for gas and coal-fired boilers.

In 2011 he went back to his roots, becoming Australasian general manager for his former employer, Polytechnik, an Austrian-based biomass boiler systems manufacturer.

Christian Jirkowsky

Jirkowsky committed to the original job because of its career promises and New Zealand’s clean green reputation, which was confirmed when he visited Abel Tasman National Park and Coromandel. However, he soon observed that in many places air, river, and stream pollution was worse than Austria. In his short time in the country, even once-favourite swimming holes have become unsafe through pollution.

He says factories and industrial plants in Hawke’s Bay seem to increase their output at night time, something that would be unthinkable in Europe.

Jirkowsky served on the steering committee advising the Austrian Government how to reduce harmful industry emissions without impacting the economy.

In the 1970s Europe had a major acid rain problem which destroyed many forests. Subsequent emission limits, the requirement for scrubbing systems, and taxes on fossil fuels made coal boilers uneconomic.

Alternative approaches including biomass boilers were introduced and sulphur dioxide and CO2 particulates were significantly reduced. Billions of dollars from fossil fuel taxes were invested in renewable energy, including solar and biomass energy generation.

While industrial-scale biomass burners require bigger fuel storage areas and larger boiler houses and combustion chambers than fossil fuel boilers, there’s long-term payback for business and the environment.

He says a system can cost $1 to $10 million, or for co-generation of electricity $5 to $15 million.

Boilers are fed on sawdust, wood chips, bark, garden waste or a combination of other materials, with the heat exchange used to boil water, create steam or thermal oil for industrial or commercial heating or drying plants, for example.

Jirkowsky sold his first wood-fired boiler to K&L Nurseries near Christchurch to deliver managed humidity through a glasshouse venting system, a project that won the 2014 EECA Award (Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority) for small to medium businesses.

After dumping an old coal boiler, the nursery halved its energy costs by burning 100 tonnes of green waste annually, and no longer sends 3,500 tonnes of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. The half million dollar biomass boiler is expected to pay for itself this year.

Power potential overlooked

Around 50% of biomass boilers worldwide are used for co-generation of electricity; but that opportunity hasn’t yet presented itself locally. As Jirkowsky says, there’s an innate resistance, often from consultants who haven’t upskilled around advanced technologies.

“They are very comfortable with fossil fuels and coal-fired boilers and sell their services doing tender documents, evaluations and project management around basic coal-fired boilers, because that’s what they’ve done for the last 30-40-years.”

In the past four years Jirkowsky has sold ten boilers to a variety of industries on both sides of the Tasman, including Zealandia Nursery in Christchurch; another two will service new glasshouses at its Clevedon premises, south-east of Auckland from later this year.

Last September, Polytechnik had to battle with the Ministry of Health to win a tender to replace Canterbury’s Burwood Hospital’s coal burners. The preference was to go with coal again until Jirkowsky involved the EECA and the Bioenergy Association, for which he is the wood group convener.

Prize-winning glasshouse burns green waste, eliminating 3,500 tonnes of CO2 emissions

“They cited budgetary reasons, but we managed to shift their thinking and now they will have the most advanced wood boiler plant in New Zealand.”

Fonterra has around 100 large boilers burning huge amounts of coal for two massive milk powder driers at Darfield. These were granted resource consent as long as their emissions remained below 20 micrograms of sulphur dioxide particulates.

That now needs to be reduced before they can go ahead with their third plant. Although there’s support for change, and Jirkowsky has taken senior Fonterra managers to Europe to see biomass burners in action, it never gets past the board.

Government disincentives

While the EECA was established to encourage the use of eco-friendly energy sources, with up to $150,000 for approved sites, its budget has been slashed and it’s been “downsized significantly”.

While it has the resources to encourage small businesses and schools to migrate from fossil fuel boilers, large businesses who have to invest $3-$6 million need more convincing.

Jirkowsky says a major opportunity was lost when Canterbury University wanted to phase out its coal boilers and look into the viability of a district heating system for the university, hospitals and industry.

Instead of investing in the project, the Government put $5.5 million R&D into Organic Rankine Cycle (ORC) technology which uses organic fluid rather than steam to run co-generation turbines. Then Energy and Resources Minister Simon Bridges invested another $1.5 million so Venture Southland could look into biomass energy.

ORC technology is already well understood and the Venture Southland research, he predicts, is unlikely to succeed because of the low population and the fact brown coal and lignite are so cheap in that part of the country.

The overall $7 million spent on consultants and research was “wasted” when it could have covered more than half of the cost of a biomass-based district heating plant, says Jirkowsky.

And he asks why the Government continues to run Solid Energy at what is now over $500 million in operational losses over the past two years, which is covered by tax payers and essentially a coal subsidy. “That money could be used to phase out coal and reduce emissions.”

Forestry crisis ahead?

Pan Pac Forest Products has two boilers at Whirinaki and another in Southland where they’re allegedly in discussion with Polytechnik for a biomass solution. But overall, says Jirkowsky, forestry and the sawmilling industry are in a precarious position.

Australia, New Zealand and Austria process around 25 to 28 million cubic metres of timber a year, but New Zealand derives very little added value because most of its harvest goes direct to Japan or China for pulping.

By comparison Austria imports additional timber for high quality flooring and furniture and uses the ‘waste’ for biomass burners and electricity generation for industry, including pulp and paper plants, effectively creating employment and investment in the local economy.

Jirkowsky warns that without stronger incentives to replant, New Zealand faces huge deforestation and subsequent carbon footprint problems after our main forests are harvested over the next few years. “Timber and sawmilling are very vulnerable businesses.”

Converting the European economy from carbon intensive to a low-carbon, renewable-energy economy was assisted by targeted low-interest loans, a tax on coal and up to 30 cents fossil-fuel tax per litre at the petrol bowser.

Although lower petroleum prices have made a shift away from diesel and LPG less likely in New Zealand, Jirkowsky suggests European-style taxes and more rigorous emission standards would help reduce our carbon footprint.

He’s concerned many companies still get away with burning plastic and other rubbish in their coal burners because emissions aren’t monitored.

The feedback after several years of taking local industry representatives to Europe is that New Zealand is 25 to 30 years behind. With the right local and central government incentives, Jirkowsky believes that gap could be closed in two to three years; without it, he warns we’ll continue to do what we’ve always done.

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