Bioenergy and carbon farming opportunities in the Pilbara

Page last updated: Wednesday, 20 February 2019 - 12:53pm

Irrigation and changing land use and management in the Pilbara may provide land managers with more opportunities to participate in the carbon economy. Introducing irrigated agriculture into existing pastoral systems will increase potential bioenergy feedstocks from purpose-grown crops and agricultural wastes.

The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) supports these opportunities by assessing relevant technologies and production systems.

Why investigate bioenergy and carbon farming opportunities in the Pilbara?

There is a large demand for transport and stationary energy at several Pilbara locations. However, the energy market in the Pilbara is expensive because of the limited interconnected electrical grid and the distance over which fuels must be transported. Combined with the development of irrigation areas, this raises the possibility that locally grown crops dedicated to energy production, crop residues and animal effluent from feedlots might be viable alternatives to current energy supplies, which are dominated by fossil fuels.

Carbon farming presents an opportunity for land managers to benefit financially from providing the ecosystem service of mitigating carbon pollution. Given the likely risks and costs involved, carbon farming activities need to return multiple economic and environmental co-benefits to be attractive to land managers.

Are suitable technologies available?

Several technologies for converting biomass to energy are now mature and the number of commercial-scale facilities is increasing in Australia and overseas. However, the slow rate of uptake in the market suggests there is still a perception of risk when compared to conventional power generation.

To achieve sustainability, bioenergy projects in the Pilbara would need to:

  • be technically viable at the medium to large scale
  • be suitable for the hot climate and remote location
  • use locally available feedstocks
  • reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts
  • be commercially viable.

What we found

Bioenergy

Using agricultural biomass to produce energy products, such as syngas, biogas or ethanol, is considered not feasible in the Pilbara in the short term.

We identified several factors that contributed to this:

  • The remoteness of the Pilbara adds complexity and therefore risk to any project. For example, there is less expertise for construction and maintenance phases available in remote areas and the vast distances significantly add to build time and cost.
  • The viability of most bioenergy projects is underpinned by the ability to use waste heat, which may account for more than 80% of the energy created. In the Pilbara, there is currently no need for this heat so it is unlikely that bioenergy will be a viable option, at least for the current energy users in this region.

Carbon farming

Carbon farming methodologies are available to land managers in the Pilbara. These methodologies explain how to conduct the project and how to measure (or estimate) and report the abatement. Methods primarily relate to activities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions during beef cattle production. There are limited opportunities for sequestration activities.

While many of the techniques for reducing emissions from livestock are already used in the industry to increase livestock productivity and resilience, their use in the Pilbara could be increased by introducing irrigated fodder production systems. Mosaic irrigation in northern Australia could drive positive change to beef production systems and boost productivity at the enterprise scale. Any income from generating carbon credits would be an additional benefit.

There are examples of carbon emission avoidance projects running on leased Crown land in WA, but there are no sequestration projects on Crown land and the state government is yet to develop a policy to deal with sequestration projects on Crown land.

Land managers contemplating a carbon farming project should seek independent technical, financial and legal advice about their particular circumstances. Land managers considering activities on leased Crown land need to be aware of lease conditions and need to obtain consent from the Minister of Lands.

Please note

The information provided here, and in Bulletin 4884 is a guide only. We recommend that you seek specialist advice for the particular situation being investigated.

For more information

Download the report Bioenergy and carbon farming opportunities in the Pilbara - Bulletin 4884 (PDF 1.8MB). Contact Rob Sudmeyer for more information about carbon farming and Kim Brooksbank for more information about bioenergy.

Contact information

Rob Sudmeyer
+61 (0)8 9083 1129
Kim Brooksbank
+61 (0)8 9892 8486