NATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
Water and ethanol - time to think big
, March 3, 2007
The water debate has widened with Queensland Premier Peter Beattie's proposal to harness some of north Queensland's massive water flows. If realised, it could massively boost Australia's fledgling ethanol industry, writes Patrick J. Byrne.According to independent federal MP, Bob Katter, whose electorate of Kennedy covers most of north Queensland, "If just 7 per cent of the waters of the Gulf [of Carpentaria] rivers could irrigate some two million hectares of sugar cane in the Gulf region, this would provide ethanol to replace all the petrol in all motor vehicles in Australia and 4,000 megawatts of electricity, about 10 per cent of Australia's requirements."
The power would be supplied by burning bagasse — a fibrous residue left over from sugar-cane processing — to drive electricity generators.
A significant ethanol industry would require substantial production from sugar cane (supplemented by grain-based ethanol) as grains production fluctuates too sharply for supply reliability.Water resources
Mr Katter's comments come on the heels of Premier Beattie's call for a thorough investigation of water resources in north Queensland and its potential uses in agriculture and mining, and possibly for supplying water down the west of the state into the Murray-Darling Basin and down the east coast to Brisbane.
Environmentalists and sceptics have been quick to can the proposal, arguing it would damage important environmental river flows and be too costly.
Environmentalists haven't yet grasped the size of the northern rivers. The annual flow in the Murray-Darling system is about 24,300 gigalitres — six per cent of Australia's surface run-off — generating an economic output of $23 billion and supplying Adelaide.
The combined flow of the rivers off the northern tablelands and into the Gulf of Carpentaria are 9.7 times the flow of the Murray-Darling system
— over 235,000 gigalitres!
Tapping a fraction of this water is hardly going to damage the rivers' environmental flows.
As to the cost, thorough feasibility studies need to be done, and the costs of the various options weighed against the economic benefits — in the north, expanded agriculture, new industries, hydro power-generation; and, in the south, increased water supply to the Murray-Darling Basin and more water for cities and industries.
What the sceptics have ignored is the geographical slope of western Queensland towards Lake Eyre. It is possible that water from the north could flow south under gravity, either in channels or possibly in large low-pressure pipes. Losses from channel flows need to be balanced against the cost of piping.
Premier Beattie's proposal has focused on boosting water availability, whereas Prime Minister Howard's $10 billion plan focuses on water savings in the Murray-Darling Basin. In the end, both may be needed.
However, the PM's plan needs refining. It does not address the biggest losses in the basin — over one million megalitres per annum (i.e., a million Olympic-sized swimming pools) evaporating from the shallow lower lakes, Alexandrina and Alberta, at the end of the Murray.
This season, had this water been saved by a weir at Wellington and the water sold back upstream to towns and irrigators, it would have provided South Australia with enough capital to build a desalination plant.
Mr Katter's idea of building a huge sugarcane-based ethanol industry illustrates one potential use of water in the north.
Ethanol is now becoming a hot policy issue. NSW and Queensland have established taskforces to examine the feasibility of mandated ethanol use. As part of Labor's election platform, NSW Premier Morris Iemma has promised two per cent mandated ethanol use by September, increasing to 10 per cent by 2011. Premier Beattie is likely to announce a similar policy before this year's federal election.
Overseas, Canada has mandated five per cent biofuels by 2010. New Zealand has regulated 3.4 per cent of all fuel sales as biofuels by 2012.
In Sweden, the number of vehicles using 85 per cent ethanol is doubling annually as Sweden pursues a wide-ranging bio-energy policy that aims to have the country independent of fossil fuels by 2030.Second-generation biofuels
The big biofuels leaders are still the U.S. and Brazil, which together provide about 70 per cent of the world's ethanol. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is investing $US250 million over the next five years for the development of new microbial processes for second-generation biofuels made from cellulose biomass, such as switchgrass and wood chips.
DOE Undersecretary of Science, Ray Orbach says: "The United States is capable of producing one billion tons of biomass annually on 55 million acres of perennial bioenergy crops.
"That would be enough for 60 billion gallons of ethanol — about six times the current U.S. ethanol output."
This would use poorer quality land, avoiding competition with food production on better-quality land.
The U.S. and Brazil plan to pool their research and resources to hasten second-generation ethanol production.
Unless Mr Howard moves to build a serious ethanol industry soon, he may be trumped on this issue by Labor at the next election.