Renewable energy heats up WA pool as community swaps gas for woodchip biofuel
The Albany Leisure and Aquatic Centre is now heated using woodchip biofuel. (ABC Great Southern: Aaron Fernandes)
Renewable energy in the form of woodchip biofuel is keeping swimmers warm when they do their laps at a community swimming pool on Western Australia’s south coast.
The Albany Leisure and Aquatic Centre (ALAC) is heated by burning woodchips from local plantations, significantly reducing its reliance on gas and saving the City of Albany about $50,000 a year.
The five-year project, led by WA Biofuels, saw the Italian biomass boiler burn its first woodchips at the end of last month, and the leisure centre’s gas boilers have since been switched off, to be used as a backup resource only.
Manager of forestry Darryl Outhwaite said the aquatic centre would take 500 tonnes of woodchips each year.
“By forestry standards, this is next to nothing,” he said.
“It will only take two hours to regrow all the wood that’s required to heat the pool for a year.”
The innovative biomass technology is common in the Northern Hemisphere, but Mr Outhwaite said it was not widely used in Australia.
“In terms of using biomass in an urban setting and smaller scale like this for a pool, as far as I know there’s only a few in Australia.”
How are woodchips considered renewable?
While there has been some controversy as to whether energy produced from burning woodchips is “renewable”, the government’s Clean Energy Regulator lists wood waste as an eligible renewable energy source for power stations producing electricity, providing they meet the requirements of the renewable energy regulations.
WA Biofuels’ manager of forestry Darryl Outhwaite with Albany Leisure Centre and Aquatic Centre’s recreation services manager Sam Stevens. (Supplied: City of Albany)
South West Greens MLC Diane Evers said in general the Greens Party do not count timber as a renewable source for biofuels, but in this case she can see the justification behind heating Albany’s pool with woodchips.
“There is a considerable cost of energy in producing biofuels, which makes it not as good as purely renewable options like wind and solar,” she said.
“However using blue gum plantations and so on, that might not otherwise be used, is better than not using it.
“It makes sense until the blue gum industry isn’t operating anymore.
“But keep in mind, that residue may be better used as mulch or compost, where we can put the carbon back into the soil.
“It works for now, but that doesn’t mean you stop looking for a better solution.”
Ms Evers said the Greens have spent a lot of time and money trying to remove Sydney Golden Wattle, which is invasive to WA.
“I would love to see that used for wood, mulch and compost.
“You never know, maybe that would be a possible source of biofuel.”
Bioenergy Australia senior research scientist Annette Cowie said woodchip burning could be considered a renewable energy source, “if the woodchips are coming from a plantation that will be regrown”.
Mr Outhwaite said his WA Biofuels team had used the low-value portion of the region’s pine and blue gum plantations, working with wood that may not otherwise be used.
“A lot of the wood we are using is stuff that otherwise goes to waste and is left in the paddock.
“This technique is cost effective, and other regions with wood going to waste can do the same.
“There’s a real opportunity for Albany here to lead the way.”
Mr Outhwaite said the pool operator, the City of Albany, had been “super progressive” in finding ways to implement sustainable energy options, with the Mt Romance sandalwood factory and Fletcher’s Abattoir also using biomass heating.
The Shire of Collie is considering heating its pool via burning woodchips, and Donnybrook’s swimming pool was once heated using the same method.
Five hundred tonnes of woodchips will be used to heat the Albany Leisure and Aquatic Centre each year. (ABC Great Southern: Aaron Fernandes)
Biomass an ‘energy of the future’
City of Albany councillor Bill Hollingworth has been a long-term supporter of the idea.
“Biomass has a very big place in the way that we produce energy in the future,” he said.
“This is part of the process that takes us towards renewable energy for Albany and the city has to show leadership in putting this idea forward and pushing it, so that we can show biomass and renewable energy can be used with success.”
Mr Hollingworth said he would like to see Albany pioneer a way for renewable energy.
“The city is taking the initiative with other companies, and Western Power have shown some interest as well in coming on board and working on a plan to take Albany towards renewable energy.”
Albany Leisure and Aquatic Centre’s recreation services manager Sam Stevens said there had been no problems in the first week other than a few minor tweaks to the system, and pool-goers seemed as happy as ever.
“At the end of the day, they just want the pool to be warm when they jump in,” she said.
Ms Stevens said the most important outcome in her eyes was the jobs created for the local community, and the hard work of the WA Biofuels team.
“It’s just amazing — they own it, they designed it, and they’re providing a heat source for us,” she said.
A thermal storage tank inside the aquatic centre’s operations. (ABC Great Southern: Aaron Fernandes)
It was Mr Outhwaite himself, an Albany man of 10 years, who dreamt up the project.
“I was sitting at my mate’s place at Mt Melville and was looking down at the leisure centre roof and thought, ‘Why the bloody hell isn’t that thing being heated by solar or woodchips?'”
His team then went through the process of assessing the best renewable energy options.
“We assessed solar and geothermal, but in this case, biomass was best and most cost effective,” Mr Outhwaite said.
Mr Outhwaite said the boiler was no regular woodfire.
“Your home fire has one pass before it goes through the exhaust flue, whereas because we’re using this to heat water, we’ve got four passes before it hits the flue, and then it goes through a multiclone, which extracts any particulates out of the smoke,” he said.
“The exhaust gas then passes back through the boiler again for a second burn before if goes out the flue, so there are no visible emissions.”
The biomass system is set up in a shipping container and is hard to see from the road. (ABC Great Southern: Aaron Fernandes)
Why not solar?
Mr Outhwaite said the biomass system was barely visible from the road, and there was only a puff of smoke when the boiler turned on or off, or changed gears.
“All you’ll really notice is a truck rocking up every few days to deliver some woodchips.
“We’ve got it set up in a 40-foot sea container, which plugs into the existing plant room down there.
Mr Outhwaite said there had been some queries as to why solar heating was not an option to heat the leisure pool.
“The reason solar for water heating isn’t ideal at ALAC, is you need to have a renewable energy baseload back-up to the solar,” he said.
“This means you need to spend money on another system anyway, so in this instance the case adds up to stick with biomass from the outset.
“There’s just not enough sun down here to keep the pool warm all year.”