Farming waste key to turning our aviation sector green

Published Mon 22 Jan 2024

The Australian

This article appears in The List: Top 100 Green Energy Players.

Shahana McKenzie oversees an eclectic bunch of members at Bioenergy Australia, a peak body seeking sustainable outcomes for hard-to-abate sectors. Qantas, Pepsico Australia, AstraZeneca, Brickworks and BlueScope Steel are just a few of the 300 companies and organisations it is trying to support via campaigns and advocacy.

Not that McKenzie is worried. In her five years leading the industry body, she’s built the membership up from about 40 and revived an organisation that had been left behind in the race for government support and public profile.

“I came into the role at Bioenergy Australia without any technical knowledge of the sector or industry,” says McKenzie. “So, it was very much around transforming the organisation to be a strong advocacy voice and creating campaigns and programs to drive the sector forward.”

McKenzie set about creating alliances with sectors, including the Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) Alliance of Australia and New Zealand, which includes 150 representatives from airlines, airports and fuel providers. Its goal is to deliver one billion litres of SAF domestically by 2030.

Bioenergy Australia members are drawn from across the supply chain: producers and technology providers to project developers and investors. Bioenergy can be produced from any organic waste and McKenzie says the range of waste and its broad geographical locations offer opportunities to develop a significant industry in Australia that could deliver more than 30,000 new jobs and an extra $10 billion in annual GDP. The goal is to “stand up a whole new industry” to provide energy at every point in the supply chain to decarbonise hard-to-abate sectors, such as aviation.

But manufacturers such as PepsiCo, which produce snacks including Doritos in Australia, are also in her sights. “They have significant global decarbonisation targets and need renewable gas to support their manufacturing processes,” she says.

McKenzie’s agenda is “very much about creating the environment to enable collaboration and creative campaigns” to boost the sector, and she also claims some credit as an advocate for the Jet Zero Council. It was set up earlier this year by the federal government with the goal of decarbonising aviation.

Renewable gas and liquid fuels, however, are lagging other renewables and need more government support. “If you think about when solar first came into the market, or wind ... any new renewable that has sought to enter the market in Australia, the only way that has been able to happen is because of government support,” she says.

“You’re not able to stand up a brand new industry without a playing field which [allows you] to deliver it at a price similar to the existing price. You need to have government engagement. Other sectors, such as wind and solar, because they had effective industry bodies, were able to advocate for an environment where those renewables could flourish.

“A recent report from CSIRO showed we have enough organic waste to deliver 60 per cent of Australia’s aviation fuel market by 2025 and 90 per cent by 2050.”

The variety of sources is an opportunity for regional jobs and regional economic development and would also enable the creation of a circular economy, McKenzie says. Additional benefits include fuel security and, of course, emissions reduction.

Ethanol is one biofuel already produced in Queensland and NSW and biodiesel is produced in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. McKenzie says federal and state governments are increasingly engaged in the sector.

“In Australia, we’re at the beginning, but can catch up quickly,” she says. “If you look to the US or Europe, billions upon billions of dollars are being invested and most of the major global developers in this sector have a keen eye on Australia, primarily due to the abundance of feedstock.

“Developing renewable gas and liquid fuels projects is about leveraging our existing agriculture sector. It is not about changing the landscape; it is innovating how we farm so we can extract and utilise all of the feedstock and deliver greater returns to farming communities.”