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Converting biomass to energy has the potential to unlock economic sustainability

A photo of a sugarcane field

Aurecon employed its B2E service offerings in Nkomazi.

23 April 2013 - The conversion of biomass into an energy form is one of the oldest technologies known to man. Since the beginning of time man collected wood and other organic combustible items, transported it to a homestead, broke or copped it into more manageable pieces and burnt it to provide heat for cooking, protection and comfort.

Recent advances in the Biomass-to-Energy (B2E) conversion technologies have delivered new, more versatile and well-priced plants that allow for the production of an array of tradable commodities. The primary focus of the second generation B2E technologies is to convert waste/residual biomass, including plantation and process waste, alien vegetation and municipal solid waste, into energy products which include solid and liquid fuels, electricity and gasses which can be used to generate revenue and reduce operational costs.

“Aurecon has, through our involvement in an array of B2E project across the Southern Hemisphere, developed a unique and distinguishable B2E offering for a wide range of biomass custodians,” says Aurecon Project Manager Jean Bouwer. He goes on to explain: “This offering is structured in such a manner that the entire value chain and all cost components from source to market is reviewed, optimised and modelled to allow the client the opportunity to make an informed decision with regard to the pursuit of the identified opportunity.”

Key to this service offering is Aurecon’s in-house ‘Integrated Biomass Transport and Logistics Model’. “The transport of feedstock to a conversion plant has in the past been a primary stumbling block in terms of project realisation,” explains Unathi Mdaka, Aurecon Project Coordinator. “This application was developed to optimise the transport and material handling costs which are traditionally the Achilles heel for B2E undertakings.”

Aurecon recently successfully employed its B2E service offerings as a catalyst for economic development and job and wealth creation in one of South Africa’s most impoverished rural communities, Nkomazi. The project began with the Mpumalanga Cane Growers Association contracting Aurecon and the sugar producer TSB Sugar RSA, which markets under the well-known ‘Selati’ brand, to undertake a feasibility study to investigate ways of boosting economic development in the Nkomazi district of Mpumalanga through a B2E solution. Focused on the need to assist the plight of the previously disadvantaged small-scale sugarcane growers, the study received funding of €100 000 from the EEP Fund, a partnership between the governments of Finland and Austria, hosted by the Development Bank of Southern Africa. The extent of the study was sponsored by Mpumalanga Cane Growers, TSB Sugar RSA and Aurecon. On completion of the feasibility study, the financial model confirmed that the production of ‘Green Charcoal’ from the sugarcane plantation waste for the domestic and international markets is the most feasible solution to pursue. What’s more, the rate of return sparked real interest from the Industrial Development Corporation and the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform’s Enterprise Development Programme.

“Aurecon has successfully developed a business model incorporating the latest technologies to bring to reality the processing of sugarcane residues as a viable and entirely new sugar industry opportunity,” says Justin Murray, Grower Affairs Manager for the Mpumalanga Cane Growers Association. “The small scale sugarcane growers in the Nkomazi region at last have real hope of improving their revenue and having a sustainable future in sugar.”   

Bouwer explains that “The main focus of Aurecon’s B2E service offering is to unlock economic sustainability.” Mdaka concludes: “Aurecon’s B2E service offering can assist a wide variety of stakeholders to achieve economic developments which enhance the welfare of impoverished communities through the proven creation of jobs, whilst simultaneously protecting the environment by replacing fossil fuels with cleaner organic fuels and other products.”

Once complete, the Nkomazi project has the potential to achieve the following:

  • Greatly enhance sustainability for small scale growers
  • Secure existing and create new jobs – 43 during establishment and an additional 48 formal sector employment opportunities during operations
  • Contribute to the Local Economic Development of the surrounding communities – R 12,52 million added during the establishment phase and a further R 6,95 million per annum during operation
  • Reduce the ecological impact that invader plant species have on the Nkomazi area – Invader plants can readily be incorporated into the production process;
  • Prove that renewable energy can stimulate economic development in rural areas

“B2E solutions also present an ideal opportunity for possible Independent Power Producers to support the renewable energy targets stipulated in South Africa’s 2010 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP 2010) and contribute positively to reducing the energy shortage in South Africa,” adds At van der Merwe, Aurecon Technical Director. “These opportunities exist throughout South Africa, and as such, offer distributed energy generation opportunities which support the improvement of the country’s distribution network.”

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