Purpose Grown Energy Forests the Key to Self-Sufficiency

18 March 2008

Purpose-grown energy forests if planted today could meet all of New Zealand’s future transport fuel and heat energy needs, without threatening the country’s important agricultural industry, according to a study completed by Crown Research Institute, Scion.

This conclusion is outlined in the Bioenergy Options for New Zealand report completed by Scion as part of the EnergyScape programme. The report is the result of a collaboration between Crown Research Institutes Scion and NIWA, and CRL Energy, with input from Landcare Research, Crop and Food Research, Waste Solutions and Process Developments.

The study has found that if New Zealand were to plant purpose-grown forests today and introduce a programme of managed harvesting and replanting, the resulting biomass could be used to meet all of New Zealand’s projected future needs for transport fuels and heat.

The report also states that even the most conservative estimates show New Zealand has at least 830,000 hectares of steep, erodable, low producing grass and shrub lands that could be cost effectively used for forestry.

The results come in the same month as another feasibility study, conducted by the New Zealand Lignocellulosic Bioethanol Initiative, showed that bioethanol produced from wood and wood residues is a feasible option for transport biofuels despite previous concerns that it was too expensive and too difficult to utilise this resource.

Scion chief executive, Dr Tom Richardson says the two studies highlight the important role that forestry and biomass can play in helping New Zealand meet the Government’s targets of sustainable, carbon neutral energy.

“The Government seeks carbon neutrality in the electricity sector by 2025, in the stationary energy sector by 2030, and in the transport sector by 2040.

“The Bioenergy Options for New Zealand report provides a viable plan of action and timeline for achieving these goals, particularly in the challenging areas of heat and transportation fuels which currently rely on coal, oil and gas.

“Biomass can make a significant contribution to New Zealand’s future energy supply without compromising arable or high quality pastoral land. Rather, the key is to utilise marginal lands, which are often erodable hillcountry, making best use of available resources.”

“What both studies reveal is that it is possible for New Zealand to be self-sufficient in terms of liquid fuels by using sustainable managed forests, while having low impact on domestic and export food production. Along with the energy will come ancillary benefits of forests including flood mitigation, improved water quality, erosion control and carbon sequestration.”

Dr Richardson says purpose-grown energy forests of short-, medium- and long-rotation could be established using only 37% of the potentially available 8.7 million hectares of medium- and low-quality grazing land available in New Zealand.

Establishing the required forest resource will take around 25 years, at an estimated cost of around $2-3 billion a year.

“Some of the establishment costs and early cash flows could be off-set by the Emissions Trading Scheme,” Dr Richardson says.  

“New Zealand is currently facing a Kyoto liability of several hundred million dollars. In addition to providing a renewable energy option, planting forests would protect against this and other potential liabilities.

“Furthermore, the Ministry for the Environment’s recent Environment New Zealand 2007 report highlights how high-country hill erosion continues to cost the country an estimated $100-150 million a year, but in those areas where the land had been converted to either exotic forestry or reverted to scrub, the erosion has eased.

“To put it simply, these new product opportunities will enable New Zealand to meet our sustainability goals and energy targets.”

Biomass can be used to produce a diverse range of energy products including heat, power and liquid biofuels, and energy carriers like gas, chars, and chemicals. It has advantages over other sources of fuels or energy forms because it is renewable, easily produced in New Zealand and carbon-neutral when based on sustainable crops, forests or residues.

A bioenergy approach based on forestry crops would enable sustainable economic growth while providing other wood-based products and a range of environmental benefits, such as greenhouse gas reduction, erosion control and improved water quality.