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  • Gaining Energy from Wood Waste

    2010 - 04.14

    Merica a sustainable energy firm based in Hawaii has begun investigating the potential for a biofuels industry drawn from wood waste in New Zealand.

    Last week the company’s chief technology officer, Robert Rapier met government officials as well as research and forestry companies. Potentially Merica could offer both investment and technological support and any decision to go ahead could result in a major investment in New Zealand’s clean energy future, most likely in partnership with private local firms.

    “We are trying to determine if our technologies mesh up with well with the biomass resources and the demand for power [primarily diesel and jet fuel] in New Zealand.”

    Before anything can be done there are some important calculations to be made first, such as the costs of refining and transporting the wood compared to other fuels. There is a fine balancing act between growing enough sustainable biomass, leaving enough for the logging industry and having enough waste to nourish the soil.

    In a few months the principals will be coming to New Zealand to see things for themselves while things are still in the ‘early due diligence stage’.

    “But I think they’re both pretty committed to investing in New Zealand. They’re both familiar with New Zealand, they’ve spent time here, they like the country a lot, and they feel it’s ideally situated for what we’re trying to do.”

    Mr. Rapier has claimed that New Zealand is a bright spot for being able to offset its own energy needs. It is similar to Hawaii, which also has a proportionately low population, big biomass sector and largely imports its fuels.

    “Our theory is that we could be sustainable there on Hawaii and our view is New Zealand could be sustainable because of your remote location and the amount of biomass you have.”

    Over the next three to five years Mr Rapier aims to build a large biofuel refinery.

    “Ultimately we’d like to build a plant like that but … if the economics don’t work out we’re also looking at what I call enabling technologies.”

    To make biomass more affordable to transport these technologies would be aimed at packing more energy into it. Then the wood could be turned into a charcoal like product or liquid fuel. This would be too dirty for diesel engines but would be ideal for power production.

    “But your power here in New Zealand is very cheaply priced. So it may be hard to beat and use that for electricity generation.”

    As well as being a holding company for various biofuel businesses, Merica is looking into setting up a biomass trading platform. Similar platforms are already operating in Europe and ensure security of supply.

    “We feel like biomass costs will go up over time and we don’t want to be in the situation where our business becomes at the mercy of rising biomass costs.”

    Mr Rapier has confirmed that he has spoken with the University of Canterbury and Crown research institute Scion. Also just last week he visited with Professor Shusheng Pang, director of the university’s Wood Technology Research Centre. Professor Pang said that Merica’s work was preliminary but ambitious and encouraging.

    “We have the technology available, and we have been working with a number of companies to get the investment but in New Zealand it seems there are limitations in terms of investment to build a commercial-scale plant.”

    Already the university has a large-scale model of a plant that converts wood waste into electricity and liquid fuel. A commercial-scale plant using four tonnes of waste an hour could generate 5 to 6 megawatts of power, enough for 40,000 to 50,000 homes.

    Asked whether he had spoken to Air New Zealand, which is trialling a jatropha product as a jet fuel, Mr Rapier said that “without saying too much, I’d say they’re definitely interested in the kind of fuel we’re producing”.

    The Timber Investment Blog is sponsored by Greenwood Management. For more information on investing in Forestry please click here

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