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Australian government excludes “native forest wood waste” from RET

Australian government excludes “native forest wood waste” from RET
Native to Norfolk Island, Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla) is a slow-growing hardy evergreen able to withstand cold and salt spray.

In Australia, the Federal Government has amended the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Regulations 2001 to restore the exclusion of electricity generated from the combustion of "native forest wood waste" from eligibility under the Renewable Energy Target (RET).

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According to a statement, the decision to amend the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Regulations 2001 on December 15, 2022, takes into account “strong and longstanding community views” raised in the consultation process, during which over 2 900 submissions were received.

This is a big win for the community, who want the electricity sector decarbonized as quickly as possible and do not want to see native forests logged to enable coal-fired generators to switch to burning forests instead of coal, said Bob Debus, Chairman of Wilderness Australia (formerly the Colong Foundation for Wilderness), in a statement.

The changes mean that native forest biomass is no longer considered an ‘eligible renewable energy source’ for the purposes of the Renewable Energy Target (RET), and the electricity it generates cannot be used to create tradeable Large-scale Generation Certificates (LGC).

Addresses community concerns

Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen said that the current Government is “committed to ensuring public confidence that the Renewable Energy Target is delivering genuinely renewable and sustainable forms of energy.”

We have listened to the community and acted to address their concerns, Minister Chris Bowen said.

The decision of the Government in 2015 to put native forest wood waste back into the scheme raised “considerable concern” about potential adverse impacts for native forests but has had no significant uptake.

The regulations are focused on eligibility under the RET and do not otherwise “regulate or restrict sustainable native forest industries.”

The decision demonstrates the political will to end access to subsidies and incentives for wood from native forests, including wood wastes from sawmilling that utilizes native forest wood, said  Environmental Paper Network (EPN) in a statement.

The eligibility of other solid biomass sources such as wood waste, and energy crops as defined in the RET remains unchanged.

Transitional arrangements have been put in place for one Western Australian facility that had registered to use the energy source.

Low contribution to renewable power

According to the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) Australian Energy Statistics 2022, renewable energy sources accounted for 8 percent or 462.4 PJ of Australian energy consumption in 2020-21.

Bioenergy – biomass, biofuels, biogas, and waste – accounted for just over 43 percent or 200 PJ with hydro, wind, solar PV, and solar thermal making up the balance.

Solid biomass including forest industry residues and sugarcane bagasse accounted for 38 percent of all renewable energy consumption in Australia.

Renewable electricity generation has more than doubled over the last decade, and in 2021, 29 percent of Australia’s total electricity generation was from renewable energy sources, the highest on record with the previous peak being 26 percent in the mid-1960s.

Renewable power in 2021 is led by solar (12 percent), wind (10 percent), hydro (6 percent), and bioenergy (1 percent).

Australian electricity generation from renewable sources in gigawatt hours (GWh) from 1995-96 to 2020-21. Generation from renewables has increased 167% over the past decade. The composition of renewable energy in Australia has diversified significantly as wind and solar capacity has come online, with the share of hydro- and bioenergy declining (graphic courtesy Australian Energy Statistics).

Significant native forest resource

According to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES), forests cover almost 125 million ha (2015), or approximately 16 percent of Australia’s land area.

Of this, native forests make up 122.5 million ha, of which Eucalypt forests dominate with almost 92 million ha. The remaining 2.15 million ha is commercial/industrial plantations and other forests.

According to ABARES, about 85 percent of Australia’s wood fibre demand is met by using wood from domestic plantations.

The country’s commercial/industrial plantation estate stood at 1.8 million hectares in 2019-20 of which softwood made up 1 million ha, and the balance by hardwoods, the latter of which has declined by about 200 000 ha compared to the previous estimate for 2014-15.

The remnants of a softwood plantation in New South Wales (NSW) that was ravaged by a 2019/2020 bushfire.

However, ABARES notes that the reduction in the hardwood estate is expected to have a relatively small impact on projected hardwood availability as most were low yielding or far from processing or export facilities, thus their conversion to other uses has had minimal impact on projected supply.

Annual softwood log availability is forecast to decline from an average of 17 million m3 over the period 2015–19 to approximately 15 million m3 a year over 2020–24 due to a range of reasons including the bushfires in the summer of 2019-20 and the age of the trees in the ground.

Furthermore, ABARES notes a slight shift for both softwood and hardwood from lower-value pulpwood production to higher-value sawlog production.

As softwood plantations are based on a 30-year rotation, current tree planting will not increase wood supply for some time to come, and assuming maintained replanting levels, there could be an average of 2.8 million m3 more softwood sawlogs a year available over 2035-39 compared to the average annual harvest over 2015-19.

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