BE Bioenergy, Kaniva, Victoria
BeBioenergy was established through a culmination of life experiences and principles for Steven Hobbs.
Steven Hobbs is a 4th generation farmer at Kaniva in the West Wimmera region of Victoria. The property is a typical mixed farm in the area, growing a variety of cereal, legume and oilseed crops, The cropping system is complimented with both Merino sheep and Prime lambs.
With energy being the largest demand and expense of the farm, Steven was inspired by several photographs of how his Grandparents sourced the energy needs to run the farm...by growing oats!
In early 2000, he purchased an oil seed expeller, and began experimenting with vegetable oil as an alternative fuel. Following the construction of a small biodiesel
plant, Steven started to produce biodiesel from the mustard & canola crops he grew.
Steven soon realised that the co-products of fuel production, such as the oilseed meal (or press cake),
could also be used on the farm to provide a high quality ration for feeding sheep & finishing lambs. Press cake has a good nutrient analysis (major, micro & macro elements) and can also be used as a fertiliser.
A vision of decentralised energy production
Steven's passion for bioenergy comes from his beliefs that: "Growing food & fibre by harnessing solar energy is at the heart of all farming activities.
There are many varieties of plants that farmers grow, however oil bearing plants are unique in that they store solar energy as an energy dense lipid (fat)
which can be used as a source of fuel.
Historically, farmers have relied on solar energy to supply all the energy demands for agricultural production. The advent of the green revolution (between the 1940s and late 1970s) saw global grain production increase by 250%* with the majority of energy being derived from 'cheap' crude oil sources. With the occurrence of peak oil and the decline of
'cheap' energy, renewable energy production offers a very real source of farm grown energy for food production.
Producing energy at the point of consumption offers numerous advantages & efficiencies with little or no transmission losses, high conversion rates and a high degree of energy security. As fossil fuel energy sources begin to decline resulting in increased prices, the opportunity for the agricultural sector to begin harnessing solar energy becomes economically viable."
* Kindall, Henery W & Pimentel, David (May 1994). "Constraints on the Expansion of the Global Food Supply". Ambio. 23 (3).
Steven's farm snapshot
Enterprises: Mixed farming - sheep (merinos and prime lambs), cereals and oilseeds
Rainfall: 126 year average - 430 mm annual, 315 mm growing season rainfall (April-October). Over the last two decades (1992-2012) average rainfall has declined to 305 mm annually & 220 mm growing season rainfall.
The cost of growing oil
The cost of growing oil for fuel is influenced by several factors including crop yield, oil content, extraction efficiency of the processing machinery and Cost of Production (COP), i.e. the cost of growing the crop.
The production cost of cereal crops is typically in the vicinity of $150 per hectare, while oilseed crops like canola can cost $350 per hectare or more to grow. The cost of vegetable oil has to be competitive with the price of diesel to be attractive.
Steven has been trialling and growing crops such as mustard seed, which have a lot lower production cost than canola, typically around $150 per hectare. This is due to a combination of decreased nitrogen demand, better insect and drought tolerance and the lack of need to windrow crops. Practical experience has shown the yield of mustard to be about 70% the potential yield of canola (e.g. 900 kg/ha of mustard seed compared to the Kaniva district average of 1.2 t/ha for canola).
The following table gives examples of the cost of growing a litre of vegetable oil based on 40% oil content, with 12% residual oil in the expeller press cake (meal). From the table below it can be seen that the cost of a litre of oil from canola seed is $1.04 (COP $350/ha, yield 1.2 t/ha), while the cost of a litre of oil from mustard seed will cost 61 cents per litre (COP $150/ha, yield 0.9 t/ha)
Note: These costs are based onSteven's experience of his own farming enterprise and may not necessarily be applicable to other farms.
Table 1: Cost per litre to produce biodiesel based on a range of yield and cost of growing per hectare scenarios
cpl = cents per litre t = metric tonnes
ha = hectares
On the farm
How much land has to be dedicated to an energy crop?
The experience on Steven's property was that historically around 25% of the farm's cropped area was dedicated to grow oaten hay to supply energy demands of the draught horses. It was such a large area due to the low energy density of oats and the poor energy conversion of horses.
Now technologies allow the conversion of vegetable oil into fuel for tractors and trucks which means only 5-7% of the cropped area is dedicated to produce fuel.
Vegetable oil has a high energy density which contains almost the same amount of energy as diesel. And because diesel engines have a high thermal efficiency, more energy is converted into shaft horse power and less is lost as heat.
Extracting energy from oilseeds
Steven uses continuous screw oilseed expellers to cold press the oil from the seed which results in two products, vegetable oil and press cake.
Press cake is a high protein alternative to legumes for stock feed. It is high in nutrients and makes a good fertiliser (liquid or solid). Oilseed crops also provide pest management and bio-fumigant benefits (such as a disease break). Biogas is a bi-product of the anaerobic digestion process used to make liquid fertiliser. Biogas can be used as a source of fuel for heating and also a fuel to run a stationery generator to produce electricity.
The crude vegetable oil alternative
Alternatively, the use of crude vegetable oil as a fuel has been thoroughly researched and proven, and in Europe a standard has been adopted for the use of 'Rapeseed oil as a fuel'. The use of crude vegetable oil requires the installation of a dual fuel system which preheats the vegetable oil to an optimum temperature prior to combustion. Crude vegetable has all the advantages of biodiesel without the obligations and requires a significantly lower capital investment. However, unlike Europe, new machinery warranties will be void in Australia if using crude vegetable oil as fuel.
Dual fuel system
A dual fuel system, means some mineral diesel is still required for start up and shut down. However, by using pure plant oil, Steven can reduce his consumption of mineral diesel by 80%. He has been trialling the use of pure plant oil over several years and is happy with the results. Steven is in the process of converting his machinery to utilise pure plant oil as his primary fuel.
Bioenergy on the farm
The rewards of growing energy
Grain Grower Steven Hobbs consciously makes business decisions based on land stewardship and improving the condition of the natural environment on his farm, rather than for financial gain alone. He regards economic gain as part of his whole farm approach.
For Steven, what began as simply a process to produce renewable fuel has now become something significantly more. He says that "Agriculture is facing its biggest challenge in history - to produce as much food in the next 50 years as has been produced in all of history. Increased climate variability aside, for food to remain cheap agriculture has to source the energy to grow food from affordable sources. People don't stop to think that everything we grow on the farm is a source of energy, we just have to work out how to use that energy more effectively".
Steven derives a lot of personal satisfaction from producing energy from his crops to fuel his machinery. "The crops we grow are effectively break crops that would not be used for food', says Steven. 'At the same time I am producing a high quality feed for my sheep (equivalent to beans or lupins) and reducing the financial risk associated with growing higher risk crops such as legumes.'