Renewable energy heats up WA pool as community swaps gas for woodchip biofuel

Renewable energy in the form of woodchip biofuel is keeping swimmers warm when they do their laps at a community swimming pool on Western Australia's south coast. The Albany Leisure and Aquatic Centre (ALAC) is heated by burning woodchips from local plantations, significantly reducing its reliance on gas and saving the City of Albany about $50,000 a year.

The five-year project, led by WA Biofuels, saw the Italian biomass boiler burn its first woodchips at the end of last month, and the leisure centre's gas boilers have since been switched off, to be used as a backup resource only.

Manager of forestry Darryl Outhwaite said the aquatic centre would take 500 tonnes of woodchips each year. "By forestry standards, this is next to nothing," he said. "It will only take two hours to regrow all the wood that's required to heat the pool for a year." The innovative biomass technology is common in the Northern Hemisphere, but Mr Outhwaite said it was not widely used in Australia. "In terms of using biomass in an urban setting and smaller scale like this for a pool, as far as I know there's only a few in Australia."

How are woodchips considered renewable? While there has been some controversy as to whether energy produced from burning woodchips is "renewable", the government's Clean Energy Regulator lists wood waste as an eligible renewable energy source for power stations producing electricity, providing they meet the requirements of the renewable energy regulations.

South West Greens MLC Diane Evers said in general the Greens Party do not count timber as a renewable source for biofuels, but in this case she can see the justification behind heating Albany's pool with woodchips.

"There is a considerable cost of energy in producing biofuels, which makes it not as good as purely renewable options like wind and solar," she said. "However using blue gum plantations and so on, that might not otherwise be used, is better than not using it. "It makes sense until the blue gum industry isn't operating anymore. "But keep in mind, that residue may be better used as mulch or compost, where we can put the carbon back into the soil. "It works for now, but that doesn't mean you stop looking for a better solution.

" Ms Evers said the Greens have spent a lot of time and money trying to remove Sydney Golden Wattle, which is invasive to WA. "I would love to see that used for wood, mulch and compost. "You never know, maybe that would be a possible source of biofuel." Bioenergy Australia senior research scientist Annette Cowie said woodchip burning could be considered a renewable energy source, "if the woodchips are coming from a plantation that will be regrown".

Mr Outhwaite said his WA Biofuels team had used the low-value portion of the region's pine and blue gum plantations, working with wood that may not otherwise be used. "A lot of the wood we are using is stuff that otherwise goes to waste and is left in the paddock.

"This technique is cost effective, and other regions with wood going to waste can do the same. "There's a real opportunity for Albany here to lead the way." Mr Outhwaite said the pool operator, the City of Albany, had been "super progressive" in finding ways to implement sustainable energy options, with the Mt Romance sandalwood factory and Fletcher's Abattoir also using biomass heating. The Shire of Collie is considering heating its pool via burning woodchips, and Donnybrook's swimming pool was once heated using the same method.