#01 2022

SAEON uLwazi Node releases new BioEnergy Atlas

By Dr Hayden Wilson and Dr Marc Pienaar, SAEON uLwazi Node

In South Africa, decarbonisation, climate change, rural development and the green economy are all topics relevant to energy security. South Africa’s power generation fleet is ageing, poorly maintained and heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Increasing investor and public pressure to transition towards “greener” energy sources requires evaluating alternative energy production options that meet the emission requirements of the Paris agreement and create jobs within the green economy. 

Bioenergy represents a suite of technology options for energy production. These energy sources can be direct replacements for fossil fuels (in biofuels such as biodiesel, sustainable aviation fuel or biogas) and can be used for electricity generation.

The commonality between these technologies is that they all rely on biomass as a feedstock to produce bioenergy products. Using biomass to produce energy presents an opportunity to generate energy sustainably, provided that the biomass feedstock is sourced in a sustainable manner.

South Africa has significant water scarcity, as well as complex socio-ecological and socio-economic challenges related to a population experiencing poverty, food insecurity and insalubrious living conditions. As such, an assessment of the feasibility of bioenergy as an energy source needs to be performed within a framework that is both practical and beneficial to the environment, its people and the industries which support it.

Commercial crops such as sugarcane have the potential to be repurposed for producing biofuels such as sustainable aviation fuel (Photo: Unsplash/Christine Walker)

BioEnergy Atlas for South Africa 

The Atlas was conceived as a knowledge repository to assess the potential benefits and impacts of bioenergy production within South Africa. The project was funded by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and implemented by SAEON’s uLwazi Node.

The BioEnergy Atlas project has been through multiple iterations over the years. The first version was published as a hardcopy book in 2015, the second version is an online atlas published in 2018 and the most recent version was published in 2021.

The SAEON uLwazi data science team is proud to have been involved in developing several novel and ground-breaking innovations that improve the accuracy of the development scenarios for bioenergy production and tackle the complex issues of developing sustainable solutions that utilise bioenergy feedstocks. This article will summarise and outline specific projects where these technologies have assisted with bioenergy projects in South Africa.

Biodiesel is a renewable, biodegradable fuel manufactured domestically from vegetable oils, animal fats, or recycled restaurant grease

In the transesterification process, commonly used alcohols are methanol and ethanol due to their low cost and easy availability

Gasification is a thermo-chemical process that converts biomass into a combustible gas called producer gas

Modelling platform 

The core of the BioEnergy Atlas is the modelling platform – an advanced spatial-logistics model developed in Python to provide planners, economists and sustainable energy experts with the tools and data they require to evaluate the feasibility of a specific bioenergy technology/feedstock combination. The modelling platform consists of the following:

  1. The Virtual Roads Algorithm – A toolset to calculate the least cost route from any location to the nearest roadside while navigating around obstacles such as sensitive riparian areas or cliffs. An example of this invaluable tool would be calculating the costs of transporting cleared alien invasive plant biomass to a roadside location before being transported to a production facility.
  2. The Location-allocation Algorithm – A toolset which determines the optimal locations to site bioenergy conversion facilities where transportation costs are minimised.
  3. Road Transport Cost Calculator – This tool uses the locations of the roadside depots generated by the Virtual Roads Algorithm, the Modelled Facility Locations from the Location-allocation Algorithm and a least-cost pathway algorithm to calculate the transport costs of servicing the feedstock locations which supply the modelled facility locations.
  4. A conversion costs calculator to determine the final unit cost of a bioenergy product based on user-defined parameters.
  5. A cost comparison toolkit to compare the unit cost of production with alternative competing products.
  6. A charting application to produce detailed data visualisations for each modelled scenario.

In addition to the modelling platform, the atlas includes ancillary information useful to the bioenergy industry. These include:

  1. A database of the spatial locations and seasonal availability of different bioenergy feedstocks.
  2. A database of conversion technology parameters and information.
  3. An interactive dashboard for assessing different scenarios based on region and feedstock; as well as supplementary information and considerations regarding bioenergy production.

Sustainable use of forestry residue has the potential to provide a carbon neutral energy source

Sugarcane and sugarcane waste streams represent underutilised feedstocks for bioenergy production in South Africa

Invasive alien plant species eradication programmes such as Working for Water have the potential to provide biomass which can be used for bioenergy production

Case studies 

Finally, the BioEnergy Atlas includes some detailed case studies, which serve as examples of how the BioEnergy Atlas modelling platform can be used in bioenergy project implementation. Case studies include:

  1. The Women in BioDiesel Project – The BioEnergy Atlas team compiled a database of used cooking oil producers within each of the major metros in South Africa to determine the number and location of potential biodiesel facilities in each metro using the modelling platform. This information was supplied to the business acceleration organisation FETOLA, who used it to select SMMEs to enter into an incubation programme to establish 10 women-owned biodiesel businesses in South Africa.
  2. Sugarcane Transport Fuels – the BioEnergy team partnered with the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to assess the volumes and spatial distribution of sugarcane and sugarcane residue in South Africa. This information was used to model the unit cost of producing transport fuels from sugarcane field residue and bagasse and formed part of a report that the WWF and Boeing compiled on the use of sugarcane as a feedstock for sustainable aviation fuels in Africa – link.
  3. Forestry Residue – The BioEnergy Atlas team commissioned the Institute for Commercial Forestry Research (ICFR) to produce a dataset for the availability of forestry residue as a bioenergy feedstock. In addition to this, the team produced a toolkit for calculating the volume of forestry residue that can be sustainably removed from a forestry compartment based on soil parameters and forestry management objectives. This data was then used to create scenarios for energy and transport fuel production.
  4. Invasive Alien Plant Species – The BioEnergy Atlas team performed a study on assessing the potential bioenergy options for material derived from clearing programmes such as the Working for Water project.

The revised BioEnergy Atlas is currently live and available via https://bea.saeon.ac.za/.

Going forward, the BioEnergy Atlas (BEA) team plans to continually improve the BEA website and the BEA modelling platform and are open to partnering with stakeholders to use the technology we have developed to perform feasibility analyses.

Bioenergy represents an underutilised resource within South Africa. There is potential to use the tools, data and skills of the BioEnergy Atlas team to assist South Africa in transitioning towards a greener, sustainable energy future.

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