Its main street has a park on one side and is lined with bakeries, banks and take-away shops on the other.
Until Colac was hit by a large coronavirus cluster earlier this year, it didn’t often make the national news.
But this unassuming country town, which serves as hub for farms dotting the green Otway pastures, is about to become home to a new energy concept.
The town’s largest employers — food manufacturers Bulla Dairy Foods and the Australian Lamb Company (ALC) — together with the regional water corporation, Barwon Water, are collaborating to build an Australian-first facility.
Barwon Water infrastructure and technology general manager, Shaun Cumming, said the Colac Renewable Organics Network (RON) would take waste and turn it into something valuable.
By utilising a natural phenomenon, armies of bacteria will transform the waste water, chemicals and food waste solids into biogas, turning an otherwise useless product into electricity, hot water and fertiliser.
“The technology itself is really simple and reliable, and a process that’s been there in the world for millions and millions of years,” Mr Cumming said.
“We’re harnessing nature to provide benefits to the environment.”
While the process is tried and tested, the decision to create a purpose-built grid allowing private companies and public corporations to share their waste — and the power and hot water it generates — is a first for Australia.
How a small town brought public and private industry together
Bulla and ALC employ more than 700 people in Colac and are critically important to the survival of the town.
When the team at Barwon Water were looking for ways to achieve their ambitious target of 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2025 and zero net emissions by 2030, they thought about involving some of their largest customers in the solution.
“What we found is we all were facing similar challenges when it came to … addressing climate change, waste and energy costs, and sustainable long term waste management solutions,” Mr Cumming said.
“So from that the renewable organics network concept was born.”
Bulla sustainability manager Jen Downey said agreeing to take part in the project was “a no-brainer” for the 110-year-old company.
“[Barwon Water] basically interviewed all of us to see what we had as shared challenges and obviously that came down to electricity, the security of electricity and the pricing, and reducing our landfill volumes,” she said.
“When we were deciding to go ahead with the project and looking at the benefits and the risks there’s virtually no risks, it’s all benefit; for Barwon Water, ALC and ourselves.”
For Bulla there were no upfront capital costs, just a 10-year agreement that they would continue sending waste to Barwon Water and paying the associated fees.
In return they would be able to close down the factory’s existing on-site water treatment plant — which had already reached its capacity — giving the company the option to expand production in the future without the multi-million-dollar expense of building a new plant.
ALC chief financial officer Dale Smith said the meatworks would provide “high-strength” organic waste, which requires less treatment before being sent down the drain, and in return would receive water heated by the RON.
“We expect with the hot water that we’re going to get back [that] will reduce our reliance on our gas usage by a third,” he said.
“We eliminate entirely the use of chemicals prior to sending wastewater across to Barwon Water and that will give us an annualised saving of between $100,000 and $150,000 in reduced chemical costs.”
‘Big gas bags’ or ‘a large home brew kit’ generate power
Deakin University environmental engineering professor Wendy Timms said the Colac RON was exciting because it was “a win-win-win”.
“It’s addressing the greenhouse gas emissions problem that we have, it’s addressing the waste management problem that we have, it’s also generating jobs, it’s generating value from that waste so I think there’s a lot of positives to it,” she said.
“We’ve got a whole bunch of people coming together in the Colac region, and even beyond that, to make sure we’re getting the best value out of our waste.”
The RON works by collecting waste which is piped to the water reclamation plant and placed in large ponds, called high-rate anaerobic lagoons.
In Colac, that waste includes water and chemicals used to clean the food processing equipment, as well as organic waste from dairy and animal products.
There’s also talk of creating a second network in the region using organic waste from kerbside bins — but that’s still in early discussions.
Professor Timms describes the ponds, which are covered by a membrane, as “big gas bags”.
Mr Cumming describes it a little differently.
“I liken it to a large home brew kit,” he said.
“The bacteria are doing their thing, bubbling away.
“[The process then] captures the biogas that’s generated from natural bacteria breaking down organic material and uses that biogas to then drive a co-generation machine — or a big car engine — and that generates electricity and hot water.”
Aside from creating a power source, the process also prevents methane from being released into the atmosphere when the organic material is degraded.
“One of the things with methane is it’s 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of a greenhouse gas, so we’re actually converting that methane into carbon dioxide and reducing the impacts on the environment,” Mr Cumming said.
Professor Timms said another advantage of biogas was it could be used like a battery, saving energy generated over several hours or days to feed into the electricity network when it’s needed, like when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
“It could be a nice balance to renewable energy that’s also generated from other sources such as solar and wind,” she said.
Potential to expand biogas use in Australia
Professor Timms said biogas currently accounts for a “very small percentage” of Australia’s energy, less than one or two per cent.
But she sees huge potential for expansion.
“There is an opportunity to grow our biogas in Australia to perhaps something like 10 per cent, perhaps even more, of the energy we need,” Professor Timms said.
“It’s essentially a renewable energy source.”
Mr Cumming said the project would generate enough electricity to take the Colac water reclamation plant off the grid, which would help keep bills more affordable for Barwon Water customers.
On top of that it would also feed electricity into the grid, enough to power about 500 homes. It will also generate hot water which will be piped across the road to the Australian Lamb company to offset their gas use, which is equivalent to the gas consumption of around 350 homes.
Solid waste that’s left over at the end of the process will be collected and used for soil conditioning and fertiliser on farms.
In total, the project will save about 6,300 tonnes of carbon emissions each year, create 17 construction jobs and 45 ongoing jobs.
Professor Timms said there were some challenges when using anaerobic processes.
“The microbes need to be happy,” she said.
“If there’s any change in the conditions that affect the microbes then this could be something that becomes a little tricky to manage. So it needs some careful research, some careful monitoring, some really good training of all the personnel who will be involved in managing this organic waste network and the biogas project.”
She also emphasised the need to avoid waste in the first place, check the soil conditioners created were healthy and sustainable for agriculture long-term and ensure the distance waste was transported was kept to a minimum.
But until such time as we can eliminate all waste, Professor Timms said the project was a terrific way to turn it into something beneficial.
“We need to change, we need to be innovative and at the moment we’re actually wasting money when we have this valuable energy that we’re losing,” she said.
“A project like this certainly gives optimism that we’re able to change and we’re able to adapt, we’re able to try new things and to actually connect the dots in the way we live into a circular economy.”
In total, the project will cost $9 million, an investment all parties agree is worthwhile.
“Financially, this project will generate savings for all of the partners, and I think also for consumers like me who use water and use energy,” Professor Timms said.
“So I think it makes a whole lot of sense, and dollars.”