By Steph Barker, Journalist, Council Magazine

Working with member councils, industry, government agencies and other stakeholders, the Eastern Metropolitan Regional Council (EMRC) is a model of collaboration that is designed to deliver tangible benefits to the region. Its latest project aims to develop a carbon to ethanol plant that will turn greenhouse gases into products, and most importantly, energy.

The EMRC is a regional local government authority that works on behalf of four member Councils located in Perth’s Eastern Region: Town of Bassendean, City of Bayswater, Shire of Mundaring and City of Swan. It provides sustainability services in waste management, resource recovery, urban environmental management and regional development.

The EMRC has been working collaboratively with Woodside Energy – a global energy company founded in Australia – on a proposal aiming to transform greenhouse gases into useful products. Together, the EMRC and Woodside are collaborating on a proposal to develop a Carbon to Ethanol Pilot Plant designed to capture greenhouse gases and convert them into useful products in a process known as carbon capture and utilisation (CCU).

Carbon capture and utilisation

The Carbon to Ethanol Pilot Plant is proposed to be located on vacant land owned by the EMRC, approximately 12km north-east of Midland in Western Australia, adjacent to the existing EMRCoperated Red Hill Waste Management Facility. The proposed Pilot Plant, which is still subject to approvals, is a demonstration-scale facility that aims to test technologies that can convert greenhouse gases into useful products.

EMRC Chief Executive Officer, Marcus Geisler, said the project aligned with the EMRC’s sustainability strategy that was launched in 2022. “Woodside was looking for a project site to trial technologies to utilise carbon dioxide. We know that increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels drive climate change, so they want to investigate how CO2 can be turned into a useful product,” Mr Geisler said.

CCU has become a huge focus in sustainability, with the process involving the capture of CO2, generally from large point sources like power generation or industrial facilities that use either fossil fuels or biomass as fuel. The captured CO2 may then be used in a range of applications.

Brewing fuel from waste products

The proposed Carbon to Ethanol Pilot Plant aims to take methane and CO2 produced by the Red Hill Waste Management Facility and put it through a process to turn it into ethanol, which can then be used as a sustainable fuel by Council and others. Mr Geisler said the process draws a lot of parallels to beer brewing.

“Our landfill generates large amounts of methane and CO2 through the anaerobic conditions, and it’s at a perfect mix of 45 per cent methane and 55 per cent CO2. That mixture will allow Woodside to do this trial,” Mr Geisler said. “Converting the landfill gas to ethanol is a two-step process. In the first step the methane and CO2 is reformed into syngas (a blend of carbon monoxide and hydrogen). The syngas is then fermented and distilled to produce ethanol (i.e., alcohol) in a process akin to beer or whiskey production. The end product is high purity, fuel grade ethanol.

“The proposed Pilot Plant is essentially recovering a wasted product into something we can use locally. What we’re going to do is convert a couple of pieces of our heavy equipment used at the Red Hill Waste Management Facility and let them run on this ethanol, considered a renewable fuel, replacing diesel.”

Aligning values

The proposed Carbon to Ethanol Pilot Plant will be the first of its kind in the world. Rather than finding this a daunting prospect, Mr Geisler said the EMRC felt the project perfectly aligned with its values – the organisation has a target of below net-zero emissions by 2040. The collaboration presents a rare opportunity to be at the forefront of sustainable development with very little risk and high reward, both environmentally and socially.

“It fits with our decarbonisation strategy, instead of burning diesel to run our equipment on the landfill, we’ll be using a fuel made from converted greenhouse gases. We will be using methane and CO2 from the landfill that otherwise would have ended up in the atmosphere – so we’re addressing greenhouse gases and climate change, and that fits with our target of climate action,” Mr Geisler said.

“I like that we are working together. This is local government collaborating with industry. I’m very big on the circular economy, and collaboration is key, as we cannot realise our decarbonisation ambitions in isolation. “We really need the State Government, the Federal Government, local government, industry, and academia working together on this. Being a community owned asset, as we are, the EMRC is fantastically placed because we can play a key role enabling and catalysing decarbonisation projects.”

Collaboration

Mr Geisler said other councils can learn a lot from the collaboration, particularly in relation to sustainable approaches to strategically placed landfill sites. “Our core business currently is landfilling, and what is happening with a lot of local governments or regional councils is that landfilling is dying out, as all states and territories are minimising waste and recovering more.

For example, Western Australia has set a maximum of 15 per cent to landfill by 2030 target,” Mr Geisler said. “Instead of closing down these sites, we should really rethink and repurpose the landfill sites and turn them into circular economy hubs by expanding the activities because they’re contaminated sites already, but they’re part of the critical waste management infrastructure.”

The collaboration presents a perfect pairing of want and need – Woodside needs land, landfill gas and water to develop the proposed Pilot Plant, while the EMRC wants to be part of developing sustainable energy solutions. The EMRC will benefit from the proposed Pilot Plant – apart from being at the forefront of innovative sustainability practices, the project is set to generate money that can be reinvested into other community projects.

The EMRC will also benefit from Woodside’s investment into infrastructure at the Red Hill Waste Management Facility with that infrastructure remaining with the EMRC after the proposed Pilot Plant is removed.

“What Woodside brings to the collaboration is the technology. It’s 100 per cent their investment – so as a local government, we are not exposed to that side of the project. It’s really a match of, we’ve got what they need and they can utilise the infrastructure, products and services we have,” Mr Geisler said. ”It’s a fantastic model, that money may then be reinvested in more community-owned waste management and resource recovery infrastructure networks and eco hubs. A true triple bottom line win-win, socially, environmentally and financially

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