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Published: 2005-03-18 00:00:00

The Lake Taupo Development Company is planning a clean energy centre using the natural attributes and strengths of the Taupo District - geothermal, biomass and fresh water.

The economic development agency for the Taupo District’s key project is to investigate the growing of woody shrubs to ‘farm’ biomass energy as an alternative to farming in the area.

This week’s Environment Waikato Environment Committee meeting heard that economic development agencies had the opportunity to develop strategic initiatives that reflected the strengths of the area. With 20 hydro and geothermal power stations in the district, Taupo had identified clean energy as a strength that should be developed.

Company Chief Executive Barry Delany said the situation the lake was in – where increasing nitrogen inputs were threatening water quality - was the biggest challenge to the area’s economy. Alternative, economically viable land uses must be found to replace farming uses to lower the amount of nitrogen by 20 percent over the next few years.

The plan was to grow plants for economic return, extracting the cellulose from salix (shrub willow) using enzymes to produce ethanol, and turning the by-products into valuable biodegradable products.

He said Taupo resources, skills and the demand for energy had evoked a strong interest in the project from Government, industry and educationalists. The centre would also be a catalyst for plans to establish a science and technology park that used the district’s natural attributes and built on a memorandum of understanding with education institutes.

The company had been actively seeking solutions to the economic effects of Lake Taupo’s increasing nitrification. Since completing a study of alternative land uses in late 2003, the organisation had worked with Agrigenesis in developing salix as a basis for energy farming.

The project was important to the Taupo economy as it potentially addressed sustainable land use change, sustainable energy production, commercial viability for landowners, biodegradable plastics and a more diversified and robust economy for the Taupo district, he said.

The opportunity to use geothermal heat lowered capital costs. The area had existing strengths in energy generation, and existing capability in tree cropping so it was a strong fit with the area’s clean energy focus.

Establishing a biorefinery in New Zealand would produce ethanol and bio-polymers that could replace fossil fuel-derived polymers used in products such as resins and films, and which could be sold around the world. It could also supply a significant percentage of New Zealand’s motor fuel.

Ethanol is clean burning and helped New Zealand’s Kyoto protocol obligations, promoted rural economic development and reduced nitrate losses to Lake Taupo. Two hectares were planted in September last year on Maori land in the catchment, and would be the first feedstock for a test expected in 2008. If successful the Company plans to have commercial investors committed to construct a bio-refinery by 2010-12.

It was essential to get the proposed Taupo fund working so such a project could get funds for development and research, he said.