After investigating the biogas innovation taking Victoria by storm at Kia Ora piggery in Yarrawalla, it’s evident that Australia’s rural landscape is set to become a key player in the eco-friendly energy production of the future. With efficiency at the top of the agenda, piggery owner Tom Smith makes sure nothing goes to waste on his farm.

Capturing 120,000 tonnes of pig manure from 24,000 pigs per year and hoping to reduce his greenhouse gas emissions by 81 per cent, Tom Smith is certainly making energy production very much a part of the natural cycle. Master Plumbers Member Phil Kelly, Director of Kelly Plumbing, has played a pivotal role in the design and installation of the plumbing arms of the project, which has not been without its fair share of difficulties, as Kate Stephenson reports.

There are lots of things on Tom Smith’s farm that you won’t see anywhere else. There’s a shed out the back where they process up to 30 tonnes a day of unused or rejected canned and packaged foods, that he saves from becoming landfill by feeding what would become waste food to the pigs. ‘We try to do everything in house,’ says Smith, who seems to have a solution on how to put anything to use for the betterment of the environment.

‘We process and reuse everything we can on site. We try to use what we have, and put it to good use.’

Smith’s intelligent system uses anaerobic digestion to capture biogas in covered effluent ponds. This is then used to replace Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) for heating. In the near future, Tom will generate enough electricity to power his farm on pig waste alone.

‘Initially, the anaerobic pond was our Achilles heel,’ he says. The aroma has always been a real issue in the pig industry. Where it was formerly a liability, we are proud to have not only stopped the smell, but made it an asset, harvesting gas to push a whole new dynamic in the plumbing industry.’

Phil Kelly explains what’s involved from a plumbing perspective. ‘There are two parts to the gas componentry in a situation like this. The appliances inside are type B appliances, and then there is the complex gas piping that connects the two. The appliance part is controlled by a guy called Steve Pearson who I brought onto the site, and myself. I did a lot of the management of the project and negotiations with Energy Safe Victoria.’

The project is a key player in what Phil sees as a rural revolution, starting in country Victoria. ‘The country could become a feature of energy production into the future. It’s such an inspired idea to use the resources we have around us, especially when it would otherwise go to waste. We have a sustainable resource ripe for tapping into. It’s a waste product. I like that environmental approach to things. Tom’s got some great ideas, he’s a clever fella.’

Tom talks us through the mechanics of the project. ‘For every ten units of energy that come in via the biogas, these things are between 30 and 40 per cent efficient. Three to four units of energy come out of those generators. There are another five units of energy that come out of the hot water up there.’

‘What makes it even harder is that you can’t use conventional pipe materials; you would normally use copper, stainless steel or plastic. We were only permitted to use PVC the first time around due to regulations restrictions. PVC is a good material to use with biogas, because it doesn’t corrode, but we have had our hand forced to use stainless steel, which is much more expensive.

‘We are doing our very best to work through it,’ Kelly says. ‘I was a conduit to bringing this together. I also helped with the planning and the negotiation. I hope it will become easier moving forwards. The innovation Tom brings to the table has certainly taught me a lot, especially in terms of negotiations. It’s extended my work into areas I wouldn’t have gone if I had to find them myself.’

Phil has been collaborating on the project for the last three years. When working on new technology like this, there is always a frustration where Australian Standards and the Regulators are playing catch up with the emerging trends. As a result the project is taking longer than it should have to get across the line.

We can certainly see this use of biogas taking off,’ says Kelly. ‘The country could well be the key energy producing hub of the future.’

The benefits that could extend to the local community are remarkable. This kind of innovation could generate all the power for local areas, including the community of Filipino workers, employed by the piggery, who now make up over a third of the population of nearby Pyramid Hill. This would only be possible if there were successful on-going negotiations between the piggery and the power wholesalers.

The future is brighter for Smith, who hopes to save up to $350,000 on power bills in house.

“With 24,000 pigs, it costs over $1000 per day to power the farm. It will take us five years to get a return, but then we will only have to worry about maintenance costs.’