At the official opening in March of Richgro’s new AD plant in Western Australia, Managing Director Geoff Richards looked out with immense pride and satisfaction. In the company’s centenary year, the new £3.5M AD plant represents a true cornerstone - not just for the family- owned and run Richgro, but for Australia as a whole. Geoff’s grandfather, Arthur Richards had arrived in Perth one hundred years ago with just £5 in his pocket, but soon set up a thriving grocers and general merchant’s store.
“Our AD plant sends out a clear message”, says Geoff, “that we can keep our country clean, green and forever the lucky country”, which for many Australians is a phrase that has a very special resonance.
Prior to the creation of the UK AD & Biogas event, Geoff Richards had visited some waste and recycling trade shows in Europe, realising very early on that with Jandakot’s isolated location, the so-called ‘black box’ package solution was not going to be right for Richgro.
“We believed in using food waste and not growing crops to be used as fuel”, added Geoff. “For me it is very important that we find as many natural solutions as possible to the problems that confront the world – and the production of food is one of the biggest. I also wanted to steer well clear of a boxed solution because I needed to know what would be going on inside our AD plant – understand it and be able to operate it in our part of the world. There was no way I was going to put us in a situation where we didn’t have spare parts and back-up. We had to have a very robust plant”.
Wanting to form a closed loop, with potential to utilise heat and CO2 produced on site, Richgro (with annual electricity costs in excess of £200,000 pa), also wanted to use digestate to blend in with existing Richgro product to improve nutritional and breakdown characteristics, and market the new by-product as a bio-fertiliser.
It was only when he came to ADBA’s show in Birmingham that Geoff said he could meet those at the very heart of AD industry.
“Unlike other exhibitions, it was extremely focused with a very good structure and I really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss my ideas with those in the know. What was pleasantly surprising when I met Hugh Vaughan from Landia is that I wasn’t really sold to. Some companies want to sell you everything in their product range, even if they know it’s not the best solution, but I was given straight, honest answers to my questions.
One of the original Directors of ADBA, Landia’s Hugh Vaughan, recalls: “I thought it was quite novel to have somebody all the way from Australia visit our stand in Birmingham – and I could see straight away that this was a special opportunity for us and our fellow ADBA members to help make this project happen by working together”.
Landia were already working with Biodome Asia in Malaysia (the regional headquarters of UK-based Kirk Group), where 20 of its GasMix systems had been installed, so five months later a meeting was set up with Richgro at what was not too far off a halfway point. Geoff Richards and Hamish Jolly (Director of Biogass Renewables, also based in Jandakot) met Matthew Dickinson from Biodome Asia, plus Hugh Vaughan and Steen Larsen from Landia, to examine the best possible options as they drew up a draft design for the Richgro plant.
Geoff Richards continued: “First in Europe and then in Malaysia, we saw how the UK technology could survive in very harsh environments, from snow to extreme heat. We also had to be mindful of the fact that here in Perth, we have previously had earthquakes. I returned to the next UK AD & Biogas with Hamish Jolly where we split up at the start of exhibition, then met at the end to compare notes. We then drew up our final list of those companies we believed we could move forward with as long-term trusted suppliers”.
Both Geoff and Hamish had identified founder ADBA members Landia (digester pumps and mixers), Edina (gas generators) and Kirk Group (tanks/storage), as well as Uniflare (flare stacks). Determined to consider all options, Geoff also visited AD plants in North America, but felt overall that the industry there wasn’t moving forward with same innovation that would have complemented Richgro’s strongly held ethos of continuous improvement.
“We’ve always taken the pathway of innovation and adapting technology”, continued Geoff, “so it amazed me in the US and Canada that they were still producing concrete plants half buried in the ground and were largely using unreliable mixing systems that regularly failed. This model wasn’t for us at all. We needed a far more modern, cost-effective and practical plant that we could easily maintain, which is one of the main reasons we chose Landia’s GasMix. For access it is like an outboard motor – very easy to get at. Our second visit to England was the real turning point.
The English tell it like it is, which we really like. We knew we were on the right path. The ADBA members in the UK understood the reasons why for example, we wanted ownership of our plant dedicated software - and that they as a group of companies could make their equipment combine to produce the results we needed. We were also determined to create a clean input process, with a clean output and a fully closed loop.”
With a team now in place, Biogass Renewables assisted Richgro in gaining approval for the AD plant from Western Australia’s Department of Environment Regulation, before securing £1.1 million for the project under a debt funding arrangement from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – plus a further £800,000 in grants from the Australian Government’s Clean Technology Investment Program and the Western Australia State Government. Payback (before grants) on capital is expected within four years.
As agreed, ADBA members Landia, Biodome Asia, Edina and Uniflare all worked very closely together to co-ordinate delivery and installation for Biogass Renewables – although first a low voltage grid connection had to be overcome. A major upgrade to high voltage was required so that Richgro could import sufficient energy as well as export up to 2MW of power.
Operational now since January, Richgro has begun generating income from the gate fee for diverting waste from landfill, as well as from the digestate as a biofertiliser by-product.