OIL mallee growers expecting the Narrogin mallee processing plant to close have been buoyed by a last-minute ministerial intervention to keep the plant operating.
Energy Minister Fran Logan announced last week that he had asked plant owner Verve Energy (formerly Western Power) to seek a commercial investor to continue operating the plant.
The Narrogin integrated mallee wood processing project began as a pilot in 2001 to create renewable energies from mallee wood products.
It was supported by WA catchment councils, federal salinity programs and sustainable transport groups.
The plant was expected to close this month after its five-year trail period concluded.
The processor has successfully produced renewable electricity, eucalyptus oil, and charcoal and activated carbon chips from mallee trees.
Much of the new technology and results have been the first of their kind in Australia.
Mr Logan said the breakthroughs made at the plant made the plant technology a more attractive commercial proposition for investors.
"There is still a long way to go but this technology represents a cutting-edge opportunity for investment," he said.
"With the right kind of investment, five to 10 mallee tree-powered generators could be built to supply electricity to the Wheatbelt.
"This would improve electricity supply reliability in the South-West and give farmers an additional income source, particularly on salt-affected land."
The trial results will be collated and presented to potential investors and the plant will be kept running with minimal staff for investors' visits.
When asked how the State Government would tackle its federal counterpart's reticence on carbon trading reforms, the Minister said the country's state governments were pushing for renewable energy.
He said the Federal Government's inaction could be because of its relationship with multinational companies.
Oil Mallee Association (OMA) great southern regional manager Dave McFall said the state's resource boom could mean a significant demand for the activated carbon produced at the Narrogin plant.
It produces activated carbon particles from mallee wood, which are then used in air and liquid purification.
The particles attract contaminants in water and are particularly useful in gold mining purification.
Mr McFall said the plant was one of the state's leading lights for regional community opportunities.
"To continue this plant would be a massive step forward for renewable energy in WA," he said.
"Other exciting initiatives we can extend from the project include feed stocks and inland aquaculture.
"The next stage is looking a lot rosier with the minister behind it.
"Farmers need alternative incomes and tree crops are a low input cost and easy maintenance option."
OMA state president Mike Kerkmans said mallees were finally coming of age as an energy crop.
"More than 1200 farmers have planted more than 25 million mallee trees since 1993 in WA," Mr Kerkmans said.
"The larger the tree cropping endeavour is, the greater the water consumption and relief from encroaching salinity.
"Other benefits of mallee farming include less inundation, more production and reduced investment in and maintenance on engineering structures."
Mr Kerkmans said biomass (tree waste products) from mallee trees was a win-win industry with benefits for stakeholders at every stage of the supply chain.
He said OMA supported new research into biomass applications, such as the work being done by Curtin University chemical engineer Hongwei Wu, who is examining the ability of biomass to convert to liquid biofuel.
"These new technologies and scientific studies like Dr Wu's research require our strong support so we can build new industries as a market base for farmers to integrate other land use options," Mr Kerkmans said.
Oil mallee grower Lex Hardie (pictured) said the pilot project had proved the success of the activated carbon, energy and eucalypt oil concepts.
Mr Hardie said more than 800ha would be planted to oil mallees this season, thanks to funding inputs from the Avon and South West Catchment Councils.
"Integrated perennial tree cropping will complement our current agricultural industries and offer farmers viable means of dealing with issues like climate change and greenhouse compliance," he said.
The WA Nationals have shown support for oil mallee plants by urging the state government to underwrite the purchase of electricity from future mallee plants across the Wheatbelt.
WA Nationals deputy leader Terry Waldron said the milestones achieved at the Narrogin plant had justified the efforts of hundreds of farmers who had planted thousands of mallee trees.
"There is still a long way to go to commercialise the technology but it is now imperative for the state to encourage private sector investment by underwriting off-take agreements for this green energy," Mr Waldron said.
"A lot of people have shown faith in this technology and it now appears it could form the basis of a large commercial operation right across the Wheatbelt.
"I am seeking a meeting with Mr Logan to see what we can do at local level to make sure these green projects attract sufficient investment."