SOME time on Thursday, Mackay Sugar will flick the switch on its new $120 million co-generation plant and start supplying electricity to Queensland's regional power grid.
The country's second-biggest sugar miller plans to increase output and by February it should be supplying almost a third of the Mackay region's electricity, as well as powering its Racecourse Mill and adjacent refinery.
The plant will incinerate fibre left after crushing sugarcane, known as bagasse. Its power exports - expected to run 50 weeks a year - will reduce the region's coal-fired carbon dioxide emissions by some 200,000 tonnes a year, while earning the company renewable energy certificates and payment for the electricity itself.
"We anticipate a payback over approximately seven years," John Hodgson, the company's business development manager, said.
"We expect that this project will remove Mackay Sugar from the list of Australia's top carbon emitters [required to pay the carbon tax],'' he said.
For Rob Murray-Leach, chief executive of industry lobby group, the Energy Efficiency Council, Australian companies such as Mackay Sugar are catching on that investments to improve energy productivity can deliver significant economic and environmental benefits.
Comments made during the recent Senate inquiry into electricity prices suggest politicians from all sides "are starting to understand that energy efficiency is the urgent and the easy way to deal with rising energy prices and carbon emissions," Mr Murray-Leach said.
Indeed, energy efficiency is fast becoming the new black if Australia's Energy White Paper released last week and Monday's unveiling of the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2012 are any guide.
"In the nation's pursuit of energy affordability, climate change mitigation and energy security, energy productivity stands out as perhaps the single most cost-effective way to achieve these goals," is how the government's landmark energy report described it.
While the paper did not go as far as the IEA and identify efficiency as an energy source, it represented a “big jump forward” from previous assessments including the draft version of the white paper released a year ago, Mr Murray-Leach said.
The IEA report identifies investments to get more from the same amount of energy - ranging from mandating higher minimum fuel economy standards, to spending on new lighting and heating equipment - will account for 70 per cent of energy savings between now and 2035. By contrast, switching fuels such as to renewable energy, will supply only 12 per cent, , the IEA said.
However, the necessary investments won't come cheap. Globally, they will cost $US11.8 trillion by 2035 - but will generate savings of $US23.4 trillion, the agency predicts. Mr Murray-Leach said governments should make efficiency efforts more attractive, including by enabling companies and households to be paid by energy companies for savings they make, or so-called "negawatts".
As companies such as Mackay Sugar demand less power from coal-fired power plants, energy suppliers can avoid making new investment in long-lived assets that are likely to become stranded, he said.