A sweet career in renewable energy
From sailing the Sydney to Hobart yacht race, to avoiding leopards on a golf course in Africa, Paul Trayner has lived a life of adventure while pursuing a career in the sugar industry. Now a Townsville local of six years, Paul heads up a team responsible for generating enough renewable electricity to power about 80,000 Australian homes each year. This renewable electricity is produced at the eight local sugar mills owned and operated by Wilmar Sugar Australia; the country’s largest producer of raw sugar and one of its largest generators of renewable energy from biomass.
As Wilmar’s Cogeneration Energy Manager, Paul Trayner is completely in his element, working in a field that has been both a lifelong passion, and a ticket to travel the world.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to spend eight years living and working in the sugar industry abroad with my wife Monica; in East Africa, China, the Caribbean, and the UK,” says Paul.
“In each country, my work was not only about sugar manufacturing and providing technical input as a chemical engineer, but also about teaching and helping to develop the local communities.
“Sugar mills were an essential part of the local infrastructure, much like they are here in Australia. Schools and hospitals were built around the mills, and the communities relied on the factories as a major employer. The mills generate their own power, which in some cases provided the only source of electricity and clean water for the surrounding towns.”
For Paul, working in the sugar industry abroad was also a chance for adventure. “One of the most interesting places I lived was Guyana, a low-lying country in South America on the Carribean coast, with its coastal plains protected by a seawall.
“While Guyana was a world leader in sugar technology in the twentieth century, the industry has reduced and it now has a number of sugar mills along its coastal region that are relatively small in size compared to Australian mills.
“Interestingly, the sugarcane was delivered to the mills via canals on small punts pulled by tractors (originally by donkey). The wetlands and canals were actually a great place to go piranha fishing, and a photo of my father and me fishing from a boat ended up being featured on the seafood page of a local restaurant menu. We’d actually been standing in the knee-high water just before that photo was taken; for those interested – rotten chicken was the bait of choice.”
While some would avoid the wildlife in East Africa, Paul embraced it, joining a running group with the local community in Masindi, Uganda.
“The running group was a chance to meet locals and run through the jungle, where we’d see families of chimps and baboons feasting on the sugar cane. There was also a golf course at the sugar mill near Masindi which I used to play at, but it was frequented by leopards, monkeys and baboons so you couldn’t play there in the late afternoon, and if you hit the ball into the rough, there was no fetching it.”
Throughout his work and travel, the ability of sugar mills to provide hubs for the development of infrastructure was consistently reinforced.
“Sugar mills are just as much a part of local communities in Australia as they are overseas, providing a major source of employment, feedstock, and sponsorship of local events. Wilmar’s mills are a huge source of renewable energy, producing not only electricity, but also molasses which is used to create ethanol for household products and fuel.
“Wilmar operates the Sarina Distillery, which produces about 60 megalitres of BioEthanol each year, two thirds of which is used to produce enough e10 fuel to power 400,000 cars a year.”
In his role, Paul oversees the generation of about 350,000 megawatt hours of export electricity, produced across Wilmar’s eight sugar mills in Queensland. Steam generated by burning bagasse, the fibrous by-product leftover after the juice has been extracted from sugarcane, in large purpose-built boilers, is used for heat in the sugar producing process as well as to power the factory’s alternators. Electricity surplus to the factory’s needs is exported to the public power grid, supplementing North Queensland’s high power usage rates.
“While all eight of Wilmar’s mills generate electricity, Pioneer and Invicta mills in the Burdekin and Victoria Mill in Ingham have purpose-built cogeneration plants as part of the factory, which means these sites can maximise electricity production. I actually returned to the company in 2004, when Pioneer Mill, which was then owned by CSR Sugar, invested in the first large-scale, purpose-built cogeneration plant in Australia, which I wanted to be part of.”
Wilmar International acquired CSR’s sugar business, by then called Sucrogen, in December 2010.
“I moved to Townsville with my family in 2012 when I took on my current role, and we really love it here. I get to work with a really passionate team, and I think there’s a lot of great work coming out of the office here in Townsville and our eight mill sites.
“There’s a lot of potential in the renewable energy space, and it has far from reached the pinnacle of its development. I’m looking forward to being part of what I see as being a big future in renewable energy from biomass.”