Travelling to the region of Kakheti in east Georgia always brings winemaking to one’s mind. The region is famous for its vast vineyards and delicious traditional wines.
Indeed, I was interested in vineyards when I visited Kakheti in December 2016, but not as a source of wine but rather a highest quality biomass material.
At a small biomass plant in the village of Manavi, I was impressed to see up-close how biofuels were produced. An untidy mass of vine shoots was sent through a briquetting device to be transformed into small neat blocks that can easily substitute to coal and other fossil fuels.
This small enterprise belongs to Giorgi Zurabishvili and Temur Matiashvili, the local residents who consider biomass a promising business opportunity with environmental benefits.
Giorgi Zurabishvili told me that replacing traditional firewood with biofuels was vital for saving Georgia’s forests. Most families in rural areas, as well schools and public offices, still rely on firewood for heating and, regrettably, get it from illegal logging.
Illegal logging was one of the reasons behind the increased deforestation in Georgia in the last 20 years.
Georgia is rich with hazelnut plantations in the west and vineyards in the eastern regions, which creates a natural supply of biomass material for local production.
Giorgi and Temur have made full use of this opportunity by setting up their biomass plant in the area surrounded by vineyards.
“We collect vine shoots from the neighbouring farmers, compress them into briquettes and sell to the local supermarkets and restaurants as a heating fuel and barbecue charcoal. Our production is good for environment and contributes to the local economy as it keeps money circulating locally,” Giorgi Zurabishvili said.
Despite these obvious benefits, starting up a biomass plant was not all that easy. A couple of years ago, Giorgi and Temur struggled with outdated equipment and were on the verge of giving up on the biomass.
The assistance from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Global Environment Facility (GEF) came just in time to save and even expand their green business.
“With the new briquetting machine we are producing 75 tonnes of high quality briquettes per month,” Giorgi says.
Even though biomass briquettes are a relatively new product in Georgia, Giorgi already sees a market opportunity and hopes to double production in 2017 turning his venture into a profitable business.
Since 2013, UNDP and GEF have been supporting three pilot biomass plants in different regions of Georgia aiming to show the benefits of biofuel, encourage local entrepreneurs and help the country put in place a national strategy and action plan on bioenergy.
700 tonnes of briquettes made of vine shoots, sawdust and wood waste were produced in 2016 and the numbers can increase to up to 6,000 tonnes per year.
Biomass briquettes are becoming a best-selling product in the large supermarkets and will be used for heating schools and public buildings in some of the rural areas.
With the supportive policies in place and growing local production, Georgia has good chances in the coming years to power its municipal sector with renewable energy.