Bavaria, beer and biofuels – Read FWi’s biofuels tour blog

Welcome to my diary of the technical tour to Germany and Austria to study renewable energy (biofuels in particular) – organised by Barfield Travel Agritravel.

If you’re wanting an in-depth look at how the UK can catch up with the German biofuel industry (and learn from their mistakes), then I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait until I return and write it up for Farmers Weekly.

But, in the meantime, the blog below should at least give you an idea of what’s coming up and provide a small insight into what goes on behind the scenes and doesn’t get written up in the magazine!

Saturday 14th October
Our tin can didn’t take off until the afternoon, so we had just enough time to wander around Graz and buy a souvenir or two for people back home.

As I hate shopping, I decided the wine I bought yesterday would suffice and opted to go for a coffee instead. While sitting in the town’s main square we watched a number of people wander by dressed in yellow overalls, with paper shopping bags on their heads.

We later found out that rather than being some strange Austrian shopping tradition, they were in fact advertising a new out of town shopping centre – very brave I thought, I can see why they didn’t want to show their faces!

Unlike Stansted, Graz airport was small, eerily quiet… and a lot quicker to get through! I boarded the plane with some relief that we were heading home, but also with a real interest in biofuels and a sense that there are opportunities for farmers – not just on the continent, but also in the UK.

Before coming on the trip, I thought that a whole week devoted to biofuels might be a bit too much, but it’s gone surprisingly quickly and has proved incredibly interesting. The people we’ve met have shown real passion for what they’re doing and I get a sense they truly believe that they are doing something that will not just help this generation, but many more in the future.

Now I just have to write it all up!

Friday 13th October
We were promised that the last full day of the tour would bring everything we’ve seen together – and from my point of view at least, I don’t think we were disappointed.

The day started with a 1.5hr coach journey to the centre of technology in Gussing, close to the Slovenia border. We heard how a project to supply the town with its own renewable fuel was proving a great success, and the entire district was expected to be self sufficient in energy within the next 3 years.

This is particularly impressive, as the area was once one of the poorest in Austria. As we left the building, the town’s Mayor arrived and was happy to chat to us about its success – and get his picture taken by yours truly!

We stopped to look around the town’s biomass plant, then moved on to Mureck to see a project supplying heat, electric and fuel to a local community. Our host was eager to show us everything there, but with time pressing on and one more trip to go that day, it was more of a jog around the site, with a last minute dash through the biodiesel plant, before jumping on the coach, for an ‘Italian Job’-style ride into the mountains.

The reason for our mad dash was to look at a solar powered cooling system being used to chill wine in a small vineyard. Afterwards, we got to sample (and buy) a few bottles – just to be polite of course – before heading back to Graz.

On route we stopped at a restaurant run by farmers, serving traditional, locally produced Austrian food. Apparently they only have a licence to sell alcohol for 2 periods every year…and we just happened to time it right for one of them!

Thursday 12th October
OK, so maybe you noticed the slight delay in my reports appearing on the website – finding any computer connected to the internet is proving more difficult than I expected – although I am getting used to interpreting German versions of Windows!

The news last night that OPEC is to cut oil production by 1 million barrels certainly reinforced our reasons for being here – especially if, as I’m sure is inevitable, fuel prices go back up again (if they haven’t already) – maybe getting the train to work isn’t so bad after all (I might retract this at 7am on Monday morning!).

Yet another glorious morning greeted us today, as we made our way to a farm biogas plant perched up in the hills above the town where we spent the night. Getting a large coach up the mountain road to the farm was best described as “interesting” particularly as the driver wasn’t entirely sure which of the farms we were going to.

It emerged that the farmer was the brother of a famous skier – maybe not surprising given we were in the heart of the Austrian Alps.

We followed this with a trip to a biomass plant using woodchips to supply heat to the Atomic ski factory in the town. Amazingly we were told building work started in July and the plant was up and running by that October – not bad for somewhere producing 5,000KW of heat every hour!

Our Austrian tour guide assures me that it’s not normal to get such warm weather at this time of year, but it was certainly welcome as we sat outside eating a hearty lunch before the 160km trip to a biodiesel plant near Graz and our final change of hotel.

Wednesday 11th October
Last night’s amusement at watching Maverick & Goose speaking German on TV, was topped by the later appearance of the mighty ‘Hoff’ (David Hasslehoff for any non-Knight rider fans out there) – not surprising given his almost legendary status here!

Our first stop en-route to Austria was to hear a very detailed talk on the veg oil/ biofuel market at the Bavarian government’s Technology and Development Centre in Straubing. We also got to poke around in the range of presses, filters and other processing equipment on display.

Our rather un-ceremonious crossing of the German/ Austria border was quickly followed by a transfer to a new 50-seater coach, complete with tour guide – maybe slightly excessive for under 20 people, but at least there’s plenty of space to sit and write this blog!

We then moved on to a new biogas plant, set up by 4 local farmers, who now supply ‘ecologically friendly’ electric to the national grid. Having read much about such schemes, getting the chance to see a new, farmer-run plant and follow the process through from field to turbine was excellent.

No idea how I’m going to fit all the info into the magazine – the fact 2 pens have run out and my notebook’s filling faster than a bank handing out free money makes me think it’ll be a bit of a squeeze!

Tuesday 10th October
Another crisp, but perfectly clear, morning greeted us as we made our way to the engine conversion company, Elsbett, about 30 mins away. Our host greeted us with some excellent English and a number of stories about how the company had pioneered the TDi engine and other technologies.

Being an ex-colleague, and now rival, of our last host yesterday, it provided some interesting and pretty contrasting comment – not helped by a number of members of our group stirring it up!

On route to the next site, a lunch stop gave us a chance to sample a local Bavarian delicacy – for the sake of any vegetarians out there, it’s probably best not to mention what was in it, but it’s fair to say those that tried it for the first time (myself included) won’t be cooking it up at home in the near future!

The final visit of the day was to see an on-farm oilseed rape press, where the oil was being used in one of the farm’s tractors, six private cars and a lorry. Fascinating stuff to see working in practice, and equal to the impressive 4,000t+ grain store that had been built, complete with computer-controlled centre and enough conveyors/ augers to reach from here to Scotland!

With a confident prediction by Tim that we were ahead of schedule for the day, there was just enough time for a brief beer at the ‘Spital Garten’ in Regensberg, translated as “hospital garden”.

It was then back onto the coach for another hour to the next hotel – and a new search for another internet connection. While doing so, I found it highly amusing watching a German-dubbed version of the classic 80’s film, Top Gun – somehow, I think it loses something in the translation, but maybe that’s just me…

Monday 9th October
“About forty minutes” was Tim’s estimate on how long it would take to get to the first visit this morning – yeah right! To everyone’s surprise, 43minutes later we arrived at Triesdorf experimental station to see their small oilseed rape press and biogas plant.

The site is part of the agricultural college, which is home to 2,500 students. Interestingly, they teach a complete range of practical ag’ courses, but also some more random subjects, such as how to run a B&B, village pub, farm shop or dairy. These may be not core farming activities, but it was certainly encouraging to see the effort that was going into creating and maintaining rural incomes, alongside more ‘traditional’ farming activities.

After a lunch of schnitzel and chips, it was back on the coach to our next stop to VMP – a major company involved in the conversion of tractor (and lorry, or car) engines to run on plant oil. Our host greeted us with an interesting, if somewhat random talk, about how the gutters on the office building were made of wood rather than copper, so as to prevent pollution from copper contained in the runoff.

Having being told at the earlier visit that day that veg oil could be used in engines with virtually no changes, it was interesting to hear his talk on the list of modifications needed for engines to run on veg oil – maybe not surprising coming from someone offering such a service (look out for more in FW when I’ve worked out how to do it!).

Anyway after a short coach trip back, dinner and a swift (honestly) beer, there was just enough time to work out how to access the internet before going to bed. Even in deepest Bavaria you can still get wireless internet access!

Sunday 8th October
After queuing for what seemed like an eternity (best part of 2hrs) to get through security at Stansted, we finally got on our way towards Frankfurt. Thankfully the short flight meant my love of being 35,000 feet up in the air, with nothing but a bit of tin between me and the ground, was just about bearable!

The coach trip to the hotel, we were told, would take “a couple of hours”….some four hours later later we arrived, feeling somewhat tired by the day’s travelling, and now slightly cautious about anything our guide, Tim, tells us!

It wasn’t until after a couple German beers and one or two schnapps that evening that people livened up a bit and the more interesting conversation started to flow…a lot of which probably can’t be repeated here.

Why not visit FWi and ICIS Chemical Business’s biolfuels blog for more information on who’s up to what in the biofuels sector?


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