Biofuel Power Stations Take Heat for Burning Palm Oil for Electricity

by | Apr 13, 2010

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ChelvestonRenewableEnergyParkEnvironmentalists are criticizing Chelveston Renewable Energy in the UK for planning to burn tropical palm oil to generate electricity, reports Times Online. The renewable energy company recently received permission to build a bio-oil power station on a former RAF bomber base.

Chelveston’s power plant is expected to burn locally produced rapeseed oil and waste cooking fats as well as palm oil. The company also plans to build a wind farm and an anaerobic digestion plant on the same site.

But Chelveston is not the only UK company to have proposed the use of palm oil for power generation. Others include W4B, Vogen Energy and Rocpower. However, W4B’s chairman recently said the company had no plans to import food-grade palm oil to power its Portland project power station, reports Dorset Echo.

Environmentalists say the growing market for palm oils is speeding up the destruction of tropical rainforests as they are cleared for bio-fuel plantations. Greenpeace says four percent of global greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to come from the destruction of the Indonesian rainforests.

A recent ruling that qualifies vegetable oil for green subsidies by the UK government made it economically feasible to burn vegetable oil for electricity generation, tripling the value of the electricity produced to about £150 (about $230) a megawatt hour (MWh), according to Times Online.

Proponents say palm oil still generates less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of a comparable fossil-fuel oil even after growing, processing and transporting the oil to Britain are taken into account.

Paul Thompson of the Renewable Energy Association told Times Online that “burning palm oil and other vegetable oils for power generation can offer significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, provided the fuel is sustainably sourced.”

But critics told the newspaper that palm oil is not sustainably sourced and is grown in areas that have been cleared of rainforest that releases carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases from the soil.

Even if rules were established for determining which fuels are sustainable critics say it would be impossible to police the market. Others raise the issue of using land to grow plants for power generation when there is a global food shortage.

Biofuelwatch told the newspaper that the low-cost of palm oil will make it the fuel of choice, citing Germany as example where there are about 1,800 combined heat and biofuel power plants, almost all of them running primarily on palm oil. Similarly, in Italy, there are several biofuel power stations including the world’s biggest at 100 megawatts.

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