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How green are Bristol's biofuel plant plans?
Saturday, December 05, 2009, 07:00Mr Slack, from Buckinghamshire, said the proposed plant would help the Government meet its target of 15.4 per cent of renewable energy by 2015. The plant was one of the few renewable energy technologies that could produce electricity within 18 months of a planning application being approved.
Unlike wind power, which was unpredictable because the strength and direction of the wind could not be controlled, the new plant would run 24 hours a day, 8,000 hours a year, to provide enough electricity for 25,000 homes – about a seventh of Bristol's households.
He said that if their plant was not allowed, then it was difficult to see how enough renewable energy could be provided for the Government to meet its targets.
He said neither the Environment Agency nor Natural England had objected to the plan and the plant was much "greener" that the previous use of the site which was the use of fossil fuels to produce carbon black.
He said: "We are proposing to use as little palm oil as we possibly can. The main source will be jatropha which is mildly toxic so it cannot be used in the food chain or as an animal feed. It will grow in relatively poor soil but needs non-drinking water to cultivate."
He said they were planning to use jatropha grown on eroded land in Madagascar, Mozambique and India which has not been used to grow crops for many years.
"I am talking about millions of acres used for growing jatropha and which will provide work and income for local people."
Mr Slack said jatropha would be available from 2012 and so it might be necessary to use palm oil as a temporary fuel. He said they would be using sustainable palm stearin, an industrial byproduct of the oil which is used to make items such as candles.
He said: "We would totally agree that deforestation to produce palm oil is something that should stop.
"But there are a significant number of plantations, producing millions of tonnes of palm oil on a fully sustainable basis which are not involved in the destruction of rainforests and do not disadvantage indigenous people or animals."
He said he did not believe that it was the intention of the Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to give certificates which were not independently verified.
Mr Slack said that ROC's were not Government subsidies – they were an internal electricity market device which put an obligation on energy companies to increase the proportion of electricity they supplied from renewable sources.
He said: "I must stress that we see jatropha as our main fuel source."
Mr Slack said the fuel source in the future was likely to be algae which could be grown in saltwater.
He said: "There is currently millions of dollars being spent on research to find the right strains of algae to go into commercial production. It would provide an ideal fuel source for us; algae absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere and it has at least 40 per cent oil content, much higher than palm oil or jatropha."
W4B has had planning permission turned down for a similar plant in Dorset but Mr Slack said they had been invited to submit a revised scheme which is due to be considered early in the new year.
Mr Slack said: "We are not apologising for the fact that biomass plants will make money. But to suggest we don't care about what happens in Indonesia is nonsense.
"If we use any oil from Indonesia or Malaysia it will only be sustainable and it will be at a premium to unsustainable oil.
"We will happily accept a loss of profit to protect those environments so I take serious exception to a suggestion that the company only has an interest in profits.
"Both the directors and the shareholders are people who have been involved in the renewable energy sector and have done so for a significant period of time."
● Mr Slack came to the Evening Post's offices in Temple Way to talk about his firm's plans but refused to have his photo taken.
MIKE Andrews is a former executive producer with the BBC's Natural History Unit who is now retired and lives in Sneyd Park.
Mr Andrews, 70, has been passionate about the environment since he began to see the dangers of using fossil fuels while making popular wildlife documentaries such as Flight of the Condor.
But he claims that biofuel plants – which use oil derived from crops – are even worse than power stations which burn carbon-based fuel.
He said the proposed plant at Avonmouth was likely to use palm oil as its main fuel which was "very bad news indeed" because palm oil plantations in other parts of the world such as Indonesia, Colombia and Malaysia, were clearing huge tracts of rainforest which was contributing to global warming.
Moreover, he said these forests were inhabited which meant people were being driven from their homes, often at gunpoint, to make way for the plantations.
"The demand for palm oil will continue to increase as more and more biofuel plants are built with Government subsidies," he said.
He claimed that as palm oil production was going up and more and more arable land was given over to plantations, then food production was going down. This was pushing up the cost of food and leading to starvation in some parts of the world.
Mr Andrews said: "If this plan is granted, then when you turn on your electric lights at home, it will damage the environment and kill children from starvation – that is what people must realise."
He claimed that biofuel firms such as W4B were only prepared to use palm oil which was supplied under licence as supposedly "sustainable" - in other words, grown on plantations which did not cause deforestation.
But he said: "These licences are self-certified by the plantation owners themselves, they are not validated by an independent source."
He said: "Most biofuel refineries in Europe use mixed feedstock bought on the open market, yet there are no provisions for any fully independent auditing of the supply chain and none for auditing conditions on plantations."
He said the European Union will rely on voluntary certificates, such as those issued by the roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil which meant that plantation owners could "just hire somebody to write out the certificates they need". "The plantations are frequently grown on peat soils. When the forest is burned the peat can catch fire, it also later releases methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas, for years afterwards.
"Palm-oil destroys whole eco-systems and animals such as the orang-utan and Sumatran rhino.
"Tens of thousands of local people have their ancestral lands and their food-sources seized, frequently at the point of a gun. Recently, a community was massacred in Colombia to free their land for a palm-oil plantation.
"W4B can only make a profit if we pay tens of millions of pounds in subsidies called ROCs (Renewable Obligation Certificates), a grotesque injustice. This company, and others like it, plan to spend your money, building plants all over Britain, a grotesque masquerade of 'green' energy, because of perverse subsidies from the government.
"They get twice as much money per megawatt, for burning palm oil, as a wind-turbine gets. Yet palm oil means social destruction, murder, slave-wages in plantations, worse climate change, loss of unique habitats and species."
W4B insists that it will only use "sustainable" palm oil as a temporary measure and that the main fuel source was expected to be a shrub called jatropha which is grown near the equator.
Mr Andrews said: "Jatropha is a bushy South American plant that grows in arid conditions, its seeds contain oil. In Western Australia it is classified as a noxious weed because it is invasive and poisonous to domestic animals and humans. Its oil contains carcinogenic – cancer causing – substances. South Africa has banned its commercial cultivation.
He said: "I have seen the consequences of climate change. I have watched children dying of drought and starvation – caused by us – in Ethiopia.
"When your child asks you, 'What did you do to stop climate change Daddy?' What will you say?"
Bristol meeting to protest at biofuel plantThey claim that instead of reducing gases which cause climate change, they make matters worse.
The meeting, called 'Biofuels Scandal: The Hidden Cost of the Biofuels Stations', will be held on the third floor of Bush House, next to the Arnolfini in Prince Street, starting at 7pm.
Biofuel plants use vegetable oil such as palm oil as fuel to burn and create electricity.
A firm called W4B Bristol Ltd wants to build one on part of the former Sevalco site in Severn Road. It would burn up to 90,000 tonnes of vegetable oil a year, providing enough electricity for about 15,000 homes.
The meeting has been organised by London-based campaigner Zenith Milner, who said Government subsidies are available for biofuel plants. But she claimed they cause air pollution, respiratory and heart diseases, eczema and possible cot deaths.
She said: "They also bring about rainforest destruction on a massive scale. The ravenous need for crops, such as palm, to create the oil required for these stations, often results in violent evictions of indigenous peoples and peasant farmers who receive no compensation, and have nowhere else to go. With them, thousands of species are threatened with extinction, including the orang utan, and Sumatran tigers and elephants."
She said there were more viable alternatives such as wind, solar, tidal and wave power.
W4B claims there are strict regulations over the use of palm oil in biofuel power stations.
It says they could only use oil which had been verified by Ofgen, the industry regulator, as produced from sustainable sources. It claims palm oil would only be used as a temporary measure until the use of jatropha had been refined.