Electricity generation from palm oil: The Environment Agency's view
Biomass heat and power could play an important role in helping the UK meet its renewable energy and greenhouse gas commitments if it is produced sustainably and used efficiently. We do not, however, believe that the use of palm oil for electricity generation should be supported through the Renewables Obligation because:
· Lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emission savings compared to fossil fuels (e.g. a combined cycle gas turbine) can be minimal, and if land use change is caused directly or indirectly there is a net increase in emissions.
· Using solid biomass for electricity generation typically produces much bigger greenhouse gas savings, and is therefore preferable.
· Biofuels that are genuinely sustainable, such as waste oils, should be used in sectors where alternatives to fossil fuels are limited, such as heavy haulage and aviation.
· The environmental concerns surrounding the use of palm oil for electricity generation risk damaging the reputation of the wider bioenergy sector.
Palm oil is a highly unsaturated vegetable oil, used widely in many food and non-food applications, such as soap and oleo chemicals, and as a feedstock for biodiesel. It is produced by crushing fresh fruit branches from the African oil palm tree. This produces crude palm oil, which is then fractionated into a lighter liquid fraction called palm oil olein, which is used to produce biodiesel, and a heavier more viscous fraction called palm oil stearin.
Recently there have been a number of proposals in the UK to use palm oil as a fuel for power plants and it is likely that these would use reciprocating engines run on either palm oil stearin or crude palm oil. The Environment Agency therefore commissioned work to understand the lifecycle GHG emissions from the production of power in these plants. The results are based on the default values and methodology set out in the Renewable Fuels Agency Guidance on carbon calculations for biofuels.
Excluding emissions from land use change, using palm oil stearin can result in greenhouse gas emissions savings of around 25-50 per cent compared to the generation of electricity in a natural gas-fired power station. Using crude palm oil results in emissions savings of 0-35 per cent.
If the palm oil plantation supplying the oil has been developed on land which was originally forested, then clearance of that forest will lead to a large carbon release. For example, if palm oil stearin has been produced from plantations that were formerly forested land, greenhouse gas emissions from electricity production would be about three and a half times higher than those associated with a natural gas-fired power station.