Sunday, April 11, 2010

Chelveston bio-oil power station approved

April 11, 2010

Scourge of the rainforests

Trees cut from virgin Amazon rainforest lie waiting to be cut into lumber at a sawmill in the Amazon town of Vila Rica in Mato Grosso State, Brazil

Trees cut from virgin Amazon rainforest lie waiting to be cut into lumber at a sawmill in the Amazon town of Vila Rica in Mato Grosso State, one of the Brazilian states of greatest deforestation, May 18, 2005.

The renewable-energy industry faces new controversy
renewable energy places after a Northamptonshire firm became the latest to win planning permission to burn tropical palm oil to make electricity.

Chelveston Renewable Energy has been told it can build a bio-oil power station on a disused RAF bomber base near Wellingborough.

Such projects have infuriated environmentalists who say the burgeoning market for such oils is accelerating the destruction of tropical rainforests as they are cleared for biofuel plantations.

Chelveston is, however, only one of several firms, mostly new entrants to the energy industry, to propose using tropical plant oils as fuel for power generation.

Others include W4B, which has planning approval for a scheme at Portland on the south coast, Vogen Energy, which wants to build a plant at Newport in South Wales, and Rocpower, which plans half a dozen such schemes.

Normally it would be uneconomic to burn vegetable oil for electricity generation but the government has ruled that such fuels qualify for green subsidies, which triple the value of the electricity produced to about £150 a megawatt hour (MWh).

The ruling means that at least 25 vegetable oils can qualify for the subsidies but palm oil has rapidly emerged as the most controversial because it is one of the cheapest to produce, meaning it is many generators' fuel of choice.

Its promoters argue that palm oil is packed with so much energy that even after growing, processing and transporting the oil to Britain, it still generates less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of a comparable fossil-fuel oil.

"Burning palm oil and other vegetable oils for power generation can offer significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, provided the fuel is sustainably sourced," said Paul Thompson of the Renewable Energy Association.

His claims are borne out by figures from the Renewable Fuels Agency (see graphic above) but critics point out that this has little relevance because most palm oil is not sustainably sourced. It is grown on areas that have been cleared of rainforest, a process that releases huge volumes of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases from disturbed soil.

Greenpeace estimates that rainforest clearance in Indonesia alone releases the equivalent of 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide — 4% of total global emissions annually.

John Sauven, director of Greenpeace UK, said the impact on wildlife was devastating. "We support the use of bioenergy provided the fuels are sustainably sourced," he said. "But subsidising palm oil power stations just drives deforestation. These power stations would in effect become orang-utan incinerators."

Chelveston did not respond to requests for an interview but, according to planning documents, the power plant would burn locally produced rapeseed oil and waste cooking fats as well as palm oil. The company plans nine wind turbines and an anaerobic digestion plant on the same site.

Chelveston's website said: "These can provide an estimated annual 109,000 MWh of renewable electricity, sufficient for 27,500 households and offsetting some 47,000 tonnes a year of carbon-dioxide emissions from power stations."

Elsewhere, W4B has just won planning consent to build a 17.8MW vegetable oil power plant in Portland, Dorset. Richard Gudgeon, operations director at W4B, said it was negotiating with suppliers in South America and Africa for vegetable oils, including palm oil but also jatropha (a tropical shrub) and cotton oil. He said: "We are seeking non-food-grade vegetable oils. We will meet stringent criteria for sustainability of these fuels."

Similarly, Vogen Energy wants to build a 25MW plant in Newport, south Wales. Its plans were rejected by councillors but the company is understood to be appealing. It too claims its fuels will be sustainable.

The big question is: who will set the rules for determining if such fuels are sustainable? Ofgem, the government's energy regulator, does not set any critieria for sustainability and, although the EU has talked about setting such standards, it has not yet done so.

What's more, say critics, even if such rules are created, it would prove impossible to police the market. Biofuelwatch, a pressure group that campaigns against such fuels, believes that the cheapness of palm oil will make it the fuel of choice.

It points to Germany, where there are some 1,800 combined heat and biofuel power plants, almost all of them running mainly on palm oil. The same applies in Italy, where there are several biofuel power stations — including the world's biggest at 100MW.

Liz Bossley of the Consilience Energy Advisory Group, a London energy consultancy, said such fuels would always be controversial. "While there is a food shortage in the world there will always be a question mark over the use of land to grow plants for power generation," she said.

"It may not even be reducing carbon because the rainforest would have been capturing carbon and storing it in the soil. The question of land use change is a complex one that needs a lot more thought."


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Biofuels are a wide range of fuels which are in some way derived from biomass.

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