Published: 11 March 2016

Could palm oil be greener than we think?

Palm oil has long been the enemy of environmentalists, but new research at Surrey suggests that biofuel from palm oil production could help to wean Malaysia off fossil fuels, reducing the country’s high greenhouse gas emissions.

The following article is reproduced from the University of Surrey News and Features page and has been featured in Bloomberg BNA Energy and Climate Report:

Palm oil production is generally viewed as having a negative impact on the environment because in order to clear land to grow palms, local habitats are destroyed in toxic forest fires. However researchers in the University’s Centre for Environmental Strategy (CES) have suggested that the by-products of palm oil production could provide a renewable, local solution to electricity generation in Malaysia, which is the world’s largest palm oil exporter.

In Malaysia, over 90 per cent of electricity is generated from coal and natural gas, which emit high levels of CO2amongst other environmental impacts. With the country poised to become a high income country by 2020, ensuring a secure, reliable electricity supply is vital in order to drive economic growth, preserve the environment and maintain price competitiveness.

PhD student Ida Fahani Md Jaye presented the new research at the International Conference on Environment & Renewable Energy in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on 25 February. She explained that after processors extract oil from the fruits of the palm tree, they commonly discard empty fruit bunches, while they also convert wastewater into biogas and ‘flare’ it off.

“Rather than wasting the empty fruit bunches, and rather than flaring off the biogas, we can optimise the use of these biomass residues,” said Ida. Making use of these renewable resources to generate and supply electricity from just one small/medium sized palm oil mill could not only reduce Malaysia’s CO2 emissions from central generation by 5,500 tonnes a year, it would also save money on the costs of mitigating emissions, boost the carbon trading market and deliver a more diverse energy supply.”

The research, which has initially focused on small/medium sized palm oil mills in the Malaysian state of Malacca, has found that while using biomass residues still has some impacts on the environment, overall this is at a much lower rate than the fossil fuel alternatives.

The next stage of the work will be to extend the range of mills considered, and to scale up the modelling to represent the electricity supply that could be obtained from palm oil residues for the whole of Peninsular Malaysia. Economic and supply distribution considerations will be included in the ongoing analysis and operational scenarios will be developed to determine the viability and sensitivity of the system for decision-makers. Ultimately, the research will be looking to identify the best framework that might aid the implementation of the system in the future indicating the benefits and risks for all the stakeholders.   

Professor Richard Murphy, Director of CES and principal supervisor of Ida’s work with co-supervisor Dr Jhuma Sadhukan, said, “This new research shows the serious contribution that renewable electricity from biomass residues could make to delivering Malaysia’s electricity demand. Ida’s primary data, obtained ‘on the ground’ in cooperation with real mills, gives her a robust basis for detailed techno-economic and environmental impact modelling of this supply potential. This will be coupled with the associated social network and stakeholder analysis needed to support responsible, environmentally sound pathways to implementation.”

This research was featured in Bloomberg BNA Energy and Climate Report, a leading publication in the field of climate change, in February.

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