Powering the world


The palm oil sector can produce more energy than what most countries need.

WHEN we talk about sustainable energy, we think about fire, wind, water and sunlight which usually translate into biomass combustion, wind turbines, dams and solar farms.

The idea of having oil palm biomass joining the race for sustainable energy is almost unheard of. But it truly harbours potential to supply energy to the world.

As pointed out in consultant Dr Ian Halsall’s paper published in the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) Journal of Oil Palm and the Environment, if all the world’s oil palm byproducts were used as fuel, the annual energy supply would exceed most countries’ requirements.

As an estimate of the potential oil palm has in the sustainable energy arena, the whole industry can produce up to 7.31 exajoules of energy per year, which is more than what most countries require.

Currently, only countries like the United States, China, Russia, Japan and India use more than 7.31 exajoules. For 191 other countries, this figure exceeds the national requirement on a individual country basis, potentially covering the needs of several smaller countries at one go.

In Halsall’s paper, he explains how oil palm biomass can supply more than the world’s need for energy.

“If all the palm oil produced were combusted as fuel, then that would produce 1.64 exajoules of energy per year. On top of that, there is the palm oil industry’s biomass byproducts which, if combusted, would give an extra 5.67 exajoules, bringing the total to 7.31 exajoules annually,” he writes.

Halsall says there is no fixed figure to illustrate how much energy a country consumes as the need is relative to what society wants.

“This is a big and complex issue. Here we’re looking at basic questions such as how big do we need our cars to be, how many cars do we need or how big do we need our house to be? It all depends on how much of a high-consumption lifestyle people want,” he says.

“Presently, energy consumption in the West is very high, and developing countries such as Malaysia want the same.”

The annual production of the worldwide palm oil industry is sizeable, some 42 million tonnes as of 2009 with most of that going into the retail market as consumables, soaps and cosmetics.

However, the sheer size of the industry is not the only resounding reason for oil palm to be a contender in the energy arena.

In the realm of fuels, palm (oil) is renewable – unlike coal, oil and natural gas – and will continue as long as crops are planted and harvested.

From biomass to biofuel

The quantities of non-oil palm biomass such as palm lumber, fronds and fruit bunches after processing, equal around 3.5 times the energy value of palm oil alone.

At the moment, palm biomass is an inevitable by-product from plantations which have only a limited use in animal feed. This by-product make up 85% non-oil biomass and could be salvaged to create fuel, commonly referred to as biodiesel.

Palm biodiesel holds great potential as an alternative fuel source. On the local front, there are already initiatives to develop the palm biodiesel industry.

MPOC chief executive officer Tan Sri Dr Yusof Basiron says: “It has been tested through many years of research carried out by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board and is currently used in Malaysia’s B5 programme.

“Here (in the programme), instead of using 100% fossil fuel, the fuel mix consists of 5% palm oil biodiesel and 95% fossil fuel and the biodiesel is also sold to the United States and European Union (EU) as biofuel,” he says.

Yusof adds that palm biodiesel can be used in all climates in temperate countries as the oil has a low pour point.

It has also been tested and used successfully as an aviation fuel on a Jumbo Jet in 2008.

Halsall notes in his paper that diesel engine cars worldwide run on biodiesel and MPOB has shown that running them on palm oil works just fine. He adds that palm biodiesel can be used in lorries, buses, trains, ships, power stations and domestic heating in homes.

Palm as a biofuel is still at its infancy and makes up a small part of palm’s use currently. Most of its potential applications in the world are limited not by science and technology but by political and social will.

“Demand for palm oil can be increased if markets such as the EU and US do not implement trade barriers or protectionist measures to keep out palm biodiesel which is a more viable and cheaper option for consumers,” Yusof says.

“Scientific studies carried out by independent scientists, consultants and MPOB reveal that the greenhouse gas savings of palm biodiesel exceed the threshold values set by these countries by a marked degree, although the EU and US has ruled otherwise.”

He adds that low numbers have been accorded to palm biodiesel without scientific basis and that Malaysia and Indonesia are keen on addressing this issue which distorts free trade among nations and contravenes the principles of the World Trade Organisation.

“The demand for palm biodiesel can certainly be increased in the EU and US where renewable energy programmes are already in place. It’s a question of whether palm biodiesel can be allowed into these markets thereby providing cheaper and more viable options to manufactures and end-users,” he says.

Part of the cycle

Another plus point palm has compared to fossil fuels is that it is part of the carbon cycle, capable of achieving carbon neutrality where all the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by the combustion of palm oil or its biomass is absorbed by productive palm trees.

Halsall writes that although it is debatable how close palm is to carbon neutrality, the amount of carbon dioxide produced and absorbed in the industry are comparable.

He says oil palm’s carbon neutrality remains a big debate but if the right efforts are taken, the industry can well be near carbon neutral.

“With the amount of methane coming from palm oil mill effluent, the carbon footprint of fertilisers and pesticides, the fossil fuel used in the processing and distribution of palm oil, the industry is far from carbon neutral just now in my estimate.

“But the good news is that the palm industry is well placed to be much closer to carbon neutral – if the will is there,” he says.

Yusof says the official data has been published and submitted by the Natural Resource and Environment Minister on this matter, showing that oil palm is a carbon sink, locking up or removing more carbon from the atmosphere than it produces.

“Every five years, countries do a carbon accounting and submit a report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC). Malaysia’s submission to UNFCC in January 2011 clearly shows that in 2000, Malaysian oil palm had a net removal of more than 80 million tonnes CO2 equivalent,” he says.

Yusof explains that in 2000, Malaysia had 3.376 million hectares of oil palm plantations and the carbon removal capacity of this plantation crop was 82 million tonnes, while total emissions from the land use and land use change, and forestry and agricultural sector was 35.5 million tonnes CO2 equivalent.

“This implies that oil palm plantations can remove not only their own emissions generated from deforestation and methane emission from processing of effluent ponds at the palm oil mills, but also the emissions from all land use change and agricultural activities of the country,” he says.

While there is much to be researched on, developed, and lobbied to put palm oil further on the main stage of fuels, it has undeniably the opportunity given its plus factors.

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