Powering a sustainable future


Fruitful forum: (Clockwise, from top left) Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB) Energy and Environment Unit head Dr Loh Soh Kheang, Tan, Mohamed Fazil and Ho at the ESG Advocates Circles Renewable Energy 2023 conference.

PETALING JAYA: The palm oil industry, a key backbone of Malaysia’s national economic growth, can play a major role in powering a sustainable future for the country.

FGV Holdings Bhd, one of the world’s largest producers of crude palm oil, is among the forerunners of this effort by turning biomass by-products from its palm oil production into a source of energy, in line with the “protecting the environment” pillar under the group’s sustainability framework.

Mohamed Fazil Mohamad Saad, the bio head of FGV Palm Industries Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of the group, explained how from palm oil mill effluent (POME) to the empty fruit bunches, the potential of palm oil by-products could be used to help power both rural and national energy grids.

He noted how POME is converted into methane biogas that is used to generate power through biogas power plants.

“POME, through anaerobic digestion, is turned into methane or bio-compressed natural gas, which is then burned to produce power that can inject up to 2MW of power to the grid or to be used by local users.

“This power can then be used to power the mill itself, thus creating a circular power generation cycle,” he said, adding that sludge palm oil could also be converted into sustainable aviation fuel.

Mohamed Fazil was speaking at the recent ESG Advocates Circle 2023: Renewable Energy conference.

He added that the company has already achieved a working example by becoming the world’s only palm oil plantation company with 28 biogas plants in operation, some of which are being used to power local rural communities around the country.

He said the other palm oil production by-products of mesocarp fibre, palm kernel shells and empty fruit bunches are also key sources of alternative sustainable biomass for biomass-based power plants.

“Palm kernel shells can also be turned into palm shell-activated carbon, which is then used in wastewater treatment and food, while empty fruit bunches can be turned into fortified organic fertilisers for farming, which can become secondary revenue sources for industry players.

“With Malaysia as the second leading producer of palm oil worldwide, the 70 million to 80 million tonnes of biomass by-products produced yearly from palm oil production means there is huge potential to be leveraged,” he said.

However, Mohamed Fazil also acknowledged the challenges, such as the mill’s rural location, which may make it financially difficult to connect the biogas plant to the grid as well as transportation of the by-products.

There is also the concern of the mill’s utilisation and consistency as a low utilisation or consistency of the mill’s operation could instead make it financially damaging for the mill.

“Powering a biogas plant on its own would be difficult if the farm’s yield is low either due to low production of palm oil fresh fruit bunches or the machinery is old and break downs frequently.

“The low production supply of by-products would also mean they have less bargaining power when it comes to selling their by-products to other parties,” he said.

To address this, Monash University senior lecturer Dr Joseph Ho Yong Kuen said a joint cooperative effort between all stakeholders in the industry is vital.

“Addressing logistic and on-the-ground issues will require getting together many people from many different disciplines to bridge the knowledge gap and formulate a win-win situation for all.

“As such, there must be synergy and cooperation between those who do fundamental research, such as the mill operators and those who do transnational research like the government or associations.

“Only then will all stakeholders be able to understand the bigger picture and government’s sustainable development goals and share best practices to benefit all sides,” he said during the conference’s discussion panel.

FGV Holdings Bhd Transformation Management Office head Dr Gideon Tan Xiang Yee said promoting innovation and improvement between employees would be essential to tackling any issues faced in mill productivity.

“By equipping employees with the tools and freedom to innovate, they could discover new ways to improve efficiency of operations which will in turn help to both boost productivity and reduce the mill’s carbon footprint.

“Holding knowledge-sharing sessions between mills will also provide a key platform for employees to formulate and share best practices together,” he said.

The ESG Advocates Circle 2023: Renewable Energy conference, aimed at providing insights into the renewable sustainable energy market, was organised by Star Media Group Bhd with FGV Holdings Bhd as its Academy sponsor.

Those keen to learn more on achieving sustainability and renewable energy can watch the full conference for free on SMG Events’ Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/events.thestar/videos/378883841158832/.

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