Despite serious concerns about the impacts of biofuels in general and vegetable oils like palm oil in particular on the climate, on forests and other ecosystems and on communities in the global South, as well as concerns over air pollution and public health in nearby areas biofuel (sometimes called Agrofuel) power station planning applications are springing up from a number of companies in several parts of the UK, including Bristol (more details on other parts of the UK from Food Not Fuel.
W4B Energy announced plans in April 2009 to build a 20MW power station at Balaclava Bay, Portland, Dorset. They were refused planning permission by Weymouth and Portland Council in September 2009 but have now submitted plans for a 50MW power station in Bristol at Avonmouth Docks, (application number 09/03235/F) as well as re-submitting plans in Portland. The Avonmouth plans are now being considered by Bristol City Council and a decision is expected as early as January 2010 (documents relating to the plans are here).
W4B are openly planning to use imported palm oil - Portland and Bristol are well suited to taking oil deliveries directly off tankers. The proposed power station would burn 90,000 tonnes of vegetable oil, most likely palm oil, every year.They have also put forward jatropha as a possible fuel - yet jatropha is not yet commercially available, many plantings are failing and thousands of people have already lost their land and livelihood for jatropha plantations to feed Europe’s biofuel market. A May 2009 report from Friends of the Earth demolishes the claims that jatropha can be sustainable because its grown on marginal lands with little need for water and fertiliser.
Unsustainable economics, unsustainable standards
Under the UK Government Renewables Obligation, companies producing electricity from renewable sources like solar, wind, hydro get a subsidy. This subsidy is also available for electricity generated in biofuel power stations. The allocation of this subsidy as 'Renewable Obligation Certificates' (ROCs) is the responsibility of OFGEM. Just as with biofuels used for transport, UK taxpayers are subsidising a false climate change solution – we just don’t have adequate standards and systems set up to guarantee socially and environmentally sustainable biofuel production at present.
At the moment, the only ‘internationally recognised certification scheme’ for imported biofuel feedstock is the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). This has been strongly criticized for certifying palm oil from companies responsible for deforestation and peatland destruction, for decimating biodiversity (including orangutan populations) and for violating the rights of communities, including indigenous peoples. According to Greenpeace: “deforestation, deep
peat conversion, land disputes and illegal practices continue to occur in the plantation estates owned by a company that is RSPO certified for part of its operations.” Walhi, Friends of the Earth Indonesia, has warned: "RSPO is designed to legitimate the continuous expansion of the palm oil industry, but any model that includes the conversion of natural habitats into largescale monoculture plantations will never be sustainable." and a declaration signed by 256 organisations condemns the RSPO for “greenwashing” inherently unsustainable oil palm plantations and practices by palm oil palm oil companies. Certification schemes for soya and other feedstocks are also being developed, and have been criticised on the same grounds.
The Royal Society report Sustainable Biofuels: prospects and challenges, Jan 2008, expressed serious concerns about unsustainable practices, lost opportunities, the need for proper sustainability criteria, the need for land use to be given greater priority and large scale uncertainty about current estimates of impacts, as this extract from the report conclusion shows
‘The dangers of producing biofuels in unsustainable ways have been highlighted, and it is taken as given that unsustainable practices will not be ‘exported’ by the UK through its import policies….However, there is a unique opportunity internationally, not only to avoid such problems, but to produce biofuels in ways that would help to restore degraded farmlands, woodlands, forests and watersheds. In order to facilitate this, the development of sustainability criteria for biofuels and land use need to be given greater priority and momentum in international negotiations. Furthermore effective mechanisms need to be put in place to facilitate technology transfer….Elsewhere in the report, we also highlight the significant uncertainty in the estimates of the impacts (environmental, social and economic) of biofuels.’
Unsustainable land use
The relatively small amount of electricity generated consumes a very large quantity of biofuel. In turn this requires an extremely large area of land to grow the crops, whether in the UK or abroad – land which already has many pressures upon it eg to grow sufficient food of good quality, to maintain varied animal and plant populations, to maintain the ability of land to process carbon, various nutrients and water, to provide healthy leisure, educational and recreational opportunities for people, for housing, roads and so on. Food Not Fuel go through the figures here, stating ‘Ten power stations would be using 67,000 hectares - a land area that could feed a city the size of Belfast!’
Unsustainable climate impacts
Campaigners are very concerned that when full and proper carbon equivalent accounting is done burning vegetable oils emits up to 70% more greenhouse gas emissions than diesel oil - even if it is grown in the UK. A 2007 study by chemistry Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and others suggested that the use of rapeseed biodiesel was associated with 70% more greenhouse gas emissions than the use of equivalent amounts of mineral diesel, due to nitrous oxide emissions from synthetic fertilizer use. Nitrous oxide is nearly 300 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.
Peat expert Professor Siegert of Munich University has said about palm oil power stations in Germany: "We were able to prove that the making of these plantations and the burning of the rainforests and peat areas emits many thousands of times as much CO2 as we then are able to prevent by using palm oil. And that is a disastrous balance for the climate."
Unsustainable social and health impacts
The environmental and social impacts of using imported vegetable oil, typically palm oil, are worse. This Biofuelwatch paper explains clearly why the UK agrofuel power industry is likely to import at least some of its fuel, and why this is more damaging.
Burning vegetable oil in power stations, whether grown in the UK or imported, results in high emissions of nitrogen-oxide gases, which can cause or worsen asthma and other lung diseases. It could also cause more emissions of tiny air-borne particles (known as PM 2.5) linked to premature deaths from heart and lung diseases and possibly cause more cot deaths in babies. The Blue NG power stations in Beckton and Southall are both in urban areas with crowded streets and road traffic congestion, and close to airports, where air quality is already not good – as is the case with Avonmouth!
The ravenous need for crops, such as palm, to create the oil required for these stations, often results in violent evictions of indigenous peoples and peasant farmers who receive no compensation, and have no where else to go. With them, thousands of species are threatened with extinction, including the orangutan, and Sumatran tigers and elephants.
In a world where one in six people are in hunger, ie one billion, industrial scale biofuels, which mean that more and more land is used for fuel, rather than for food, are condemned as a "crime against humanity" by the UN’s Jean Zeigler (see here for details).
These stations are planned around the country including Avonmouth, Bristol with minimal or no public consultation. The provision of environmental information is often very poor, making effective participation difficult eg there is still no environmental impact statement available for the proposed Avonmouth power station.
It will make world food prices higher as vegetable oil will be used for electricity instead of food. People in other areas of the world, like South-east Asia and South America could be displaced from their homes to allow the necessary vegetable oil plants to be grown.