Millers turn greenhouse gas to green energy

Sludge ponds emit greenhouse gases like methane after palm oil is extracted from fresh fruit bunches at the mills. OOI TEE CHING tells how palm oil millers capture this gas and turn it into clean energy by investing in biogas plants. These anaerobic digesters behave like our intestines, containing friendly bacteria that feed on organic matter to produce flammable gas and solid waste.

PALM oil millers in Malaysia are leading the way in "greening" the palm oil supply chain by capturing greenhouse gas before it enters the atmosphere and turning it into green energy and organic fertiliser. 

Under the Palm Oil National Key Economic Area of the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), the country is targeting 500 biogas plants by 2020. This initiative is expected to generate about RM2.9 billion in gross national income and create 2,000 jobs by 2020. 

Malaysia's growing green jobs sector is vital in our ability to create jobs and compete globally in the new economy. By leveraging on home-grown green technologies, millers trap methane from the sludge and channel it to gas engines to generate electricity.

The government encourages the oil palm industry to operate more sustainably. Since January 2010, the Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water has pledged to facilitate RM1.5 billion worth of cheap loans via local banks for the provision and use of green technologies.

With these incentives, the Malaysian Palm Oil Board's engineering and processing research division director, Dr Lim Weng Soon, is confident that the country is on track to achieve the target. "There are currently 46 biogas plants in operation, 22 under construction and a further 46 in planning stage."

In a recent media visit to United Plantations Bhd's estate in Jendarata, Perak, vice-chairman/executive director (corporate affairs) Datuk Carl Bek-Nielsen said the benefits of this waste-to-energy project is extensive and varied.

Since the sludge is converted into biogas and fertiliser, there is no chance of it entering water bodies and polluting them. 

While the organic fertiliser is ploughed back into the fields, greenhouse gas extracted from the biogas plants is fed into a combined steam and power plant at the mill to generate electricity for the surrounding community in this estate.

Bek-Nielsen said when biogas plants are being used to generate electricity for the estate's own use, leftover biomass from the mills can now be sold as solid fuel to others in the manufacturing sector for as high as RM180 a tonne. 

Indeed, such waste-to-energy projects are gaining momentum among palm oil millers because the projects are not only kind to the environment, but also easy on the wallet. "It's also about economic motivation," Bek-Nielsen said. "While everyone wants to do the right thing, there need to be an extra incentive on top of the motivation of putting up plants that emit less pollution."

"Currently, we have three biogas plants in the country and they help a lot in terms of cost-savings. Although we've invested RM20 million to set up three biogas plants, the impact that we receive is really worth it. We've been able to reduce our annual fossil fuel usage by 25 per cent," he added.

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