Pros and cons of using foodstocks (particularly Oil Palm) for energy

How to wean humanity off the use of fossil fuels continues to receive much attention but how to replace these fuels with renewable sources of energy has become a contentious field of debate as well as research, which often reflects economic and political factors rather than scientific good sense. It is clear that not every advertised energy source can lead to a sustainable, humane and environment-friendly path out of a future energy crisis.

Dependency on fossil fuels, leading to environmental degradation and global changes, seems to go ahead largely unchecked as developing countries achieve parity with the more developed countries. Continuing along this path could lead to a global crisis that, without arbitration, has the potential to result in momentous cultural, social and economic tensions.

Growing awareness of the facts and certain consequences of continuing along the same unwise trajectory has resulted in a number of proposals for possible remedies about how the world’s craving for energy might be satisfied. Among the options, the production of alternative fuels from biomass has often been put forward as one important component for resolving the energy crisis.

Being renewable in principle, biomass indeed assumes a prominent place among the options that must receive serious consideration. So far, however, this path for producing bio-fuels has been sidetracked by players with an economic interest on using food crops for ethanol production. There are considerable flaws in the approach and serious detrimental consequences will be the outcome should this path be followed, unmodified.

Assigning a significant proportion of the North American corn crop to ethanol production in 2007, coupled with environment-based failure of rice and other critical crops, and increased demand for high caloric foods in rapidly developing countries drastically increased food prices (Mitchell 2008). Soaring food prices were accompanied by social unrest leading, in isolated cases, to riots in several countries (Brown 2008). This has generated what might be termed a “dress rehearsal” for the possible consequences of the precarious future of world food security. Two trends are driving humanity to a seemingly unavoidable food crisis that is virtually not acknowledged in its impact and severity. Population increase continues at a pace that will add some 2.5 billion people by the year 2050 to the 6.5 billion already on the planet. Second and compounding the problem is that people in developing countries are successfully crossing into a middle class status, accompanied by increases in per capita caloric use. Information technology also has provided virtually everyone with the means to appreciate the wealth that had previously been reserved to a few and to now seek participation. This almost invisible crisis is greatly over-shadowed by the inevitable energy crisis which is demanding solutions, even when the detection and exploration of new fossil fuel sources will postpone the unavoidable eventual decline. That it even could be considered to use food to produce energy in a world where almost 1 billion people are undernourished speaks of insane, inconsiderate objectives.

The problem of the first generation ethanol biofuels from corn can be readily assessed from the statistics in energy consumption [Key World Energy Statistics, 2009, International Energy Agency]. The energy consumption per capita per year in developed countries, e.g., USA is 7.75 ton of oil equivalent (TOE), which corresponds to 212,330 Kcal/ca/day based on 2007 energy consumption statistics. Even mid stage developing countries such as Korea, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia consume 125,700, 131,780, and 170,140 Kcal/ca/ day, respectively. Average global everyday food consumption per person is about 2,400 Kcal/ca/day. This demonstrates that we are consuming 50–100 times our capacity for total present food energy production as the sum of fuel energy sources. Considering the portion of corn in our foods, even accounting for the fact that corn is mainly utilized for feeding animals for meat production, the first generation biofuel production from corn or, indeed, all food, is not a viable option for solving the energy predicament.

We shall discuss the following considerations about the generation and use of biomass as components of the resolution of this crisis: (1) Non-edible biomass must be the source of any large scale biofuel production that enters the global supply system (World Development Report 2010). (2) Liquid or alcoholic fuels from bioconversion mechanisms can play important roles in areas not connected to supply grids, where small scale production systems can be employed to provide energy. However, for advocating entry into a global industry from cellulosics there are sufficient data suggesting that liquid fuels from renewable sources cannot be produced in an energy-dense and environmentally tolerable way (Patzek 2007). Certainly, liquid fuels will have a future for specific purposes, such as kerosene used in airplanes, and production systems based on algal biomass are promising. (3) Combustion rather than chemical or biochemical conversion to liquid fuels is the more likely successful route to energy production. The gain of energy in such a way is several-fold more efficient than ethanolic fermentation of starch- or cellulose-based fuels (McKendry 2002; Campbell et al. 2009).

Non-food biomass
In principle, there are two major sources of non-edible biomass. One is made up of the non-edible portions of major crop plants, e.g. wheat and rice straw or corn stover (Graham et al. 2007). This practice may, over time, lead to soils that become depleted in carbon. The second non-food source of biomass, which is substantial and most likely to provide an economically advantageous route, are specialty crops with large biomass yields in environments less suitable for extant crops. Whereas we foremost consider land areas here, generating biomass or useful chemical compounds, such as lipids, from aquatic systems is another option. Harnessing the productivity of the sea may be of importance in the future. For example, unicellular algae in ponds, or ocean-based macroalgal farms, have been proposed as viable biomass/energy sources and pharmaceutical production areas (Beer et al. 2009).

Rather than adapting existing crops, generating alternative crops that could be used strictly for biomass production on marginal soils in stressful environments has been proposed before with, for various reasons, little resonance (e.g., Odum 1974; O’Leary 1984; Glenn and O’Leary 1985; Mizrahi and Pasternak 1985; Hendricks and Bushnell 2008). It is time to reconsider.

Non-food crops will gain particular importance as the yield of crops for human consumption must be increased, which will probably be achieved by breeding, adaptation and growth of traditional crops on less productive land. Also, the diversion of corn starch to biofuel production will lead to price increases as food or fuel destinations compete.

Comparing the combustion of biomass in power plants with the production of ethanol or other liquid energy reveals a strikingly greater efficiency in favor of combustion in electric power generation (McKendry 2002; Patzek 2007; Campbell et al. 2009). Stored electric power, for example where depleted batteries may be exchanged for charged ones at “gas” stations, is as portable as the advertised alcohols in almost all transportation uses.

We point out the advantage of combustion now in the context of allowing much greater advantage to the use of stressful environments for biofuel production. In addition, biomass “waste” accumulating in production agriculture scenarios, It is to be noted that the technology of combustion of biomass through which electricity can be generated is relatively mature, based on the current technologies of waste incineration and coal combustion. In such cases, the significant energy loss during the process of the conversion of biomass to biofuel can be minimized. The strategy will have the add-on benefit of being applicable at different scales of power generating units. Scaling can also be achieved by using different energy production platforms that utilize the biomass, with small-scale, local fermentation and biogas production as an option alongside combustion or solar energy collection in rural areas that are not, or not yet, connected to country- wide electricity grids.

The largest cost, once the infrastructure is in place, both economically and energetically will be for collecting and delivering the non-edible biomass to combustion centers connected to the electrical grid. Once biomass generates electricity, the cost related to the distribution of electricity to consumers can be much smaller as compared to the cost associated with the distribution of biofuels to consumers.

Naturally stress-tolerant plants—the untapped biofuel resource
To some degree it has been shown that these species can be reasonably productive on land that is too poor for agronomic profitability or even suitability for subsistence farming, forcing farmers to migrate, typically joining the urban poor. In addition, some species such as palms (Elaeis guineensis, Lam et al. 2009) and physic nut (Jatropha curcas, Achten et al. 2007) are productive on less fertile land producing oil suitable for conversion into biodiesel. Oil palm monocultures in southeast Asia are profitable and have improved living conditions, although the cultivation is already seriously encroaching on both natural ecosystems and land that was previously used for growing food crops. Some people believe such practices are not sustainable in the long term.

The consequences of intense individualized farming for food production with crops that are not truly suitable in these areas are not only discouraging but are potentially environmentally catastrophic, whether we focus on farming in the rain forests of Indonesia, southeast Asia, the Amazon, or central Africa. Clearly, a switch to bioenergy crops can free these human populations from poverty and substantially help avoid the danger of environmental collapse.

Exporting Biomass of Oil Palm plantations exploiting land into desert?
As early as 1911 (104 years ago) Indonesia developed oil palm plantations on Raja Island (Asahan, North Sumatra), Tanah Itam Ulu (Batubara regency, North Sumatra) and Sei Liput (Aceh), which thus far still exist and have not changed into deserts. On the contrary, the productivity of the existing oil palm plantations even continues to increase.

Many studies also prove that biomass (one of the important components for soil fertility) on oil palm plantations increases in line with the advancing age of the oil palm plants. Chan (2002) discloses that the older the oil palm, the larger the volume of biomass produced (Table 7.3). Four years-old oil palm plants produce about 40 tons of biomass per ha per year, which increases to about 93 tons by the age of 15. By the age of 24 (the age for rejuvenation), the production of biomass reaches its peak, namely about 113 tons per ha per year. When the plantations are rejuvenated, the biomass is left in the soil.

Then, a part of the biomass that is harvested in the form of fresh fruit bunches is returned to the plantation areas. Out of oil palm production of 24 tons per ha per year, only about 5 tons are processed into palm oil and the remaining 19 tons remain in the form of biomass, namely empty fruit bunches, shells and sludge, which are all returned to the plantation areas to maintain fertility.

Besides by adding back biomass, soil fertility is also maintained by providing fertilizer in accordance to the age and productivity of the plants.

Oil palm Carbon Sequestration and Carbon Accounting: Our Global Strength. MPOA Biomass content is not only increased above ground, but also underground in the oil palm rooting zone, the rhizosphere, specifically in the oil palm root bio-pores (Figure 7.9).

The older the oil palm, the more organic ingredients are stored in the ground bio-pores. Therefore, if the organic ingredients are returned to the ground, the fertility of the oil palm plantation areas will not decline. Moreover, the oil palm plantation management system provides fertilizer based on the principle of at least replacing the nutrients contained in the fresh fruit bunches being harvested so as to render impossible a decline in soil fertility that would create a desert.

The experience of soybean farming in the US can provide an analogy. The US’ soybean farms now cover 34 million ha and are more than 100 years old. The soybean farms produce less than about 20 percent of the biomass produced on oil palm plantations. Have the soybean farms in the US changed into infertile desert? Of course not. If the soybean farms where only a small quantity of biomass is returned to the farm areas (compared to oil palm plantations) do not change into desert, then oil palm plantations will not change into deserts either.

Oil Palm biofuels emerging trade-off between fuel and food?
In order to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, a global movement to replace fossil fuel with biofuel is needed. The use of the first generation of biofuel, namely from agricultural and plantation production, is considered unsustainable because it requires a trade-off between fuel and food. Therefore, policies of the European Union Renewable Energy Directives (RED) and the US Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) recommend the use of the second generation of biofuel, such as biomass, as being more sustainable (Naik, et al, 2010).Indonesian oil palm plantation fulfill that role and contribute to the future global energy policy. Besides producing the first generation of biofuel (biodiesel, FAME), Indonesian oil palms also produce the second generation of biofuel (biomass) in a very large quantity, even bigger than the combined biomass volume produced by soybeans, rapeseed and sunflowers.

Oil palm plantations produce oil palm biomass in the form of empty fruit bunches, shells and fiber, oil palm trunks and oil palm fronds. Research results by Foo-Yuen Ng et al. (2011) show that each ha of oil palm plantation produces biomass in the form of about 16 tons of dry substance per year. The oil palm biomass production is three times bigger that the production of crude palm oil (CPO), which is the main product of oil palm. With about 11 million ha of oil palm plantations in Indonesia in 2015, biomass production reached 167 million tons each year (Figure 7.11).

Oil palm biomass can be processed into bioethanol to replace premium fuel such as gasoline. According to the experience of the KL Energy Corporation in 2007, each ton of dry biomass substance can produce 150 liters of ethanol. This means oil palm biomass production of up to 167 million tons per year can produce 25 million kiloliters of ethanol every year, nearly 60 percent of the premium needs of Indonesia. With such a big volume of ethanol from oil palm biomass, don’t Indonesian oil palm plantations have the great potential to become ethanol or biopremium “mines”?

Besides using biomass from oil palm plantations, there is also the potential to utilize palm oil mill effluent (POME) through methane capture to produce biogas and biomethane (Figure 7.12). The production 113 tons of POME per year can produce 3,179 million cubic meters of biogas each year. This biogas can reduce the consumption of natural gas or be used to generate electricity (bioelectricity).

In other words, oil palm plantations produce sustainable renewable energy, namely biodiesel, bioethanol and biogas/bioelectricity. These three renewable sources of energy can replace fossil energy. Biodiesel would replace diesel oil, bioethanol would replace premium and biogas would replace natural gas. The uniqueness of the oil palm plantations is that they can jointly produce them with no trade-off. As long as the sun still shines, the production of palm oil and biomass will be sustainable so that biofuel production will also be sustainable.

“No country is immune to climate change, but the developing world will bear the brunt of the effects, including some 75–80% of the costs of the anticipated damage” (World Development Report 2010). As the consequences of the likely changes come into clearer focus, the results of inaction become equally clear, yet still the most apparently efficient remedies are hotly debated. It seems extremely important and prudent that food crop productivity must be improved and that should not be diminished by allocating arable land to biomass crops. In light of this, crop improvement, whether by transgenic means or based on molecular breeding advances, is finally beginning to attach importance to crops that are better protected against the influence of changing environmental conditions (Nelson et al. 2007; Edmeades et al. 1999; Bänziger et al. 2006; Moose and Mumm 2008; Messmer et al. 2009; Tester and Langridge 2010).

Biofuels have served as the primary energy source from antiquity. All advances of human civilization have been based on biofuels, as new sources were found and new methods were developed for utilization. Non-biological sources, such as photovoltaics, wind, wave, or geothermal and other technological solutions are becoming competitive. As a consequence, better engineered, efficient biofuel resources will become integrated and adapted to particular locations and conditions on a local scale. Biomethane, even bioalcohols, will find their proper role in a future economy designed to place prime importance on environmental sustainability.

“In the 1960s when the thrust to increase food crop productivity in Asia was launched, serious scholars held that famine was inevitable. They were wrong. The production acceleration campaign succeeded. By 1975 India and Pakistan had increased food crop production so greatly that they were self- sufficient. This unpredicted and unprecedented phenomenon came to be known as the green revolution. It was based on the application of strategies and tactics that had earlier brought about the agricultural revolution in the United States and Europe.

Given today’s even more complicated food and energy security situation than existed during the food crisis of the 1960s, it is apparent that the strategies and tactics employed to generate the green revolution are not in themselves equal to the challenge. They need to be employed to their full productive potential. But given the looming possibility (if not probability) that the world may face a very tight supply of crop land and water with an ever-tightening food and energy situation, additional strategies such as the one set forth here command accelerated investment in research and testing. For this to occur, as with the green revolution, incentive policies (long-term research support, public-private partnerships) must be formulated, adopted and implemented.”

refference: Bressan, R. A., Reddy, M. P., Suk Ho Chung, Dae Jin Yun, Harin, L. S., Bohnert, H. J., (2011) Stress-adapted extremophiles provide energy without interference with food production;  Palm oil Agribusiness Strategic Policy Institute

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