Palm biomass to ease Sabah power shortage

My colleague, Jaswinder Kaur, reports on the need for the government to specifically incentivise biomass usage to generate renewable energy for the benefit of people living in Sabah.

SABAH produces over 30 per cent of the country's palm oil and should be able to generate renewable energy from the crop's waste, but initiatives to move into this direction must be policy driven.

Currently, there are not enough incentives for oil palm players to consider renewable energy as part of their business plans, said state government-owned POIC Sabah Sdn Bhd chief executive officer Dr Pang Teck Wai.

"The introduction of a biomass policy, driven by environmental concerns, is the way forward. There is no doubt we can generate renewable energy from palm oil mill effluent and empty fruit bunches, but it needs to be policy driven," he said in a statement yesterday.

Pang was commenting on Malaysian Palm Oil Board's suggestion of palm oil millers helping to ease Sabah's power shortage if the government provides better incentives for installation of methane gas capture facility to generate electricity at their mills.

Of the 410 palm oil mills in Malaysia, 117 are in Sabah. Mills emit methane from retention ponds after oil extraction. Methane or biogas can be trapped from the mill sludge to fuel steam turbines and generate power.

Pang said little of the oil palm biomass is being used for commercial purposes as selling empty fruit bunches is not a major part of a mill's income, and neither is there a serious enforcement of law to compel them to dispose of the bunches, a major contributor of methane gas.

He cited the example of Eco Biomass Energy Sdn Bhd, a South Korean investor at the Lahad Datu Palm Oil Industrial Cluster that is facing difficulties in getting biomass for its proposed biomass power plant. Two years have passed and the company is still unable to secure sufficient long term supply of empty fruit bunches, despite Sabah producing almost a third of the nation's palm oil.

The POIC Lahad Datu industrial park needs Eco Biomass Energy's plant to produce power, which can be supplied to a myriad of palm oil-related industries. Pang said a biomass policy will spell out government incentives and strict environmental requirements for the production of renewable energy.

"For example, the estimated RM6 million needed for mills to install biogas-capture structure - unless there are incentives or legislative requirement or both, not many mills will bother to capture methane from their palm oil mill effluent," he said.

According to Pang, there are only four power plants in Sabah that are powered entirely on empty fruit bunches, either raw or in fibre form, with two 10-MW facilities in Sandakan, one 7.5-megawatt plant at Felda Sabahat, Lahad Datu, and one 14-megawatt plant owned by public-listed TSH Resources in Tawau.

However, he said none of these were running at full capacity, either because of inconsistent biomass supply, or technological drawbacks, especially in the build-up of clinker in the boilers, which apparently was a problem unique to empty fruit bunches-burning.

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