A two-year study project to verify the methane emission reduction effect of a newly applied effluent treatment method at palm oil mills has verified that up to 50 percent methane reduction is possible. Led by Finland-headed oil refiner and renewable fuels producer Neste Oyj, the next aim is to have the method officially recognized in relevant certification systems.
Neste has long been exploring ways to contribute to improving palm oil industry’s environmental performance, particularly how to further reduce greenhouse (GHG) gas emission from palm oil production. Recently, the focus has been on methane (CH4) emissions at the palm oil mills since milling process accounts for a significant share of life cycle emissions of palm oil products.
In 2015, Neste initiated a two-year study project to verify the methane emission reduction for a newly applied effluent treatment method. The project took place in palm oil mills in Indonesia and Malaysia and was conducted in collaboration with a palm oil company KLK, a Dutch sustainable trade organization IDH, and International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC).
The fieldwork was conducted by Meo Carbon Solutions, a Germany-headed specialist in developing certification and verification systems
A new application of a known method
In 2017, findings of the collaborative project and the newly-developed calculation method were ready to be presented in public. The method itself, separating solid organic matter from wastewater with a belt filter press is not particularly new.
However, its use to remove solids from palm oil mill effluent (POME) is new and sets the focus directly on removing the root cause of methane emissions – the decomposition of organic matter from parts of the oil palm fruit found in the mill effluent.
What is also new is the Neste-developed method to calculate and verify the actual emission reduction resulting from such filtering. To validate the emission savings from adopting the belt press method, the mill simply needs to weigh the belt press cake removed with the belt filter press and measure its carbon content.
The amount of the belt press cake together with its carbon content provides the means to calculate removed organic carbon which, according to the study results, correlates with the reduction in measured methane emissions.
Enormous climate impact potential
Our project showed that removing organic matter from the palm oil mill’s wastewater by a belt press offers great environmental potential. In our study, removal of solid organic matter reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by a staggering 50 percent at the POME pond compared to the conventional open pond emissions, explained Annamari Enström, Neste’s sustainability expert and one of the researchers involved in the project.
The potential that the method offers is enormous. In Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, approximately 70 percent of palm oil is produced without methane reduction methods. If all the producers in these countries were to adopt the studied new method, GHG’s would be reduced by approximately 4.5 million tonnes annually.
For Neste, the application of the method would mean that the GHG reduction potential of Neste MY Renewable Diesel produced from palm oil could be increased even further from the current 69 percent compared to conventional fossil diesel usage.
The current life cycle emission figure is already much better than the 50 percent GHG emission reduction requirement defined in the Renewable Energy Directive (EU RED) for all biofuels.
An environmental solution that pays off
The investment costs related to the belt press method are significantly lower than those related to methane capture method. In addition to reducing emissions at palm oil mills, the belt press method offers significant other benefits, as well.
Adopting the belt filter press method reduces the need for dredging the solid waste from the bottom of POME ponds, which currently has to be done every five to seven years and requires operation shutdowns. By reducing the need to reserve land for dredging, it also frees land area for more productive uses. The belt press cake, dry leftover matter, is rich in nutrients and can be used at oil palm plantations as an organic soil enhancer, decreasing the need for store-purchased fossil fertilizers, said Asta Soininen from Neste, also one of the researchers involved in the study.
Furthermore, Soininen points out that the purified water from the press can be directed to an irrigation water system, reducing the need to derive irrigation water from other sources. The filtering also reduces the need for other physical or chemical treatments that have formerly been required before the discharge to the environment.
This combination of an already known wastewater treatment method, and Neste-developed method to verify the emission reduction in a rather simple manner has generated great interest. And to be honest, I am not surprised. Besides offering global climate benefits and several local benefits, applying the method and verifying the emission reduction are also very cost-effective, said Enström.
Inclusion in certification systems?
According to Neste, it would promote a good practice in the palm oil industry if the method were officially recognized in relevant certification systems. This would mean that the certification system would include a new emission factor that can be applied to GHG calculations for certification purposes by companies using the belt press method.
The method and its emissions-saving potential have already raised interest in certification bodies. Receiving a certification system recognition for the method would allow palm oil producers applying this method to verify their environmental benefits and lower emissions without having to conduct complicated and expensive actual gas emission measurements.
About Neste’s palm oil usage
Crude palm oil (CPO) is one of the over ten renewable raw materials that Neste uses to produce a range of renewable products. Palm oil represents approximately 20 percent of Neste’s renewable raw material usage annually. Already 36 percent of the palm oil that Neste uses comes from mills with methane recovery systems or systems to prevent its formation.
All the CPO that Neste uses has been fully traceable to the oil palm plantations since 2007, and 100 percent certified since 2013. Neste’s supply chain of crude palm oil is fully transparent and comprehensive information about the company’s palm oil supply chain in 2017 will be published in spring 2018.