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Green or Black? Bristol's biofuel dilemma

Dave Harvey | 12:48 UK time, Tuesday, 22 December 2009

If muck means brass, Avonmouth should be booming. For decades the port and its hinterland has been the mucky industrial heartland of the West. Giant oil depots, huge heaps of coal, acres of haulage. And everything, but everything, driven by carbon.

6m tonnes of coal comes into Bristol port every year

We never called it a "high carbon economy", but now that low carbon is the holy grail, an industrial zone like Avonmouth looks distinctly, well, twentieth century.

So plans for one old abandoned factory have captured people's imagination. The Sevalco plant used to make Carbon Black, the ultimate mucky industrial product. Vital to all sorts of industries, it makes car tyres black, amongst other things. I was there early in 2009 when the company closed it, costing 90 guys their jobs.

The old Sevalco works at AvonmouthWell now an entrepreneur plans to take this aging sooty factory and turn it into the ultimate green power station. The tangle of pipes will go, but the huge oil silos will remain, to be filled with vegetable oil. Enough to fry chips for all Bristol, but this oil will be burned for power. Giant turbines will turn, and 50 megawatts of electricity will feed the national grid. Without an ounce of fossil fuel, and - says the entrepreneur - with very little net carbon dioxide.

It's an attractive theory. You grow crops, which capture CO2 from the air. You crush their seeds or nuts and extract oil. You burn the oil and create electricity. You grow the next crop, and the cycle continues. Yes, there are inefficiencies: tractors on the farms and factories crushing the seeds will emit CO2. Crops will grow best in the tropics, so ships must bring the oil to Avonmouth, emitting more. But fossil fuels emit CO2 that has been trapped deep underground for hundreds of thousands of years; the fuel crops can't lose, can they?

I've been investigating the biofuel plans for Inside Out West, our documentary series. It will air in January, just days before Bristol councillors consider the plans on 20 January 2010. And this has to be one of the trickiest balancing acts they've had in a long time.

I went to a public meeting on a cold night in December, and it was packed. I counted 50 people, and there were apologies from dozens more. The opposition is implacable.

"Frankly, I'd rather see a coal power station," one activist tells me. "At least we know that's bad and needs limiting. This gives the illusion of clean energy, but is anything but."

Logging in Sumatra, IndonesiaThere are three big worries. First, much of the vegetable oil is Palm Oil, grown in Indonesia and Malaysia. Vast swathes of rainforest are being cut down and logged, and then palm plantations are grown. So increasing the demand for palm oil, say the activists, is a direct invitation to rip out more rainforest.

Second, the palm oil companies are accused of clearing villagers and wildlife from the land indiscriminately. Search the web on the subject, and you soon find films featuring indigenous people ejected from their homes. Gibbons and orang-utans are shot, it is claimed, so that the march of the palm can continue.

Third, the growth in palm oil is usurping food production in poor countries. Faced with the vast profits they can make on palm oil, why would an Indonesian company plant rice?

Doesn't look so green, all of a sudden, does it?

And yet ... "We aren't using any of that oil," the man behind the new power station tells me. "We're using sustainable oil, which has nothing to do with ripping out rainforests, shooting gibbons, or starving the third world."

Chris Slack is a new player in energy. His company, W4B, lists Salisbury as its head office, and has no previous experience. They are not an oil firm trying on new clothes, but project managers who've spotted an opportunity. Mr Slack himself worked on the original FairTrade project, helping small Caribbean banana farmers find a fair price for their crop.

"To qualify for the government's renewable subsidies, we have to use sustainable oil," he continues. He has great hopes for Jatropha, a new crop that grows on scrub-land and yields huge amounts of oil. And 'Sustainable Palm Oil', he tells me, is now bought and sold like organic coffee.

Problem solved then? Sadly, no. In south Bristol, I meet a wildlife film-maker who tells me she has seen first hand plantations growing so-called "Sustainable Palm Oil".

"I've seen them shooting gibbons right there," she tells me. "Villagers say the land was cleared right through their village. And when the oil arrives here, it is stamped "sustainable". It's a piece of greenwash, nothing more."

50 more wind turbines, or a biofuel plant?Mr Slack has offered an independent auditor to check the green credentials of his oil. And he points out that to make as much electricity from wind, Avonmouth would need 50 new windmills.

The arguments rage on, and I wonder if we have a new axiom for our times.

Where there's muck there's brass, maybe. But where there's green energy - there's an almighty row.

What do you think of the Avonmouth plans? Join the debate here, or if you want to be involved in the film, email me at And look out for Inside Out West, BBC One, Monday 18 Jan at 7:30pm.


  • Comment number 1.

    On the face of things the plans look good but, and there are some very big buts:

    1) The amount of Green House Gases (carbon dioxide, and methane) produced when processing the palm oil, is over 100 times more than the stated reductions in GHGs effected by using palm oil instead of fossil fuels for this project

    2) Jatropha is a toxic, invasive weed that has been banned in Western Australia and other parts of the world, for precisely these reasons

    3) When compared to palm oil, jatropha produces only 60% as much oil, so much more land would be required to produce the same amount of oil

    4) In a number of African countries, particularly Tanzania, farmers grow japtropha rather than food crops because it offers a higher return, thereby causing food shortages

    5) The proposed power station is not economically viable because the cost of the fuel, whether palm oil or jatropha, is greater than the revenue that can be generated by selling electricity back to the National Grid

    6) Despite the establishment of the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (production), less than 1% of the world's palm oil is produced sustainably, leading Unilever to cancel a 1.2 million tonnes per year contract with Sinas Mar, a leading palm oil processing company

  • Comment number 2.


    Simple answer whatever makes $$$ and does the best good for society in the aspect of Biofuel.....

    =Dennis Junior=

  • Comment number 3.

    Seems to me that the lack of good visual data and argument on these issues is absolutely breathtaking. Take for instance the recent BBC documentary Great Rift: Africa's wild hear. Wonderful clear visual representation of the formation of the Rift Valley. Seriously, BBC, time to get your priorities right. No matter how difficult and contested (in fact, for that very reason), this sort of thing should have nightly news importance – What sorts of areas are being forested, how rapidly, who’s supposedly getting what, why and how?


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