Electric olives

Posted: 26 May 2004

Author: Claire Doole

In the hills of Andalucia, olive farmers are doing their bit in the fight against climate change - turning waste from olive oil into green electricity. Claire Doole reports on this enterprising endeavour.

Olive farm, Andalucia, Spain.© WWF-Canon / Claire Doole
As far as the eye can see, olive groves dot the hills of Andalucia. For centuries, the groves have supplied olives and olive oil - the staples of Spanish cuisine - to restaurants and retailers. But over the past decade, the olive growers have found a new market for their produce: the electricity sector.

Green energy

Stretching across Spain's southern-most tip, Andalucia is home to the world's first "olive power plant". In 1995, an electricity plant in the town of Palenciana became a global pioneer in using olives as a source of renewable energy.

Biomass

Biomass is a term used for plant and animal products which can be used to produce energy, such as energy crops (e.g. short rotation coppice, mischathus), manure, wood chips, and organic waste from industrial processes like sugar and olive oil production. In principle, the burning of biomass as a fuel releases the same amount of CO2 to the atmosphere as was used by the organism to grow, making it a CO2-neutral fuel.

The plant turns olive residue into biomass - a type of fuel generated from animal waste and plant material such as wood and crops. This is then burnt to generate electricity and heat. The Palenciana plant currently produces enough green electricity for 27,000 households, and has since been joined by four others in the region.

José Santamaría is one of the pioneer green energy producers. His family has been growing and producing olives around the town of Lucena, near Seville, for generations. But four years ago he got on the biomass bandwagon.

"It seemed to us the ideal solution," he explains. "We've always had the problem of what to do with the residue left over from making olive oil, which can contaminate soil and pollute the underground water system. By using it to produce green electricity, we have turned an environmental problem into an environmental solution."

Olive biomass

Santamaría started producing electricity along with oil in 2000. It started as a small-scale operation, providing enough to power 3,500 households in Lucena. But now he's expanding to use olive waste from neighbouring farms as well.

Construction of the new combined olive oil and electricity plant, Anadalucia, Spain. © WWF-Canon / Claire Doole
Construction of the new combined olive oil and electricity plant, Anadalucia, Spain. © WWF-Canon / Claire Doole
Construction of the new combined olive oil and electricity plant, Anadalucia, Spain.© WWF-Canon / Claire Doole
A combined oil and electricity plant is being built amongst the family olive groves. It's already a hive of activity. One after another, trucks line up to dump olives into a sunken storage container. The olives are then pressed and turned into oil. In a second building, the waste from the oil and olives is dried in massive revolving heaters to give olive biomass.

"We're just collecting the olive biomass at the moment," explains Santamaría. "Over there," he points at a clearing in front of the oil processing plant, "we're building the power plant where the biomass will be burnt to generate electricity."

Production is expected to start in December. Santamaría hopes to generate enough electricity to power all of the households in Lucena, some 50,000 people.

A dapper man in his thirties, Santamaría describes himself as an environmental businessman.

"Although", he adds laughing, "it's more environmental than business at the moment. We are only just breaking even as the premiums paid by the electricity companies for each kilowatt from biomass are not exactly generous."

Ready market

However, he does have a ready market - all the electricity he produces is bought by local power supply companies and there is a market for increased production. And now that he has started making biomass, Santamaría is not going to give up. He thinks that many of the region's olive producers would do the same if the financial incentives were greater.

This would give greater benefits to the environment than simply disposing of polluting olive residue. Biomass is a renewable, CO2-neutral fuel - making it a valuable technology in efforts to reduce CO2 emissions in order to curb global warming and climate change.

"The big advantage that biomass offers over renewable energy sources like wind and solar is that it can be stored and used when needed. This means it can provide a constant, non-fluctuating supply of electricity," says Heikki Willstedt, Energy and Climate Change Expert at the Spanish office of WWF, the global conservation organization.

Many believe that, after wind power, biomass is the biggest renewable energy source that can be exploited on a large scale.

Cutting emissions

According to a new report from WWF and the European Biomass Association, 15 per cent of electricity in countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) - enough to supply 100 million homes - could come from biomass by 2020. Compared to traditional power stations, this could cut CO2 emissions by about 1,000 million tonnes each year, an amount equivalent to the combined annual emissions of Canada and Italy.

With most industrialized countries struggling to meet commitments to reduce CO2 emissions, these figures should be a huge incentive to promote biomass along with other renewable energy sources. Spain, for example, agreed to limit emissions to a 15 per cent increase over 1990 levels by 2012 under the Kyoto Protocol. However, the country's CO2 emissions have already gone up by 40 per cent since 1990.

However, the biomass industry remains underdeveloped in most industrialized countries. It supplies just 3 per cent of Spain's total electricity consumption, while in most industrialized countries, the figure is only 1 per cent.

This is mainly due to lack of government support. For example, while Spanish biomass electricity producers receive a premium on top of the normal price for electricity, this premium is not high enough to make biomass attractive to most investors. This makes biomass unattractive to many investors. For the olive biomass producers, higher premiums could be essential to keep their business going if olive residue, which is now supplied for free, gets a market value.

Sustainable energy

But the industry is not without supporters. The director of the energy agency in Seville, Enrique Belloso Perez, is keen to promote biomass, along with other renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. However, he concedes that Spain's current law on renewable energy is not sufficient to expand the use of biomass.

"We need a new more financially attractive law, which offers higher subsidies to producers, otherwise I am afraid there will be no new biomass plants built in Andalucia - or in Spain," he says.

Willstedt agrees. "Biomass has a huge role to play in delivering clean, sustainable energy for the future," he says. "The technology is there - the stumbling blocks are political and commercial."

Despite the problems, biomass has made an impressive beginning in Andalucia - already a world leader in wind and solar technology. Andalucia's olive biomass power plants currently produce enough electricity for some 130,000 households, while biomass as a whole supplies 5 per cent of the region's total energy consumption.

And construction of Santamaría's olive biomass power station continues.

"Of course, we started this project to make a profit," says Santamaría. "But we know we are solving a serious problem at the same time. We feel happy, earning money and helping the environment."

The farmers in this part of the world, at least, are doing their bit.

Claire Doole is Head of Press at WWF International.

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