Palm oil industry

Abstract

Tapioca starch and palm oil industries are considered two of the most important and growing agro-industries in Thailand. Both industries release a significant amount of waste water with high organic content as result of their production process. Traditionally, open pond systems have been used to treat wastewater and consequently achieve compliance with environmental standards. Over the last few years however, more sustainable, expensive and modern alternatives have begun to be used to treat wastewater (mainly anaerobic reactors). The start of clean development mechanism (CDM) projects in Thailand has also contributed significantly to this expansion[1].

One significant advantage of the anaerobic reactors, over the open ponds, is the possibility of capturing, in a controlled environment, the greenhouse gases (GHG) generated, principally biogas with high concentration of methane. The biogas can be used to generate heat and/or produce electricity, substituting fossil fuels as an energy source. The number of biogas utilization projects in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region has been increasing substantially in recent years. While a biogas plant can bring economic benefits with respect to energy self-sufficiency and cost-saving over time, the design and operation of a biogas plant requires high investments and is still perceived as a risky business due to a number of barriers. In addition, actual data from biogas plants indicate that the performance of a biogas plant with respect to the amount of biogas is not as attractive as it was initially expected among the project developers. Even though many literatures show the performance of biogas plants in certain experimental conditions, surprisingly, few literatures have explained or have shown data about the low performance of the biogas plants compared to the expected projected performance or design.

The purpose of this study is to identify these barriers in biogas technology implementation and operation in Thailand and to determine how these barriers lower the performance of the biogas business. The study was conducted based on the analysis of 48 selected CDM projects in Thailand and the analysis through a consultation of relevant professionals in CDM and the biogas business in Thailand. The results of this study provide important lessons for further biogas utilization and greenhouse gas emissions reduction in the Southeast Asian region.

Keywords

Tapioca starch industry; palm oil industry; biogas in Thailand; anaerobic reactor; wastewater treatment; Clean Development Mechanism.

Introduction

Thailand is the worlds leading exporter of rice, and it exports other agricultural products like shrimps, coconuts, sugarcane, palm oil and tapioca (Library of Congress, 2007). In addition to rice and sugarcane the tapioca and palm oil industries have played a major role in boosting the Thai agricultural economy. Thailand is the worlds second largest producer and the largest exporter of tapioca starch (FAOSTAT, 2007). It also has a rapidly growing palm oil industrial sector. Rapidly developing technology and applied Research and Development (R&D) to improve the quality and quantity of crop, combined with a broad range of crop usage, has helped the country to maintain its key position in the tapioca starch and palm oil sectors (Thai Tapioca Starch Association [TTSA], 2009).

Starch and palm oil industries are not new to Thailand and have existed in the country for a long time. In fact, many of the firms are family-owned businesses that have existed for generations. However, the practice of capturing and utilizing biogas is new for Thailand, where business as usual has previously involved the utilization of open lagoon systems (Rajbhandari & Annachhatre, 2004). There are 86 starch and tapioca industries in Thailand from which 60 have biogas system, which shows the high technology penetration of nearly 70%. On the other hand, out of the 49 palm oil industries only 22 have biogas systems (Prasitpianchai, 2009). In relation to industry regional distribution, the Northeast part of Thailand is the forerunning region in tapioca industries and constitutes near 70% of the total tapioca production of the country (Sriroth et al., 2000). On the other hand, the palm oil industry is mainly concentrated in the Southern part of Thailand (Chavalparit et al., 2006).

There are several factors that have motivated plant owners to implement a biogas system with their starch or palm oil plants. Rapid technological development, meeting self-energy demands, low dependence on imported fuels, revenues from selling electricity to grid (Umweltbundesamt, 2007) and CDM revenues are a few of them (Adhikari et al., 2008).

The investment in Thai biogas is expected to be around US$ 100 million within the next 10 years, although US$300 million would be required to fully develop the sector (Du Pont, 2005). In the tapioca starch industry, the payback period for a biogas installation replacing a fossil fuel oil burner has been estimated to be 1.7 to 2.3 years, with an initial investment cost of US$ 0.7 million to US$ 1.6 million and US$ 0.4 million to US$ 0.7 million of savings per year (Chavalparit & Ongwandee, 2009). In the palm oil industry a study of Malaysian plants with similar characteristics to Thai biogas plants, suggests a return on investment of 30.8% and a payback period of 2.5 years (Yeoh, 2004).

In the context of CDM, biogas also has a decisive comparative advantage over other renewable technologies. The reductions in emission of methane can provide larger size of CERs if compared to sole reduction of GHGs from fossil energy substitution (Umweltbundesamt, 2007). As shown in Table 1, a close observation of some registered CDM projects confirms that the expected internal rate of return (IRR) is attractive compared to the benchmarking values in the market:

However, interviews carried out with project managers and consultants from an international carbon trading company working on Thai CDM projects reveals a different reality. Internal data from the trading company shows that 86% of the projects do not reach the expected CODin load, 58% of projects do not produce the desired amount of biogas, and 42% of the projects do not reach the desired COD removal efficiency rate[2][3][4].

Research objectives and methodology

This study is aimed at understanding why the biogas business, despite being perceived as attractive by various stakeholders (e.g. investors, carbon credit companies, technology providers), performs at a level well below than expected.

To do so, the study explores the concept of barriers and their effects on the Thai biogas industry. The term barrier in the papers context refers to the obstacles that restrict the widespread adoption of renewable energy systems and specifically hinder the integration and performance of biogas plants in Thai tapioca starch and palm oil industries (UNDP, 2008). In relation to CDM, these barriers are considered as the obstacles in the implementation of a project and they cannot be eliminated if the project is not going to be registered as a CDM or VER project[5] (UNFCCC, 2008). This is so-called additionality in the context of CDM.

This paper starts with a brief technical overview of tapioca starch, palm oil and biogas production processes. Then it continues with literature survey to understand classifications of barriers in renewable energy technologies in general. The authors address the results of two analyses to identify barriers in implementation of biogas utilization projects in Thailand. The first analysis looks into CDM projects for biogas utilization in Thailand. The second analysis is conducted based on a consultation of relevant professionals in CDM and the biogas business in Thailand. They conducted several interviews and a brain storming session with the project managers and consultants from an international carbon trading company and a biogas technology supplier working in Thailand[6]. The intent of interviewing these specialists was to draw together their experiences and uncover the barriers they think are the cause(s) of the hindrance of biogas technology integration, implementation and operational performance. In addition, the authors attempted to find academic literatures discussing each barrier that are identified through a consultation with the experts in Thailand. Finally, the barriers found through the second analysis were deployed into causes and sub-causes with a view to identifying the real issues (root causes) behind poor biogas performance. These barriers are deployed in a cause-effect diagram (fishbone structure) in Annex II.

The following section describes the overview of starch and palm oil production, followed by the benefits of implementation of a biogas system with the production process.

Tapioca starch production process overview

Initially fresh cassava roots are weighed to determine the starch percentage. Sand is then removed, followed by a rinsing and peel separation process. In order to do this, the roots are placed first in a sand removal drum and then into a rinsing gutter (Food Market Exchange, 2009). The cassava roots are subsequently chopped into small pieces in a chopper, and then transferred into a rasper where water is added to facilitate the procedure. At this point, the slurry is a mixture of starch, impurities, fiber and water. The slurry is then moved to centrifuges for extraction of the starch from the fibrous residues. The extraction is carried out by centrifuges in series (normally three or four). For a superior extraction, the slurry passes through coarse extractors consisting of perforated baskets and then fine extractors with a filter cloth (Chavalparit & Ongwandee, 2009). During this stage water and a sulfur solution are added to the centrifuges, in order to facilitate the bleaching and dilution. The slurry now is separated into fibrous residues (pulp) and starch milk. The pulp goes to a pulp extractor to recover the remaining starch and subsequently the extracted pulp is moved to a screw press for dewatering. Normally this dry fibrous residue is sold as animal feedstock. The starch milk is pumped into a separator (two stages) for the removal of impurities. The cleaned milk is pumped into horizontal centrifuges, in order to remove the water before drying (Chavalparit & Ongwandee, 2009). The result of this stage is a starch cake, which is taken to a hot air dryer column. This hot air is produced by oil burners. The dried starch (moisture concentration around 12%) passes through a sifter and the resulting fine powder is packed into sacks for sale.

Palm Oil production process overview

The fresh fruit bunches (FFBs) are harvested and arrive from the fields as loose fruit or bunches. The bunches go to be sterilized or cooked. The sterilization process uses pressurized steam while cooking utilizes hot water. The main benefits of this phase are: to prevent the formation of fatty acids, to make the removal of the fruit from bunches easier and make bunches simpler to handle during the subsequently stages (Poku, 2002). The next stage is the bunch stripping, in which the sterilized bunches are separated from the bunch stalks with the use of a rotary drum thresher. The fruits are then transported into digesters, where the palm oil will be released from the fruit through the rupture of the oil-bearing cells. At this point, the digested material is ready for pressing or extraction of palm oil. There are two main methods for extracting oil from the digested material: a wet method that uses hot water to wash away the oil and a dry method that utilizes only mechanical presses. The separated crude palm oil is collected and taken to the clarification session. The residual pressed cake is taken to a separation system for drying and sorting out the fibers and the kernel nuts. In small-scale factories the kernel nut separation from the fibers is done by hand while in large-scale factories an air cyclone is used. The large-scale factories use the fibers as fuel for steam boilers. The kernel nuts are then cracked and separated from the shells before being dried in silos for packing.

The oil sent for clarification/purification is a mixture of palm oil, cell debris, fibrous material, water, and non-oily solids. During the clarification process the oil passes through different sub-phases: screening to separate fibrous particles, sand removal utilizing a sand cyclone, and a settle tank to separate the oil from water (Chavalparit, 2006). The resulting crude oil goes to the purification stage, in which a centrifuge separates water and fine suspended solids. After purification, the palm oil still contains water that is removed by a vacuum evaporation system. Finally, the dried oil is kept in tanks before being packed for sale to an oil refinery.

Benefits of biogas system

The processes involved in production of the finished products generate a huge amount of wastewater with a high organic content which can be recovered as biogas through biogas digesters and can be converted into other forms of energy i.e. heat and electricity. These digesters contain a variety of active methanogenic bacteria that can produce biogas by anaerobic digestion of the organic substrates (Rajbhandari & Annachhatre, 2004). For each ton of roots processed, the tapioca process produces 19.19.32 m3 of wastewater with a high organic load (Chavalparit & Ongwandee, 2009). This quantity of wastewater has the potential to produce around 40-60 m3 of biogas, which is equivalent to around 25 l of oil. On the other hand, the average quantity of wastewater generated from a palm oil mill is in the range of 0.64 m3/ton of fresh fruit bunches (Chavalparit et al., 2006). Through the wastewater treatment of this effluent and subsequent capturing of biogas, the palm oil mills can also produce a considerable amount of heat and electricity. Just by the efficient utilization of biogas and using high efficiency gas engines and boilers, both the starch and palm oil plants have the potential to meet their energy demands (TTSA, 2008).

There is a huge biomass potential in Thailand, as the tapioca and palm oil industries are two of the largest food processing industrial sectors in the country. Implementation of biogas technology can be a long-term solution for waste management and production of heat and/or electricity from renewable energy sources, as indicated by GTZ[7]. The advantages of biogas involve a huge variety of benefits ranging from pollution control, solving waste disposal problems and meeting energy demands to environmental and sustainable benefits. Considering the current global concern and climate change issues, biogas systems are an ethical choice in some cases, while CDM incentives are another major benefit of implementing biogas systems. The combination of CDM and biogas technology produces economic benefits for the project owner while reducing GHG emissions (Advance Energy Plus, 2008).

The steps involved in the processing of tapioca starch and palm oil are standardized among palm oil producers. However, the selection of biogas technology and machinery for wastewater treatment varies considerably. Upflow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket (UASB), Continuously Stirred Tank Reactor (CSTR), Covered In-Ground Anaerobic Reactor (CIGAR), Anaerobic Baffled Reactor (ABR), Anaerobic Fixed Film Reactor (AFFR), covered lagoon and a combination of an anaerobic digester with other technology are the few technologies predominantly utilized in Thailand[8]. According to the results of study UASB is the most common technology followed by CIGAR and CSTR, while AFFR is the least common.

The following section exhibits several classifications of barriers that are commonly discussed among scholars who conducted a barrier analysis on the implementation of renewable energy projects. The authors paid attention to these classifications of barriers to formulate their framework to examine barriers against biogas utilization projects in Thailand.

General categorization of barriers

Painuly and Fenhann (2002) address a way of classification of barriers. They divide barriers into awareness/information, capacity, economic, environmental, financial, institutional, market, policy, social and technical barriers. Table 2 illustrates examples of each barrier:

Similar to Painuly and Fenhanns classification, barriers are generally categorized into the following five barriers in the study of barriers among CDM project activities:

  1. Business culture barriers;
  2. Investment/financial barriers;
  3. Prevailing practice barriers;
  4. Technical barriers;
  5. Social barriers.

The authors use this classification of five barriers to analyze barriers among CDM biogas projects in Thailand. On the other hand, they also use the following list of four barriers for classifying barriers observed through practical experiences of experts in Thailand. This is because the authors wish to identify not only the barriers at the planning phase of the projects but also the barriers in the operational phase. The barriers after the project implementation are not identified or discussed among CDMs project design documents (PDDs) since they are always written before the project implementation[10].

  1. Management-related barriers: barriers related to management in general, planning and strategic decisions;
  2. Operation-related barriers: barriers related to operation of the plant and operator related issues;
  3. Technology related barriers: barriers related to technology providers, process characteristics and anaerobic system technologies;
  4. Cost-related barriers: barriers related to cost and investment issues that in due course impact on the performance of the biogas plants.

Results of analysis

Analysis of barriers among CDM biogas projects

To understand the most relevant barriers experienced by the project developers in the Thai tapioca starch and palm oil industries, the authors examined 48 specific CDM biogas projects of Thailand[11].They conducted detailed analysis by examining the project design document (PDD) of each project[12].

The results of the analysis indicates that the most common cited barriers among the CDM projects were: 1) Lack of skilled and trained staff; 2) No driver to change from open lagoons (well known, cheaper and prevailing technology) to AD systems; 3) Lack of equipments and local technology providers / suppliers (imported technology) and 4) Sensitivity of the AD systems (strict and delicate operating parameters). Three out of four most cited barriers refer to technical problems, showing the concern of the project developers about the correct operation of the biogas systems. Although treated as different barriers, it is perfectly possible to link these barriers, since a poor technology transfer for a new technology and lack of local technical support, aggregated to a low qualification and training of operational personnel can have a direct impact on the performance of the AD systems, which is very sensitive to small fluctuations.

The following section addresses the second part of the analysis. It presents the barriers identified from the practical experience of the project managers and consultants from an international carbon trading company and one biogas technology supplier in Thailand.

Barriers from practical experience

The focus of the second analysis is not only the barriers found at the planning phase of the projects, but also the barriers that could be identified after the start-up of the projects, i.e. in the operational phase. As indicated above, these barriers were not identified in the first analysis since the CDMs PDDs are always written before project implementation and do not incorporate barriers in the operational phase.

The barrier identification was carried through several interviews and brainstorming sessions with the involved persons. The result of the brainstorming session can be observed in the cause-effect diagram (fishbone structure) in Annex II. After the recognition of all possible barriers, a second stage for prioritization (voting) of the identified causes was also carried-out with the interviewees.

In order to support the empirical findings with other evidences (facts and data) over the feeling of the interviewees, a detailed literature research was carried-out to corroborate with the practical assessment.

Management-Related barriers

  1. Plant owners lack of knowledge about AD systems (investment decisions and management decisions ), caused by:
  2. No consideration for project lifetime benefits, aiming at only short term investment returns

    Explanation: Most of the time, the focus of companies is to maximize the profit over a short period. Frequently the managers have little to no information about biogas or anaerobic digester systems and the subsequent technical implications and costs. Consequently when the knowledge about biogas benefits is limited, the managers prefer to invest in production rather than new technology (Chavalparit, 2006). Moreover, even when aware of new technology, inappropriate technical or cheaper solutions are selected (Schneider et al., 2008).

    Lack of attention on biogas business by the management, since it is only a marginal activity within the plant

    Explanation: Biogas production for energy is often considered not as important as the core (palm oil or starch production) business (UNDP, 2007). Managerial efforts and planning are concentrated on maximizing the finished product production rather than in biogas production, which is often considered the secondary business (Chavalparit, 2006).

    Low education degree of management

    Explanation: As per the findings from interviews, in the Thai starch and palm oil industries around 70% of the factories are small or medium sized, are owned and operated, and have been for generations, by families. Often the owners do not have any former education or are incapable of hiring skilled managers, due to the location of the plants and salary opportunities. Within the small and medium companies in Thailand, more than one third (36.1%) of the owners have only an elementary education (Chirathivat & Chantrasawang, 2000).

  3. Improper choice of technology supplier and service provider, caused by:
  4. No search for professional design of biogas facilities

    Explanation: As mentioned at item (1.1), often the managers do not seek professional support when researching biogas technology due to financial reasons. On the other hand, many times the managers do not know where to search for the information they need, since there are no standard guidelines or publicly available information about biogas performance and technologies. There is no support from the government and there are very few initiatives of R&D in regions where biogas is prominent (Paepatung et al., 2007).

    Plant owners lack of knowledge about anaerobic digester systems: Already explained in item (1) of this section.

  5. Misaligned incentives between feedstock supplier and operator, caused by:
  6. Lack of integrated planning

    Explanation: For an enhanced production of biogas, it is fundamental that the quality of wastewater should be monitored. The production process needs be to be controlled, since the wastewater quality (produced as a by-product) is important for the biogas production (Department of Industrial Works and GTZ, 1997). When biogas systems are in place a more elaborate production and forecasting plan needs to be prepared, for example forecasting the quality of raw material and seasonal fluctuations.

    Constant changes on production patterns

    Explanation: In an unstable process, additives in uncontrolled proportions, differing qualities of raw materials (such as tapioca roots with different percentage of starch and other substances) and an excess of fatty acids, can affect the wastewater characteristics (Ward et al.,2008). In order to have a constant and planned biogas production, the entire process needs to be stabilized and constantly monitored (Department of Industrial Works and GTZ, 1997).

    Production process has higher priority than wastewater quality

    Explanation: As mentioned in item (1.2), the core business of the plants studied is production of palm oil or starch. By-products play a secondary roll and often remain unmanaged. Many plants ignore the type, quality and value of the wastewater produced, consequently affecting the biogas production in a later stage (Department of Industrial Works and GTZ, 1997).

  7. Overestimation of input data for plant design (Plant Owner), caused by:
  8. Lack of measurement of actual process parameters to purchase proper technology, caused by:

    "Family business model (not so professional and structured)

    Explanation: As mentioned in item (1.3), around 70% of the Thai starch and palm oil industries are run by families and have been owned and managed for generations as a family business. In these industries, half of the management positions are occupied by family members or relatives to the entrepreneurs (Chirathivat & Chantrasawang, 2000). The management structure is usually simple and the tasks limited to confined activities (Visvanathan & Kumar, 1999).

    Open lagoon system already comply with regulations

    Explanation: To comply with environmental regulations over the past decade, many plants have been using open lagoon systems for the treatment of wastewater, both in palm oil (Najafpour et al., 2006) and the starch industries (Rajbhandari & Annachhatre, 2004). Open lagoons are simple to construct, are simple to operate and maintain and are robust. The broad use of open lagoons reflects their acceptance on the market.

    Business culture/ environment (traditional, not so sophisticated agro-industry field)

    Explanation: The starch and palm oil businesses are suited to the traditional agro-industry field in Thailand. About 70% of the total tapioca production in the country is located in the northeast part of the country (Sriroth et al., 2000). For palm oil industries, most of them are concentrated in the southern parts of Thailand (Chavalparit et al., 2006). These industries do not have a history of, an interest in or financial capability to invest in R&D, since their market is not dynamic compared to other sectors (IT or automotive, for example).

    Lack of business long term strategy and business plan

    Explanation: As mention in items (4.1.1) and (4.1.3), the starch and palm oil industries are traditional agro-industries, normally run by families in an informal manner and structure. In addition, many companies have an incorrect perception of the reality of the market (Industrial Development Division/ Department of Industrial Promotion, 1995). In these circumstances, a long term strategy or the development of a business plan is not realistic, nor is it a common practice for these industries.

    Cost-Related barriers

  9. High Investment costs, caused by:
  10. Imported technology

    Explanation: Most technologies for wastewater systems and biogas came from developed countries (Parr et al., 2000). Proper transfer and adaptation to tropical climates requires investment (Prasertsan & Sajjakulnukit, 2006) and will result in costs being incurred (importation taxes, logistics, training, etc.).

    Need of large infra-structure investment

    Explanation: As per the findings from interviews, the major component of the investment in a biogas project is dedicated to its infra-structure and generally mainly to the reactor. A UASB reactor for example, needs to be constructed with reinforced concrete (Mara, 2003), which causes the capital investment to be higher than a traditional fossil fuel investment.

  11. Unawareness of operational and maintenance costs, caused by:
  12. Lack of options for comparing with other starch and palm oil companies

    Explanation: In the biogas market in Thailand there is no centralized information and orientation regarding biogas technologies and the equipments that are available (Paepatung et al., 2007). It is also very difficult to find data related to projects performance and information about projects that have already been implemented (Prasertsan & Sajjakulnukit, 2006).

    Energy density of wastewater much lower as compared to other fossil fuels, requiring specific attention

    Explanation: The tapioca production process generates 10 to 28 m3 of wastewater for each ton of root processed with a high organic load (Chavalparit & Ongwandee, 2009). This quantity of wastewater has the potential to generate around 40-50 m3 of biogas, which is equivalent to approximately 25 l of fossil fuel oil. Consequently, for a biogas project, instead of a small diesel oil tank and a generator, much larger area (storage tanks) and auxiliary equipments are required and need to be monitored.

    Optimistic figures provided by technology suppliers

    Explanation: For a precise design of equipment and processes, technology suppliers must have reliable data about the plants and information about previous similar projects. However, such information is frequently not available and some parameters are difficult to predict (Prasertsan & Sajjakulnukit, 2006). As a result, there is an improper evaluation regarding the real needs of the customers and in order to sell their products the suppliers present optimistic values in their proposals.

    Lack of knowledge about anaerobic digester systems (management level)

    Explanation: In Thailand there is a lack of awareness about renewable technologies (Umweltbundesamt, 2007) including awareness on biogas technology (Energy Policy and Planning Office [EPPO], 2007). There is also a lack of public support in terms of information and little information regarding biogas is transferred. In addition to this, since the degree of education of the managers is low (item 1.3), the technology of anaerobic digesters and biogas production appears to the managers as very complex issues.

  13. Lower financial returns than expected, caused by:
  14. Higher investment and O&M costs than initially expected, caused by:

    No concern about project lifetime benefits, aiming only short term investment return: Already explained in item (1.1).

    Operation-Related barriers

  15. Operator not motivated to perform
  16. Lack of attention on biogas business by the management, since it is only a marginal activity within the plant: Already explained in item (1.2).

    Economic incentive to reduce performance (operator-kickbacks by fuel supplier)

    Explanation: As per findings from the interviews, there are cases in which the operators responsible for the wastewater quality control, or for the biogas production process, are persuaded to reduce their performance by the fuel suppliers (bribe) in order to utilize more fossil fuels than biogas for energy production.

    Lack of financial incentives to improve/ maintain performance

    Explanation: As mentioned in items (4.1.1) and (4.1.3), the tapioca and palm oil industries are traditional agro-industries, often managed by families with a basic application of management principles under a simple organizational structure. In addition, biogas production is not considered as important as the core business (item 1.2). Thus, on many occasions the operators are not motivated to perform due to a lack of a company performance reward policy or due to a different remuneration compared to his coworkers on the core production business.

  17. Lack of proper maintenance, caused by:
  18. Operators not skilled and trained, to be detailed on item (10.1)

    No concern about project lifetime benefits, aiming only short term investment return: Already explained in item (1.1).

  19. Human error in operation, caused by:
  20. Operators not skilled and trained, caused by:

    No understanding of the complex biological /operational process (Operator)

    Explanation: Anaerobic digesters are very complex and sensitivity systems depend on many parameters, such as pH, design of reactor, hydraulic retention time, and temperature among others (Choorit & Wisarnwan, 2007). The understanding of biogas technologies is considered much more complex than fossil-based technologies (Uddin et al., 2008). Consequently, for an operator in a rural area, with low education and a low level of understanding of the biological processes, it is very difficult without proper training or correct orientation to pursue the use of this technology.

    Lack of proper training on operation

    Explanation: As mention in the item (10.1.1), the anaerobic digesters are complex and sensitive systems. Often, even the managers do not understand how it works (item 6.4). So, due to a low understanding of the new processes, managers rely heavily on the technology provider. In order to remain focused on the core production process, or to save costs, often the managers do not provide adequate or appropriate training for the operators on the new wastewater/ biogas processes and systems.

    Lack of standardized courses

    Explanation: In Thailand, there is a lack of centralized information about biogas technologies and standards for biogas systems and equipment design (Umweltbundesamt, 2007). As a consequence, except for training courses provided in-company by technology providers, there are no standardized courses for the operators of biogas plants.

    Qualified workers/operators go to other industries and provinces

    Explanation: The biogas industry in Thailand is still perceived as being in its infancy and it is difficult to attract appropriately qualified and knowledgeable staff (Prasertsan & Sajjakulnukit, 2006). In addition, the location of the plants contributes to the issue of not attracting staff; around 70% of the total tapioca production of the country (Sriroth et al., 2000) is located in the northeast parts of Thailand and the palm oil industry is mainly concentrated in the southern parts of Thailand (Chavalparit et al., 2006).

    Lack of standard operational procedure, caused by:

    Language barriers (O&M manual not available in local language)

    Explanation: As mention in item (5.1) most of the technologies utilized in biogas production are imported. Therefore it is natural that the O&M manuals are in the mother tongue of the manufacturer and in English. As per findings from the interviews, many times the manuals are not translated into the Thai language; neither there are workers in the client company that are able to speak English. This situation creates a serious language barrier that is often identified after the hand-over of the project to the owners.

    Poor quality O&M manuals, depending on experience of technology provider

    Explanation: In Thailand, there are a lack of standards for bioenergy systems and equipment design (Umweltbundesamt, 2007). Since there is no centralized information and orientation regarding biogas technologies, the users need to rely on the manuals elaborated by the technology provider. Depending on how experienced the provider is and how adapted the technology is to Thai conditions and environment, the quality of the O&M manuals may vary.

  21. Insufficient skills to control critical process parameters, caused by:
  22. Operators not skilled and trained, already explained on item (10.1)

  23. Lack of experience in operation, caused by:
  24. Young history of biogas industry in Thailand

    Explanation: The biogas industry in Thailand is still perceived as young (Prasertsan & Sajjakulnukit, 2006) and has few successful cases (Umweltbundesamt, 2007). For example, according to Chavalparit (2006), at the time of the study into the palm oil industry, there were only 7% of plants using anaerobic digestion tanks. For starch industry, the Ministry of Energy of Thailand started supporting pilot biogas plants from the year 2003 onwards (EPPO, 2007). As a result, there are few specialized local professionals in the biogas field.

    Technology-Related barriers

    Too ambitious performance specifications by technology provider, caused by:

    No proper evaluation of plant profile to suggest appropriate anaerobic digester technology (supplier), caused by:

    Lack of measurement of actual process parameters to purchase proper technology: Already explained on the item (4.1)

  25. Technology transfer done poorly, caused by:
  26. Technological support from abroad (takes time and costly), caused by:

    Lack of local professionals and technology/service providers in the area

    Explanation: Most technologies for wastewater (Parr et al., 2000) and biogas systems (Prasertsan & Sajjakulnukit, 2006) came from developed countries. Since the biogas technology is still new in Thailand (item 12.1) there is a lack of local capacity building and availability of human resources with appropriate knowledge (Uddin et al., 2008). Therefore, often the adaptation to local climate and conditions is not conducted properly and there are few, or no, local companies that can provide proper technical assistance.

  27. Complexity and sensitivity of the anaerobic digester systems, caused by:
  28. Biological process with sensitive organisms, caused by:

    Bacteria are not too tolerant to variations of temperature and wastewater quality

    Explanation: Anaerobic digesters are very complex and sensitivity systems. Variations in critical parameters such as reactor configurations, concentrations of total volatile fatty acid (TVFA), pH, organic loading rates, inhibitor concentrations, hydraulic retention time (HRT), temperature, and substrate composition can lead to a process failure. These parameters require constant monitoring and investigation such that they can be maintained at, or near to, optimum conditions (Choorit & Wisarnwan, 2007).

  29. Performance guarantee expires after hand over (supplier), caused by:

No long term financial incentives and contractual arrangements between the supplier and owner

Explanation: In many projects the technology suppliers are hired only to implement the wastewater and biogas systems and leave as soon as operation begins (hand-over). The users are sometimes not aware of warranty issues, leading to unreasonable expectations. These short-term, onetime deals are unlikely to contribute to an appropriate technology transfer as opposed to long term, repetitive deals, with more intense personal interactions (Schneider et al., 2008).

The analysis revealed 29 root barriers for the poor biogas performance. As Table 5 indicates, in most cases, there were literatures that identified and discussed each barrier. It was also observed, however, that many barriers were connected to each other and it was often difficult to clearly identify what is cause and/or consequence of certain barriers.

In order to ascertain the barriers that would be more relevant and affect the performance of the biogas industry, the authors conducted a second round of interviews. In this phase, they complied all root causes identified after the brainstorming session and put together in a spread-sheet format. They asked the participants to vote according to their consideration to relevance as per following proportion rule:

  • Considering 20% of the causes very important;
  • considering 30% of the causes of middle importance;
  • considering 50% of the causes low important.

The compilation of the data indicated that the 6 most important barriers[14] voted were as following (arranged in decreasing order of importance):

  • Item 1.2 Lack of attention on biogas business by the management, since it is only a marginal activity within the plant;
  • Item 10.1.1 No understanding of the complex biological process (Operator);
  • Item 10.1.2 Lack of proper training on operation;
  • Item 6.4 Lack of knowledge about anaerobic digester systems (management level);
  • Item 4.2 Lack of business long term strategy and business plan
  • Item 6.3 Optimistic figures provided by technology suppliers

It is recognized, by the prioritization, that most of the barriers are related to managers competence in successfully integrating the biogas technology with the existing business. Managers need to understand the particularities of the new business unit and develop a strategic plan forecasting the biogas benefits and possible obstacles. This result may suggest that the barriers related to operational problems could be avoided or diminished by proper allocation of resources in the development of education, skills and training for the staff operating the biogas business.

Conclusion

The purpose of this study was to identify barriers in biogas technology implementation and operation in Thailand. As indicated in the introductory section of this paper, while a biogas plant can bring economic benefits with respect to energy self-sufficiency and cost-saving over time, the design and operation of a biogas plant requires high investments and is still perceived as a risky business due to a number of barriers. It was noted in the beginning that few literatures have explained about the low performance of the biogas plants compared to the expected projected performance or design.

The authors conducted two analyses to identify barriers to implement biogas utilization projects in Thailand. The first analysis looked into CDM projects for biogas utilization in Thailand. The most frequently cited barriers included; 1) lack of skilled and trained staff; 2), no driver to change from open lagoons (well known, cheaper and prevailing technology) to AD systems; 3) lack of equipments and local technology providers/ suppliers (imported technology); and 4) sensitivity of the AD systems (strict and delicate operating parameters).

The second analysis was conducted based on a consultation of relevant professionals in CDM and the biogas business in Thailand. The analysis of the barriers from practical experience provided us with a complementary scenario of the barriers by looking into not only the barriers not at the planning phase of the projects, but also the barriers that were identified in the operational phase.. The barriers classified as most important included 1) lack of attention on biogas business by the management; 2) no understanding of the complex biological process by operators; 3) lack of proper training on operation; 4) lack of knowledge about anaerobic digester systems at the management level; 5) lack of business long term strategy and business plan; and 6) optimistic figures provided by technology suppliers. The results of the analysis indicated that most of the barriers were related to managerial issues and deficiencies of knowledge or information in different levels of the business unit. The barrier related to staff education and training is however, present in both analyses, giving a strong indication that it is a very relevant one in terms of hindering the biogas plants performance.

This study is aimed to contribute a better understanding of the barriers that hinder the implementation and performance of biogas business in Thailand, more specifically in the tapioca starch and palm oil industries. Future research is necessary perhaps by looking into biogas utilization projects in other industries to conceive a better utilization of biogas potentials as renewable energy in the future.

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