The operators of Britain's first "biofuel" power plants are considering burning palm oil, which is blamed for causing rainforest destruction in south-east Asia.
At least four new power stations are being planned around the UK to burn vegetable oils with the assurance that they will generate less pollution than burning climate-change-causing fossil fuels. Two that would power more than 50,000 homes, at Portland in Dorset and Newport in South Wales, are considering using palm oil.
W4B Energy, which has submitted a planning application to build the £30m Portland plant, says it would use only sustainable supplies certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Vogen Energy, behind the plant at Newport, says production of its palm oil would not harm the environment.
But environmentalists say using any palm oil would be unwise because it would put pressure on supplies, even if the supplies which go into the power stations are officially sustainable. Some green groups are also unsure whether the RSPO system for certifying "sustainable" supplies is sufficiently robust.
Most of the 38 million tonnes of palm oil produced globally is used in food and cosmetics. But the need for biofuels to mix with petrol and as "feedstock" for power stations is putting pressure on demand, which is forecast to grow at 6 to 10 per cent a year.
Conservationists are concerned at the loss of primary forest in Sumatra and Borneo and elsewhere, to make way for plantations. New plantations result in large losses of wildlife and are blamed for imperilling the future of the tree-dwelling orangutan, which could become extinct in the wild in 20 years.
The power plants would help the UK meet its target of generating 15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, but the Government says it must "proceed cautiously" to prevent biofuels raising food prices and destroying wildlife in developing countries. New sources of power are also required because new nuclear power stations will not be in operation until after 2020 and many existing fossil fuel power stations are coming to the end of their life.
But Robert Palgrave, a member of the pressure group Biofuelswatch, argued that growing crops for electricity was a less efficient use of resources than using that land for wind turbines: "To produce the amount of palm oil for food, cosmetics and biofuel is an incredible demand and the only way they can get it is through deforestation."
James Turner, a Greenpeace forests campaigner, said: "Using palm oil to fuel a power station could be even more damaging than burning fossil fuels."