“Agriculture has beaten rocket science”

Saturday, 30 October 2010 05:03 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

“While man may have excelled in many sciences including rocket science, it is man’s primary vocation, agriculture – which was not considered prestigious of all sciences,

that has finally come to the rescue of mankind in one of its darkest hours in civilisation,” said Minister of Power and Energy Patali Champika Ranawaka, addressing the Delhi International Renewable Energy Conference (DIREC) early this week. Speaking at the five-day renewable energy summit in Delhi, Minister Ranawaka said that it was modern biomass or sustainably grown modern plantations that had come to salvage the world, which is fast reaching a crisis point with the depletion of fossil fuel. Here are excerpts:

In a world where ethicists treat burning of fossil fuel as a crime, the 700 million Indians who depend on biomass and constitute the ‘rural poor,’ I feel, should consider themselves quite rich. While commending the efforts to shift dependency of these ethically ‘rich’ people from traditional biomass to modern ones, I would like to draw your attention to a few headlines which caught my attention during the last few days.

Last Friday the New York Times reported how the Obama administration has opted to pay farmers 75% of their costs for growing new energy crops, such as switch grass. Besides in a bid to boost biomass energy infrastructure the US Government has decided to fund five bio-refineries and bio-energy plants and 10,000 storage tanks for new mixes of gas that contain a higher percentage of ethanol.

On Saturday Irish Radio, Midlands 103, announced that the Irish Government has moved to start the work of a 40 million Euro biomass project in Co Offaly county, early next year, and it is due to start operations in June 2012. I also hear often how in China solar and biomass projects share turbines and other infrastructure to cut costs while ensuring there’s growth in both sectors.

In Sri Lanka biomass energy with zero emissions and zero waste is now used even in Cement factories and I got an opportunity recently to visit one such factory in the Eastern port city of Trincomalee.

The world certainly is turning and a very ambitious attempt is being made to reverse the trend – that of the long sustained gradual downward trend in the use of biomass as an energy source. The predominant fuel of the human civilisation until the 19th century, today it only accounts for 15% of the global energy sources.

Still in the developing world biomass fuel supplies 35% of the total primary energy requirement and most of that is used for traditional purposes of domestic cooking and space heating. It is said that some 2.7 billion people across the globe still rely on biomass for cooking while wood remains the dominant domestic fuel for rural people in developing countries as well as the urban poor.

On the other hand in the developed world, biomass accounts for a mere 3% of energy generated.

The general thinking is that moving away from biomass is a sign of development. In energy terms development means replacing traditional biomass with modern energy sources. If we want to develop then we should move away from ‘traditional biomass’ – often identified as being dirty, inefficient and inconvenient.

However when the progressive world today speaks about biomass they speak more about the ‘modern biomass’ than the traditional one, about the one that would mark the end of the fossil fuel era and heralds the sustainable energy era. Modern biomass is usually grown and is used to generate power and heat in the most sustainable manner without compromising the ability of future generation to meet their energy needs.

The process of biomass applications has two distinct phases. In the first phase, biomass is produced in energy plantations. In the second stage, bio fuel is converted into the desirable form of energy such as hot air, steam or electricity. Once the first phase is completed, the second phase is a simple variation of the traditional fossil fuel applications. In the year 2005 it was estimated that some 44 GW of electricity was generated using modern biomass.

Currently biomass comes in different forms – fuel wood, municipal waste, industrial waste, and agricultural waste. Biomass collected from homes, home gardens and forests, biodegradable material in municipal waste, industrial waste such as sawdust, and off cuts from timber mills, Agricultural waste such as paddy husks, coconut shells and straw all these can be used with ‘modern’ biomass technologies to generate power and heat.

However these are only by products of some other mainstream production processes and as a result the quantities are inadequate to play a significant role in the world energy scene.  The ‘modern’ biomass, on the other hand, comprises of sustainably grown fuel wood which comes straight from energy plantations.

The fact remains that both the ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ energy generation processes that use biomass revolve around the sun, the primary source for energy for life on earth. While witnessing the depletion of fossil fuel reserves at the most alarming rate, the challenge before us today is to figure how to harness the sunshine in the most efficient way.

At present solar photovoltaic solar PV and concentrated solar power/thermal technologies remain the modern direct methods of collecting sunrays. There’s a general public interest on Solar PV but many often forget Solar PS: Solar Photosynthesis.

Solar PV continues to be quite an expensive means of power generation and its benefit often goes to modern high-tech companies in the developed world while the cost-effective Solar PS has rural masses living in the developing world as its beneficiaries.

Therefore the energy plantations for harnessing Incident solar rays to the optimum should ideally be the modern trend until the Solar PV prices come down to an affordable level.  For the tropical countries, Sustainably Grown Biomass (SGP) means energy plantations with fast growing species and short rotational periodic cutting and pruning. In Sri Lanka we use the terms ‘dendro power/thermal’, derived from Greek term for ‘wood’, to distinguish Sustainably Grown Biomass from other biomass.

One of the cardinal principles to be adhered to in Energy Plantations is to avoid it being a monoculture. It should be integrated to the existing agricultural patterns to ensure that the farmer will not shift from food crops to energy crops, and instead get energy crops to complement food crops. Sustainably grown biomass in general is indigenous, cost effective and yields social and environmental benefits. The environmental benefits include curtailing of soil erosion, restoration of degraded land and reduction or improving upon of local impacts from fossil fired power generation like production of SO2 and NOX.

In Sri Lanka the fast growing species selected for energy plantations can withstand even the most adverse weather conditions. They grow in a variety of soil conditions and are generally free from disease and have displayed a strong immunity against pest attacks. These are legume that can greatly enrich the soil and hence its green matter forms an ideal base for organic fertiliser. The leaves are an attractive fodder for goats and cattle creating an enabling environment for farmers to engage in animal husbandry.

Certain trials conducted in Sri Lanka have shown that multi cropping energy plantations with existing commercial plantations yield multiple benefits. For example the ability of the soil to retain moisture content is enhanced by approximately 50% when Gliricidia is grown as a multi-crop under coconut plantations.

Gliricidia multi-cropping improves the organic matter content of soil by 40% at a depth of 15cm. Besides, 50 kg of processed Gliricidia leaves have the ability to reduce annual chemical fertiliser requirements, yielding the equivalent of 0.8 kg Urea, 0.25 kg Phosphate, 0.6 kg Muriate of Potash and 0.5 kg Dolomite. Further solar radiation utilisation on a coconut plantation is increased from 6% to 94% in the presence of Gliricidia.

Dendro power projects have the largest scope for providing employment to the rural communities and give the highest social benefit. Unlike most of the other renewable energy technologies biomass can be stored and hence it is dispatchable. The key benefit of the dendro power is that it can replace emitting fossil carbon to the atmosphere with bio carbon. It is carbon neutral.

In 2007, per capita carbon emissions (M tons) in Sri Lanka stood at 0.6 while India 1.4, china 4.9, Singapore 7.1, Germany 9.6, Japan 9.8, and US 18.9. While we are yet to exhaust out full carbon quota we in Sri Lanka are quite determined to develop our renewable energy sources and technologies.

Though it is heartening to note the progressive renewable energy policies of the countries like the United States which had also displayed a keen interest in developing modern biomass infrastructure we insist that the developed world should commit themselves to the binding target of reaching 40% emission reduction by 2020 and 80% by 2050.

It is imperative that the global south setting aside their differences to combat this climate terrorism which it has been tolerating for too long and has been at the receiving end of its lethal impacts. Also the developing world should be mindful of the latest move by the industrialist countries to exhaust geo carbon on the pretext that their bio carbon, generated via modern biomass, could offset the depletion of fossil fuel reserves. It is commonsense that geo carbon takes millions of years to develop and it will take another millions of years for today’s biomass to turn to fossil fuel.

In Sri Lanka even today around 47% of the total energy is generated by the use of biomass in the form of fuel wood. ‘Traditional biomass’ consumption in Sri Lanka has increased from 3,310 tons in 1980 to 4720 by 2007. However the biomass percentage in the primary energy supply has dropped from 68% to 47% during the same period.

Recently, my ministry, the Ministry of Power and Energy conducted a long-term electricity generation Expansion Planning study to figure out the status of different generation options. The candidate options considered for this study included oil, coal, LNG, hydro, nuclear and dendro.

Contrary to the popular belief that the renewable energy technologies are generally expensive, the study revealed that the dendro power is the most cost effective power generation option. We internalised the external costs and benefits of each technology while doing the analysis. The factors we considered for the study included the difference between the imported and indigenous fuels, carbon trading possibility and the future price hikes of fossil fuel.

There are large extents of uncultivated, less productive lands in Sri Lanka and they offer an ideal opportunity for large scale energy plantations. It is about 1,700,000 hectares excluding reserved land such as natural forests, national parks and other specified areas.  Though this may look like a limited space from an Indian perspective, it is quite sufficient to cater to at least part of the energy needs of a 20 million population if maximum use is made.

Biomass has always been the main stay of our energy supply from historical times and remains so even to this day. Year round availability of sunshine and adequate rainfall has resulted in Sri Lanka possessing a long tradition and culture for sustainable plantations. Our country has been sustained for over a century, by the plantation economy and in spite of the opening up of economy the plantation sector continues to play a dominant role in the economy.

The expansion of plantation technology for energy production, fortunately, is in total harmony with this tradition and culture. We have realised its value as the means of meeting modern energy demands such as thermal energy for industries and also for electricity generation. We are quite convinced that distributed cogeneration dendro plants are the ideal solution for energy challenges and plans are also underway to convert our coal power plants to co-firing power plants, in order to achieve zero carbon emission growth by 2020.

We have already established private, public and civil society partnerships aimed at meeting our energy requirements. Farmers engaged in the traditional rice cultivation in the dry zone in Sri Lanka have employment opportunity only during the peak labour periods of certain months of the year. These farmers who long for alternative income generating avenues in the remaining months will engage in the energy plantations which will in turn help them to boost their food production.

Depletion of fossil fuel reserves will have a dual impact on our country: In addition to triggering an energy crisis it will also affect the agriculture sector as cost of fossil fuels and fossil based fertiliser will continue to increase.

Sri Lanka is currently providing a 95% subsidy for imported fossil nitrogen, however this certainly is not an economically viable solution. We strongly believe that the single most important solution to avert this crisis is development of dendro power. We are fast moving to replace fossil carbon with bio carbon and fossil nitrogen with bio nitrogen to ensure a truly sustainable Sri Lanka for the future generations.

Concluding my speech I would like to emphasise that while man may have excelled in many sciences including rocket science, it is man’s primary vocation, agriculture – which was not considered prestigious of all sciences, that has finally come to the rescue of mankind in one of its darkest hours in civilisation.