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Energy farming

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MAPping the Future

Energy farming

12:00 AM March 07, 2016

ENERGY farms are not new to us. We now have wind farms and solar farms producing electricity spread across the country. And more are expected to come.

This is thanks to the Renewable Energy Act that provided incentives for private investors.

As of Dec. 2015, the Department of Energy (DOE) reported that registered projects under the Renewable Energy Program include the following: seven wind farms and 13 solar farms generating 426.9 and 146.3 megawatts (MW), respectively.

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While looking up statistics on renewable energy, what caught my attention is the number of biomass projects in operation placed at 36 and generating 352.98 MW. We don’t hear much about such projects so I decided to write this article given their significance in creating livelihood opportunities in the rural areas.

Poverty is the biggest challenge we have to solve and most of the poor are in the rural areas. I think this is one solution to the problem.

Unlike wind farms and solar farms, biomass projects would require a lot of fuel that can be grown like any other farm produce. Others are farm waste products that are just left to rot in the fields till now.

At present, biomass technologies utilized in the country vary from the use of bagasse and biogas as boiler fuel for cogeneration, rice/coconut husks dryers for agricultural produce, biomass gasifiers for mechanical and electrical applications, fuel wood and agriwastes for oven, kiln, furnace, and stoves for cooking and heating purposes.

The use of biomass for electricity generation provides more promise for income generation because of the volume required. These power producers are ready to pay for such fuel sources.

The best example I can cite is the sugar industry. Sugar milling requires energy for its operation. Bagasse is a waste-product of the process and is used as fuel for power generation of sugar mills. But this is only possible during the milling season.

During the off-milling season, such a fuel source is not available. For sugar mills with refining operations, they have to buy biomass feedstock to run their sugar refinery during the off-milling season.

This becomes an opportunity for coconut farmers since there are people willing to pay a price for the coconut shell to supply to these sugar refineries. Other farmers located near those sugar centrals have seized the opportunity by planting fast-growing trees like ipil-ipil to sell as fuel wood.

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Following the example of the sugar industry, some manufacturing firms have also opted to use rice hull for their power needs. This is the case for a number of rice mills, feed mills, and cement factories especially in Luzon where these are readily available. Looking at the figures from the DOE, 17 projects have been listed using biomass for energy generation for their own use.

What is significant to note is the number of electricity producers selling to the grid. This means that there are now cogeneration plants using biomass with the idea of selling the electricity that they produce to consumers.

The DOE listed 19 such projects.

I would attribute these developments to the Renewable Energy Law since there is a set price referred to as Feed-in-Tariff (FIT). FIT is the per kWh rate guaranteed to renewable energy (RE) developers to ensure the viability of their projects. Eventually, the consumers will shoulder this under the FIT-allowance, a separate line component in the power bills.

According to the DOE, biomass, solar and wind will be among the major sources of energy for the next decade, accounting for more than a third of the country’s total energy supply. Especially for biomass power plants, it will mean more demand for bagasse, coconut husks, rice hulls, bamboo, wood chips, and super napier grass called Pakchong. But there are more opportunities for energy farmers.

The other types of energy sources that can be “grown” in the farm are the biofuels. Biofuel refers to fuels made from plant sources and primarily used for thermal and power generation.

These are classified under the broader group called alternative fuels. These are fuels that are not composed substantially of petroleum and thus, are alternatives to petroleum. As a substitute to this traditional fuel, it is expected to yield significant energy security and environmental benefits to its consumers.

As mandated by the Biofuels Act, the DOE is implementing a long-term Alternative Fuels Program to: (1) reduce our dependence on imported oil, and (2) provide cheaper and more environment-friendly alternatives to fossil fuels.

Through the said program, the DOE intends to tap the country’s domestic produce as viable sources of energy.

The goal is to develop indigenous and renewable energy fuels for long-term energy security, which will be a pillar for our country’s sustainable growth.

I would like to highlight two alternative fuels with big potential in the Philippines. These are ethanol and biodiesel.

Ethanol is a renewable fuel source. It is produced from plants that process and store energy from the sun.

In a sustainable cropping system, plant feedstock can be produced year after year. These crops include sugar cane, cassava, sorghum, and corn.

It also has environmental benefit. Pure alcohol fuel, such as ethanol, has nearly complete combustion. This means that very little carbon monoxide is formed.

Ethanol does not contain contaminants commonly found in gasoline such as sulfur and benzene. Compared to gasoline, harmful emissions and pollution are greatly reduced. When blended with gasoline, ethanol contributes a reduction in most emissions according to its percentage in the blend.

As to its economic benefit, ethanol expands the market for Filipino farmers, thus enhancing rural economic development.

Biodiesel is a renewable and biodegradable diesel fuel extracted from plant seed oil. A natural hydrocarbon with negligible sulfur content, it will substantially help in reducing emissions from diesel-fed engines.

Two crops are of interest to us as sources of biodiesel: coconut and jatropha.

The Philippines has launched the use of biodiesel, particularly, Coconut Methyl Ester or CME. CME is derived from coconut oil and is more known as coco-biodiesel. As cited by DOE, studies show that the addition of coco-biodiesel results in better combustion, less pollution, and more engine power. The engines run smoothly and with longer maintenance intervals.

The use of coco-biodiesel will provide and establish a long-term, sustainable alternative domestic market for coconut oil. Hopefully it will also stabilize the market and increase coconut production.

Jatropha Curcas or “Tuba tuba” is a non-edible plant that grows mostly in tropical countries. It is resistant to drought and can easily be planted or propagated through seeds or cuttings. It starts producing seeds within 14 months, but reaches its maximum productivity level after four to five years. The plant remains useful for about 30-40 years.

The jatropha seeds can produce an oil content of 30-35 percent, depending on the quality of the soil where it is planted. The plant has a yield potential of 0.75 to 2 tons of oil per hectare per year.

Benefits of jatropha as biodiesel include the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Local production of jatropha is also practical because as a non-food crop, it will not compete with food demands. It can grow on marginal and degraded land, leaving prime agricultural land for food crops. Planted in sloping areas, it can help stabilize the soil because as a tree it has extensive root system and can help in carbon sequestration.

It was reported recently that a Malaysian company has opened its first gas station in Bohol that makes use of jatropha oil for its biofuel mix. The jatropha oil is sourced from growers in Bohol. The company in its press release mentioned that they will replicate this model in other provinces in the Philippines.

The use of biomass and biofuels for power generation may just be the answer to the need for electrification of far-flung areas, especially the small islands.

It will also provide income opportunities for people living in those areas by growing their own fuel requirements.

For the country as a whole, it will mean less dependence on imported petroleum and savings in our foreign exchange.

(The author is a member of the MAP Agribusiness and Countryside Development Committee, manager for MAP’s Farm Business Schools project, and president of the Foundations for People Development. Feedback at map@map.org.ph and renegayo@gmail.com. For previous articles, please visit www.map.org.ph.)

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