Mon, 07 Aug 2000

Tapping energy from plants, why don't we?

By Edhi Martono

YOGYAKARTA (JP): Every time an oil crisis occurs (which is what will continue to happen, covering anything from distribution, scarcity or price), it shows one thing: that fossil fuel is nonrenewable, and, inevitably, there will be more and more crises ahead.

To add insult to injury, sometime in the future, probably not as far as away we think, all the oil wells of the world will run dry. And our lifestyle, which has been heavily dependent on this energy source, will need adjustment, great adjustment, or else our world will no longer be able to function like it does today.

The truth is, preparation for this adjustment never gained any meaningful momentum. Almost any energy crisis so far today always deceitfully ends happily, although the cost afterward will become more expensive. The quest for alternative energies exclusively becomes the realm of rich countries; while the not-so-rich still think an oil-based life will last forever, and energy crises are the farthest thing from their mind since there are a lot more pressing problems waiting to be managed.

Some of the quests have even become political issues, which, of course, do not contain any satisfactory technical answers for the coming energy shortage.

And people forget the notable figures, such as the late Prof. Herman Johannes of Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta. He was one of the few who worried about the energy crisis, and had urged people to look for alternative sources. He offered us plants: renewable energy resources if we are able to manage them properly and efficiently.

He wrote in the AgroEkonomika journal in 1978 (as far back as that) about the advantages of plants as energy resources. Plants provide us with firewood, alcohol (ethanol, methanol: readily converted into gasohol, alcoholic gasoline), biogas and oils to be used as alternative energies. Unlike fossil fuels, these alternatives may be continuously available with proper care and handling.

He was not all talk, either. He made charcoal briquettes and an efficient terra-cotta stove to use them in. Those briquettes were made from dried leaves and other plant refuse through drying and compacting.

In an average household, the briquettes provide enough energy for cooking and other simple needs. This discovery is as important as utilizing fermentation products of farm/household refuse by making biogas tanks, as some NGOs built in several villages a few years ago.

Indonesia is potentially rich in these kinds of energy. The effort -- and even campaign -- to utilize plants which are abundant in our backyard, unfortunately, is sadly lacking, if not absolutely absent.

When we turn to alternative energy, it usually means coal (another nonrenewable resource), the often-debated nuclear energy, geothermal steam (with technology so obscure not much progress had been heard, despite the limited localities blessed with such energy), and so on.

Why is it that nobody ever paid any attention to plants? Technically speaking, the concept and technology, like those written about by Dr. Johannes, are already established. As mentioned above, he did not only justify the concept, but also developed practical approaches to tap plants' energy, or do some "energy farming". He went so far as to project its economic analyses. So?

It seems that investors for alternative energy forms, like plants, are a might on the shy side since there is no definite market in Indonesia. When we talk about cooking, for instance, the introduced mode is a gas stove: the clean, shiny stainless steel stove which brings about not only practicality, but also prosperity and is a status symbol. Whether it feeds on liquid petroleum gas, a fossil fuel, is of little concern, as gas bottle vendors abound in each and every corner.

So, the education that the consumer and the market acquire is not renewable energy consciousness. The practice -- culture -- of using BBM (Bahan Bakar Minyak, fossil fuel oil) as energy sources stays dominant.

Once upon a time, Save Energy campaigns appeared on television, but they were not followed up by any definite action. Without action, or with so much dependence on oils, those campaigns seemed all too awkward and ironic. Sure, they were needed to motivate the public. But more important are the real actions and practices, actions which are not only easy to do but rightly address the energy crisis.

The old customs and traditional practices of using plant resources as fuel sources are actually done everywhere in Indonesia. Arang (wood coal) and kayu bakar (firewood) are still popular in many rural areas.

But such practices without advisory and proper control will also bring about other disasters: forest fires, desertification, denudation of the green canopy, etc. Not that indigenous people do not know how to use wood fuel in a sustainable manner, but as there will be more people using them, there is no guarantee that everybody knows what they are supposed to do with these vegetative resources, rather than exploiting them. In other words, even renewable resources should be utilized with the utmost and efficient care.

Only then will the energy farming described by Dr. Johannes play its role -- to its fullest extent. Indonesia has a lot to offer: there are critical lands, marginal lands, places that are not productive enough for food and fibers.

Should there be any campaigns, these lands may be promoted to accommodate the planting of energy-giving bushes, vines and trees. Introduce energy-yielding plants, tell the public how to culture them, prepare factories to process them. The technology is available, and when the market share becomes solid, investment will follow.

How many more years will the earth's oil reserves last? It is time to be frank, evasiveness may spell disaster.

The writer has degrees in Entomology from the University of Hawaii. He teaches in Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta.