Sustainably Tapping the Rainforest for Biofuel

Can a sugar palm tree hold the key to combating the most pressing concerns in the rainforests of Southeast Asia? World famous biologist and conservationist Willie Smits thinks so, and has a $100,000 grant from National Geographic in his pocket to pursue what may prove to be a monumental breakthrough in the rain forest regions of the world.

With strategic planting of the Arenga sugar palm, Smits and his company, Tapergie, believe that the trees of the Indonesian rainforest can become a productive and sustainable source of biofuel  — a plan not many would expect from a man who has devoted his life to protecting the area’s biodiversity. But what makes Smits’ hypothesis so encouraging is that, unlike past biofuel endeavors that have led to devastating clear-cutting, his plan would tap the forests for energy while protecting the environment, providing jobs, and increasing food security in the region.

It would seem logical for such a system to be complex and impractical, but Smits’ project is remarkably straightforward in theory: plant the Arenga in the forest, and then tap (not cut down) the tree for its sugary juice, which can produce alcohol and ethanol, as well as an organic sugar. Smits refers to the process as “basically only harvesting sunshine.” Picture tapping a maple tree for syrup, except in this case it’s empowering local communities, providing a sustainable energy source, and preventing the deforestation of one of the world’s most precious ecosystems.

Smits’ remarkable concept centers around the Arenga, or “the most amazing tree I’ve ever run into,” according to Amory Lovins, the chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute and a part of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge advisory board. The palm is perfectly suited to grow in Indonesia’s rainforests. It can grow without fertilizer, is drought, pest, and fire-resistant, and has deep roots that allow it to flourish on the steepest of slopes.

These features, however, only scratch the surface of all that the Arenga can do. The tree is an extremely efficient photosynthetic plant, meaning that it can produce year-round and consistently be tapped for its resources. By the numbers, Smits’ projections for the Arenga’s output are just as staggering. He claims that the process has the potential to create 6,300 gallons of ethanol per hectare each year. To put this in perspective, the USDA’s latest yield figures state that corn currently produces 1,100 gallons of ethanol per hectare. Sugar cane in Brazil yields 1,500 gallons per hectare and also pales in comparison to the Arenga’s productivity. It is important to keep in mind, however, that the sugar palm cannot grow in a monoculture much like corn is planted row after row for as far as the eye can see in the American Midwest.

For what Smits’ system could do for renewable energy, it could do just as much for the local infrastructure of remote communities in the rainforest region. The Arenga can be tapped twice a day and requires constant tending. Smits believes that the job cannot be done my machine, but rather must be done by trained workers who know how to properly tap the tree and efficiently preserve its emissions. Thus, the system would boost employment in some of Indonesia’s most remote areas. Smits hopes to model these systems after Tapergie’s three-year-old facility in Tomohon, Indonesia, which has not only employed over 6,000 workers, but also runs on geothermal energy and provides its biofuel to the immediate area to run vehicles and generators. Smits envisions adapting the principles of the Tomohon facility to be suitable for the more remote communities scattered throughout most of the rainforest that live without electricity, safe drinking water, or much education. He believes that his centers can become hubs in these regions, providing jobs, education, and a sustainable base for a number of developments to improve villages’ quality of living.

Conservation and the production of biofuel have traditionally seemed incompatible when dealing with the delicate and irreplaceable rainforest region. Previous attempts to produce energy from the Indonesian rainforest as a way of reducing carbon emissions backfired horribly. The hope of producing biofuel from oil palms only led to the clear cutting and razing of forest in favor of converting land for monocultures. Not only did the system fail to deliver the desired biofuel production, but it rocketed Indonesia up the rankings of greenhouse gas emitters, placing the country only behind China and the United States.

One of the first people to recognize the dangers of this manner of biofuel production was Smits, and now he is poised to lead the charge into a much more promising system that aims to offset previous failures and then some. With the $100,000 grant, Smits will create a prototype system to put his hypotheses to the test. If successful, Smits’ concept has the potential to bring monumental change to the Indonesian rainforest and the world as a whole.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/wak1/32998947/sizes/z/in/photostream/

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