21 June, 2024


Rebooting Agriculture To Provide Clean, Practical  Solutions To Sri Lanka’s Energy Crisis – II

By Chandre Dharmawardana

Dr. Chandre Dharmawardana

Newspaper  reports mention how the minister of Power and Energy  and the CEB engineers are trying to meet a systemic power shortage looming over Sri Lanka. The Easter Sunday carnage made everyone forget about the garve systemic problems facing Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka seems to lurch from one emergency to another in every sector, like a ship gone adrift. A May 20th report in the Island states that “CEB engineers warn of power cuts …” This is a result of not staying course with long-range power production plans when governments and their favourite financiers changed. Furthermore, the CEB  plans were  inconsistent with rising concerns on pollution and global warming. The potential of solar – and biomass energy was considered to be unimportant when the CEB energy plans were  made decades ago.

In a previous article labeled part-I that appeared in the Colombo Telegraph we examined how Solar power can provide a large part of the needed power by using floating solar panels in reservoirs already equipped with hydro-turbines and how they can be deployed to provide FIRM POWER without batteries or alternators. The proposal is to store  solar electricity (or wind generated electricity) by using the alternative energy source (be it wind or solar) for re-pumping  water back into the reservoirs. Then nearly the  equivalent amount of electricity can then be re-generated in the usual manner by the hydro-turbines. Biomass energy offers an even bigger inexpensive source of firm energy that can be made available at will.

Ailing agricultural sectors can be re-booted inexpensively to become vibrant bio-energy industries. The potential can meet Sri Lanka’s needs for decades to come, and even to sell to the Indian continent using a cable link, breaking the isolation of Sri Lanka’s power grid. 

There are mind boggling possibilities. Scientists can engineer, within the decade, whole forests with genetically modified plants that store lots more carbon than plants available today. The relevant genes are already known. Such plants can fight climate change and  also greatly increase the efficiency of  bio-energy plants 

A Really Available Bio-Energy Source 

Bio-energy  has been talked of  for decades, but with its implementation. There are, as yet  no turn-key solutions or commission-carrying businessmen. The simplest approach is to burn any kind of fast-growing wood, bamboo, bagasse etc., in high-efficiency furnaces and run generators. 

This process is “carbon-neutral” as the CO2 released is that absorbed by the plants during  growth. The flue gases are relatively free of the toxic  nitrous and sulphurous fumes found in coal-fire or diesel emissions. There is sub-micron fly ash, although minimal compared to coal. While the logistics of collecting the biomass is  big, private companies like GreenWatt in Moneragala  have set up 10 MW power plants using fast-growing Gliriicidia. CEB engineers consider these as “small potatoes”, but thousands of such plants can be set up easily in the plantation sector. 

There are several inexpensive and efficient processes for generating energy for Sri Lankan needs for ever. Here we discuss just ONE eminently practical solution that simultaneously reboots the ailing coconut sector. 

The Coconut Industry As An Energy Giant 

The industry concentrates on the coconut kernel as copra and desiccated coconut. The local householder buys coconuts for cooking. The milk is hand-squeezed inefficiently. The water, the spent kernel (‘polkudu’), the shell and the husk are wasted or used in primitive highly polluting industries (e.g., making coir, rugs) with only a minimal value addition, while the demand is unsteady.

Coconut shells are indeed used as fuel or for making activated carbon. According to Paddon and Parker (1979) the husk has some 6700 kilo Joules per nut, i.e., almost 5 KWh of energy per kilo of husk! So the energy from ten husks is roughly the same as from one litre of petrol! Only part of the heat can be converted into electricity because of the Carnot-Rankin loss to entropy. 

The water, kernel and the shells already have a good market value. So we use the husk and all waste for the energy sector. Sri Lanka produces approximately 2.5 billion nuts/year, a drop from its better days with 3 billion. Using the dry weight (following FAO data) of the husks, the 2.5 billion husks  are equivalent of about 2 million GWh per year, i.e., some 5.3 billion liters of petrol/year.

If even 20% of the husks were collected, and if the heat-to-electricity conversion efficiency is 30%, an energy yield of 0.3 billion liters of petrol, or about 150,000 GWh from the husk alone is possible. Taking the total annual power need of the country to be about 15,000 GWh, the coconut sector can readily supply ten times the energy needs of the country right now!

Sri Lanka’s ailing coir industry and allied industries  like  husk chips, coir pith (‘kohubath’) for soil remediation,’kohu’-panels, etc are simply methods of discarding valuable energy. Just as Sri Lanka throws away the coconut water, “kurumba  Komba” (used coconut), the potential of the husk too is wasted when used in traditional agriculture or rural industries.

The coconut husks are traditionally dumped in pits or submerged in cages near waterways for ‘retting’, prior to the fiber extraction by primitive methods dangerous to workers. The water  become polluted and emits bad odors; oxygen depleted effluent full of organic matter deadly to aquatic biota are a byproduct of this industry. 

Recognizing the energy potential in coconut, a different industry model must be legislated. Whole nuts should only be sparingly available in the market. Just as paddy is processed and only hulled rice is marketed, coconuts should be processed to market the kernel and shell, while the coconut water should be canned and sold. The husk is the fuel for high-efficiency burners whose heat  generates electricity. The sale of individual coconuts rather than the transformed products should be highly taxed. Only those who grow coconut in their home gardens for private use can have the luxury of consuming coconuts in the traditional way. A higher price for husks will tempt everyone to sell their husks to the power company. The present ‘waste tariff’ on husks must be lifted and the power industry be given a 20-year tax credit. There can be power hundreds of companies in large coconut estates. 

So we have no need for coal or liquified gas or ransoming Sri Lanka’s sovereignty to foreign vendors, or destroying the environment, in order to be self-sufficient in energy. Similarly, mini-hydro companies should be banned as they render little and cause much ecological damage. No oil or gas exploration in the neighbouring seas should be allowed as it is intensely environmentally damaging. It will further threaten the nation’s sovereignty as has happened to many small oil-rich nations now in the grip of powerful consortia.  

The coconut  acreage need not increase (i.e., no habitat loss) as the current husk supply far exceeds the needs for energy production which can start within months rather than years. Those working in the ailing coir and allied industries should be absorbed into the energy sector. The ash from burning coconut husk is rich in potassium, phosphorous and other minerals.

Husk ash mixed with optimal amounts of humus and urea makes a good fertilizer. However, controls on metal toxins against  bio-accumulation are needed just as with organic fertilizers. The  ash is useful in the construction industry, e.g., for sand mixes, making bricks or paving stones.

Using Gene Technology In Agriculture For Carbon Capture And Reuse

Coconut production itself can be increased using modern cultivars instead of traditional varieties, without incurring habitat loss and in fact aiming to return currently cultivated land back to nature. Proper fertilizer application, irrigation, and restoring the right of the coconut grower to use herbicides like glyphosate that are least harmful to the environment will increase nut production without increasing the land under cultivation. The use of so-called “organic” methods based on unscientific and outdated myths that rejects the use of plant genetics etc., should be discouraged. Use of herbicides enables a drastic reduction in soil erosion and reduces manual labour. 

It is interesting to note that many anti-rational ideologically motivated programs have contain in them an attack on genetics.The “Marxist” agriculture of Lysenko in the Soviet Union, and the so-called “organic farming” movements of today which also lean on a nostalgic throw-back to “traditional agriculture” are examples of such anti-rational movements. Instead, plant genetics and biotechnology should be harvested to increase yields, be it in the output of nuts husks or any other desirable product, while decreasing the area under cultivation, thus reducing the  habitat encroachment by human activity. The catastrophic decline in pollinating species, and in biodiversity in general are mostly due to habitat loss and deforestation caused by humans.   

Any tree that is grown for production of energy for  biomass can be genetically engineered and optimized for increased carbon capture as well as rapid growth. For instance, mangroves have developed root systems which contain various types of high-carbon cellulose. Mangroves should be preserved on their own ecological value and  should NOT be exploited for their bio-mass. But we can learn from the genetic makeup of plants like Mangroves. That is, genes relevant to high carbon capture by plants that make, say, Subarin, can be transferred to many other plants using gene technology. Many young Sri lankan scientists have now acquired the scientific know how needed in biotechnology and genetic engineering. Coconut plants re-designed to make Subarin in the husk would further increase the high energy content of husks, and also add to temporary carbon storage. Such innovative solutions are needed if we are to meet to the current ecological crisis by reducing global warming, and by aggressively returning cultivated land back to nature to preserve bio-diversity, while getting ready for 11 billion humans by the end of the century.


We have shown that effectively unlimited amounts of power are available from the waste bio-mass of the coconut industry. A similar analysis will be presented in a future article, showing that  Rubber, Paddy, or maize  etc., can become lucrative energy giants. Genetically engineered carbon-rich plants can boost the energy harvest enormously, while also scavenging out green-house gases.

*The Author was a past-Professor of Chemistry and a Vice-Chancellor of the SJP University in the 1970s. He is currently a Professor of Physics in Canada

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 2

    This is an excellent article that should engage the attention of coconut growing land owners. Who would have thought that coconut husks and “kohubath” contained so much energy!

  • 1

    Dr Dhrmawardena’s article is worthy of follow-up (beyond merely storing) as a document. His facts and arithmetic are valuable. The “Engineering Mafia”, will doubtless reject such contributions as unfeasible. His potential for the Coconut industry are novel but not necessarily original. The important potential for rooftop solar panels is insufficiently stressed. It can make a substantial contribution This is aided greatly by the “Net Metering” technology” already available. and the wider use of LED bulbs. This will reduce
    sts. The wider use EID bulbs will also reduce domestic (and smaller urban) power consumption demands.

    • 0

      Dr. P,
      LED bulbs are not really the energy saver they are hyped as. It is true that they use only about 10% of the energy used by incandescents. 50 years ago, the typical household spent more on lighting than anything else. But now patterns have changed. 10 LED bulbs consume as little as 2 units per month, while the fridge ( at least 1 unit per DAY) is the energy guzzler. Add to that housewives on TV teledrama binges, and lighting pales into insignificance.

      • 0

        Your math is applied at the wrong level of process planning.
        Light emitting diodes ARE an energy saver.
        If you pull out all your LED bulbs that you have at home and put in incandescent bulbs, then your lights bill of two units will become 20 units, and becomes an energy guzzler. But now, after buying LEDs, the next step is to get rid of your old fridge and buy a new fridge which works on more efficient methods based on nano-thermoelectric materials.

        • 0

          I think you missed my point. What I meant was that in a MODERN household, the fridge and the large TV are the biggest energy consumers. All the lights together might take 2 units a month.
          Even a new small fridge takes at least 1 unit per day. Bigger ones upwards of 3 units .Yes, I do know about Peltier effect cooling. It still isn’t half as efficient as a compressor. Only good for things like water coolers, where the the total cost of ownership is less. Please do let us know if a practical thermo-electric fridge is available, and where.

          • 0

            To old codger
            How many houses in Sri Lanka are “Modern households”?

            • 0

              I haven’t seen an incadescent bulb in use even in remote villages like Ranna. So I figure 80 % in that respect. An LED bulb costs as little as Rs.120 nowadays.I wouldn’t know about the situation in Batakotte. The power shortages arise from increases in demand, because many more households have things like fridges TV and fans.

  • 0

    Dr.Dharmnawardena, I do no challenge your treatise.There are less capital intensive and with greater delivery available through the tropical world.
    I am writing a thesis ( in my late 70s) and a book on this.This being Sri Lanka, I find that we lack inputs with wide experience. I would like to keep in touch with you.
    If you are agreeable please send me myour e-mail to spupalisw @yahoo.com.

  • 0

    One more thing Dr. Dharmawardena, the story I have heard about GMseeds is that you it keeps the company providing the seeds in luxury and the farmer at his mercy.

    • 0

      “the story I have heard about GMseeds is that you it keeps the company providing the seeds in luxury and the farmer at his mercy.”
      Why do people believe any such a story? Is this a scietific matetr, or a matter of legislation?
      Or, of local production?
      What about oil and petroleum- aren’t we already at its mercy?
      What about ball point pens? Why do we buy ballpoint pens instead of using our own “pan hinda”?
      What about Toyotas, trucks or even bicycles? Aren’t we at the mercy of those manufacturers and instead shouldn’t we use our own homemade bullock carts?
      What about Asiprin, paracetamol, statins and insulin? Aren’t we at the “mercy” of the drug manufacturer?
      And so on, the end is unlimited.
      But you can make your own GM seeds.

      • 0

        Mr. Guruge. Thanks for your comment. There is a serious difference. When one finish the oil supply, we replenish but the quality is assured by the distiller. It may fail in quality, then the distiller and the distributor can be penalised. the same applies to Toyota cars.When the Volkwagon story came up in our parliament to assemble those in Sri lanka, the Volkswagon manufaturer had withdrown over a million cars from the market, because of a manufacturer’s fault. That happened recently with the Boeing aircraft.Microsoft had to suspend sales and build in a safedty measure with their Windows 2010.The history in the past 50 years is full of such instances.

        With GM seeds the story is different.One thing, the farmer was used to keep apart part of his harvest for the production of seeds for the next crop.That happens no longer.Worst part is that, it is reported – do not ask me for reference- that GM plants -get automatically modified again. what causes the change had not been identified.That can spoil even the indegenous crop, which is more stable. I have found this complaint being made by the local farmer, he does not keep records, but it his experience.This problem had been noticed with the GM Banana crop.Why is one particular company shifting their plantation from one continent to another.? They started in Colombia – South America, through a process came to Sri lanka, now they seem to have left Sri Lanka too. They cleared 15,000 acres of “virgin lands” used machinery on the land, compacted the soil, killed the earthworms, sprayed chemicals, which affected the health of the workers and then just left SL.I have not visited the site, but these damages were reported in the papers.If there is a problem with that, become another Mr.Trump and call it fake news.-Cont.

        • 0

          Most of this written on GM seeds is mostly `urban myth’s about GM seeds that you find in the internet.
          Today any country can make its own GM seeds, given the now freely available CRISPAR technology. The agriculture dept. can advise the govt. about how to legislate it if a private company is making the seeds. The private company need not be a foreign company.

      • 0

        Dear Professor Chandre,
        Do you really have to hide behind names like Edward , Guruge, etc?
        Just one of your peccadillos , eh?
        Like Batakotte.

  • 0

    – Cont- Mr.Guruge.Please read my first comment.

    We have in this country more than adequate sources of raw material – indegenous raw material, to feed our people, to generate all the electricity we need, and to provide energy for transportation.

    The problem is that with 16 research institution financed by the tax payer, with 16 Universities financed by the tax payer, many of them with faculties of BioSciences, we have not researched into these fields.

    the worst offender had been and still is the Department of Agrarian Services. What have they done to improve our agriculture – sweet nothing.

    I have been researching on a particular plant, important to this country, but find indegenous publications almost non existant. Recently I came across two publication, I sought their help. Only the lady who published that thesis responded, but not the male Professor.

    Our Universities do not inspire the students to research. they are intertested only in Rote learning. Take my case. I am a graduate in Biological Sciences. Within the first term – ,now called the semester – I decided to leave as fast I could after collecting the three letter to be affixed to my name.- the University need not be identified.

    What was the sylabus I followed. I was expected to repeat what I have learnt by rote – for zoology I crammed how many legs the cockroah had, for Botany I crammed how many petals the flower had – rose flower was scrupulously avoided. I learnt something about embryology only at school. Plant and animal physiology was for about 1-2 hrs a week, and that also at the later stages.

    During my final term, a professor from Germany met us at the laboratory. he inquired what our sylabus was. When we enlightened him, he was surprised. he said such fields were the preserves of the post graduate students that also if they were interested.

  • 0

    As far as I know, decades ago, Gannoruwa had a Bio energy plant. Kandy Trinity college had a similar program. So, only thing is to expand it and not roaming all over the world looking for the proper way.
    Sri lanka these days is using electricity to run Ceiling or pedestal fans probably refrigerators too. I thin engineers can develop packages of Solar cells for different Fan models or for Refrigerators and even CEB can sell those to residential and commercial needs.
    I remember as far back as early 1980s, there were solar cell units with Car batteries to save the electricity in colombo. So, some engineers can do that

    • 0

      JD’s information is surely incorrect.
      In 1980’s solar cells were VERY expensive. They were used only in very specialized applications like satellites, or defence, research etc. It is only after 2006 that they began to appear commercially.
      The best way is to use solar cells to generate electricity, and then use that electricity to run various appliances in the home, or charge batteries for cars, or use in factories. Solar gives energy only when the sun shines. So there is the need to store the energy, and have “firm power” (i.e., have power whenever you need) are problems faced by solar energy.

      This writer has (in a previous article) suggested that the power generated by solar cells to be used to pump up water into a reservoir, and let the hydro-turbines to generate power, as is usually done at, say, the Victoria dam or what ever. That is a neat idea.

      The view that has been expressed by some people, that the CEB engineers are “against bio-energy, solar energy etc” is nonsense. CBE has set up `net metering’, and so any private entrepreneur can set of small power plants, following perhaps some of the ideas given by this writer, as I think they are basically sound. Meanwhile, the CBE plans were, and are, long range plans. If governments don’t adhere to them the country will suffer.

      • 0

        Indeed – as noted by the CEB engineer- we must recognize that CEB has set up net metering.
        So, if wealth coconut plantation owners follow the proposal of Prof. Dharmawardana, then the “Coppara Mudalais, Pol-thel Mudalalis” etc., can also set up small generating plants from 2MW-10 MW and provide power to the grid. This will create a very valuable private sector generating cheap electric power, while creating a large amount of good jobs.

  • 0

    If Sri lanka is intelligent and is keen, can use ISrael techniques to grow unicellular algae with dirty water flowing along the ditches (dirty water coming from Residences etc., ).. That separated Algae can be a source of carbon for Bio energy. Sunlight is not a problem in Sri lanka. With respect to plants, unicellualr algae are most efficient carbon accumulating among plants. that is each cell is used in the purposes. We do not need GMO plants as we need more money to buy GMO seeds etc.
    Some one is talking about LED bulbs which needs specific disposal methods as LED bulbs have Mercury.

    • 0

      JD says unicellular plants are better for carbon. No, and a vehement NO.
      The highest carbon content is found in carbon sequestrating plants. Prof. Dharmawardana has mentioned Mangroves. That is completely correct. Mangroves and related plants are very high carbon absorbers.
      So, if algae are not high carbon then why do some people propose algae for making bio-energy?
      It is because it grows fast. You need to set up large Vats, in places where there is a lot of sun shine. Then harvest the algae, then ferment it to get alcohol, or dry it and burn it to make electricity. When you cost it, include the cost of land for setting up the VATS, the labour etc.
      But what this writer has proposed – with husk- is far simpler.
      But in the context of Sri Lanka, it makes far more sense to to go with coconut husk as it seems that we have plenty of it.

  • 0

    JD says “we do not need GMO plants”. But if he/she is living in Sri Lanka, or in almost any other part of the world where Soya, lentils, peas are eaten, and cotton blended clothes are used, he is already dependent on GMO seeds.
    Sri Lanka imports its supply of lentils (Parippu) from Western and Indian companies who buy most of the lentils for Sasketchewan, Canada. The Soya comes mostly from the US.
    The wheat (`paan piti’) is also highly hybridized wheat seeds (even if not exactly GMO).
    So we don’t buy the GMO seed, but we buy the product.
    It is like the Sinhala Buddhist habit of not killing animals but getting the “thambiya” to kill the cow, and THEN we buy it!

  • 0

    JD says “We do not need GMO plants as we need more money to buy GMO seeds etc.
    Some one is talking about LED bulbs which needs specific disposal methods as LED”.

    From where does JD get his facts, [or if I may humbly call them what they truely are: “fake Facts”]?

    LED (light emitting diodes) have NO mercury. They may have Indium, or gallium. Some are OLEDS, i.e., organic light emitting diodes. They are made by inter-calating two types of polymers. When electrons jump across from one type to the other they emit light.

    The mercury is found in fluorescent bulbs and fluorescent tubes.

  • 0

    Guruge, May 26th: Here is another reference to GM crops by Mic hael Pollan in 1998 in “-Playing God in the Garden” – New York Times. “Today I planted something new in my vegetable garden — something very new, as a matter of fact. It’s a potato called the New Leaf Superior, which has been genetically engineered — by Monsanto, the chemical giant recently turned ”life sciences” giant — to produce its own insecticide. This it can do in every cell of every leaf, stem, flower, root and (here’s the creepy part) spud. The scourge of potatoes has always been the Colorado potato beetle, a handsome and voracious insect that can pick a plant clean of its leaves virtually overnight. Any Colorado potato beetle that takes so much as a nibble of my New Leafs will supposedly keel over and die, its digestive tract pulped, in effect, by the bacterial toxin manufactured in the leaves of these otherwise ordinary Superiors. (Superiors are the thin-skinned white spuds sold fresh in the supermarket.) You’re probably wondering if I plan to eat these potatoes, or serve them to my family. That’s still up in the air; it’s only the first week of May, and harvest is a few months off.- Cont

  • 0

    Guruge – Cont- from the same author “. That is, the potatoes I will harvest come August are mine to eat or sell, but their genes remain the intellectual property of Monsanto, protected under numerous United States patents, including Nos. 5,196,525, 5,164,316, 5,322,938 and 5,352,605. Were I to save even one of them to plant next year –something I’ve routinely done with potatoes in the past — I would be breaking Federal law. The small print in the Grower Guide also brought the news that my potato plants were themselves a pesticide, registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Organic farmers have been among biotechnology’s fiercest critics, regarding crops like my New Leafs as inimical to their principles and, potentially, a threat to their survival. That’s because Bt, the bacterial toxin produced in my New Leafs (and in many other biotech plants) happens to be the same insecticide organic growers have relied on for decades. Instead of being flattered by the imitation, however, organic farmers are up in arms: the widespread use of Bt in biotech crops is likely to lead to insect resistance, thus robbing organic growers of one of their most critical tools; that is, Monsanto’s version of sustainable agriculture may threaten precisely those farmers who pioneered sustainable farming.

    “Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Technology Assessment in Washington, told me he believes such escapes are inevitable. ”Biological pollution will be the environmental nightmare of the 21st century,” he said when I reached him by phone. ”This is not like chemical pollution — an oil spill — that eventually disperses. Biological pollution is an entirely different model, more like a disease. Is Monsanto going to be held legally responsible when one of its transgenes creates a superweed or resistant insect?”

    Please read this article, and hope that peopl in their senses will move into kill GM planta and move back to mixed cropping

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.