16 July, 2019

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Remaking The Rubber Industry; Clean, Practical Solutions To Sri Lanka’s Energy Crisis – III

By Chandre Dharmawardana

Dr. Chandre Dharmawardana

While the country remains mesmerized and partially paralyzed by the daily revelations of security lapses over a period of several years, the failure to carry out long-term policies on energy production, updating of agriculture and  industry to keep pace with climate change, population growth etc., will cause irrevocable systemic collapse causing more prolonged misery than the short term shocks of Jihadists. Many of us, who have written articles pointing the way forward, since many decades, wonder if this  all futile, or if there are still some capable groups, in the government or in the private sector, who will hear the message and seize the opportunity. 

Surely, given that the biggest single expenditure faced by most nations is in meeting energy costs, and given that the availability of cheap energy is the single determining factor essential to all types of development, that is where the strongest effort of the government and the private entrepreneur should be. At a time when clean energies like solar energy and wind power were not competitive, it made sense for Sri Lanka to include coal power in its energy-mix. So the plans of the 1990s, if they had been carried out as planned, would have ensured that Sri Lanka today would not be facing a power crisis. In fact, it would have been ready to mothball the old technologies and rapidly move to new sustainable technologies. 

Instead, the government has once again commissioned new coal-power plants in a knee-jerk reaction. This is a long-term commitment to highly polluting fossil-fuels energy  already undercut by cheaper, cleaner alternatives that can be deployed more rapidly than coal plants. The annual import of coal to the Norochcholai (Horagolla) plant alone costs some 2.5 billion, and it will triple with the new plants. To compound the folly, the government continues in oil and gas explorations in the Palk Straits, not observing how weak but oil-rich countries have become enslaved by powerful nations that rob their oil using compliant puppet regimes who in turn keep the people under the jack boot. Furthermore, off-shore oil sources are environmentally far more damaging than land-based oil exploitation. 

The Solar Industry Association of Sri Lanka alleges that the ‘Surya Bala Sangraamaya’ program, launched in 2016 is about to collapse. This is despite its great success with over 15,000-18,000 installations and a combined energy capacity of nearly 200-250 MW added to the national grid. This solar energy saves emissions of noxious nitric oxides, SO2 acid rain, toxic metal residues, and some 200,000 metric tonnes of CO2 per Annum. And yet, new legislation terminates the purchase of solar power from small rooftop producers, claiming that the CEB will “end up subsidizing”  consumers of 60 units/month or less at Rs. 4.68 a unit. Surely, these consumers will necessarily consume more than 60 units before long. While failing to encourage solar  energy, coal power and thermal stations that burn oil at great cost to the consumer and the environment are embraced.

Seeds produced by rubber trees go waste in most plantations.

Sri Lanka does NOT  NEED fossil fuels of ANY SORT. In my first article in this series (Colombo Telegraph) I explained how, since 2009, I had advocated the installation of floating solar panel arrays located on hydro-electric reservoirs; the solar power generated is fed to the grid as needed or used to pump up water back into the reservoir. That is, solar power is stored as water head, and no storage batteries are needed. In fact, even pumping up the water can be dispensed with, by simply RETAINING the equivalent quantity of water instead of sending it down into  the hydro-turbines. The presence of solar panels on the water saves some 30% of the evaporation by wind and sun. That is, the mere placing of the floating solar arrays on ten  hydro-power reservoirs is equivalent to building some three new hydro-power reservoirs at only a comparatively negligible cost!

Wind power, installed around reservoirs can also be stored as water power, without the need for batteries, using the same concepts. The development of mini-hyropower should be highly discouraged as their environmental impact is much greater per Kwh produced.

The average life-cycle cost of solar energy production in Sri Lanka is of the order of 15-20 rupees per unit. Biomass energies can be much cheaper, and employ more people sustainably. While energy from bio-mass is not as clean as hydro-energy, the growth of biomass has a corrective effect on climate change, reduces the catastrophic decline in biodiversity, loss of pollinating insect species etc., by reducing habitat loss and increasing green space. The agriculture sector is on the whole in decline, partly due to unscientific meddling by politicians who have absorbed partial truths and common myths about the environment, or frightened into going back to  so-called “Toxin-Free” traditional agriculture. Tea, Rubber, coconut or even a staple like paddy are not prospering. 

In my second article on how to deal with the energy crisis (Colombo Telegraph) I showed how the coconut plantation sector can be revived by making it an energy giant by using the coconut biomass for energy production.  In that article I showed that there is enough energy in the currently produced coconut husks  to supply ALL of Sri Lanka’s energy needs in a sustainable way, causing much less pollution than from the use of fossil fuels. At present, these husks are used for the production of low-value  fiber products, and such industries have little or no future, unsafe to workers and cause much pollution. Their future is in moving into the energy sector.

However, it is not just the coconut plantation sector that can re-vamped. Sri Lanka’s Rubber Industry Master Plan needs to include its bio-energy potential to further improve its prospects. It is imperative that the rubber plantations move towards greater profitability. If not, these prime lands, often with road-and-bungalow infrastructure will be rapidly converted to housing or tourist chalets, asphalt roads, concrete buildings, night clubs, casinos and bars. The enormous loss of green habitat is catastrophic to the biosphere. Although having plantations is not as good as having virgin forests, they are the next best defense against continued habitat encroachment by humans. Making rubber plantations more profitable  by moving them towards bio-energy production, we are resolving the energy crisis, and also safeguarding the environment. 

But how do we convert the rubber plantations to energy-producing power-plants? I don’t propose anything as naive as felling the rubber trees and burning them as fire wood, as rubber  is not  a  rapid-growth biomass.  Instead, we exploit the currently wasted rubber seeds.  New hybrids or bio-engineered plants with a  high SEED YIELD should be planted.  Existing trees will  be tapped as usual for the latex since the annual world consumption of natural rubber is increasing at about 3-4% . Seeds of any kind of tree are packets of energy stored for the seed to grow. In all cases, seeds make better fuel than other biomass. That is, if the seeds are burnt, shell and all, the heat produced can be very profitably converted to electricity  using high-efficiency burners which are now a standard part of  bio-electricity technology. 

Malaysian researchers Satyanarayana et. al. [Int. J Green Energy, vol. 7 pp. 84-90, (2010) ] found that rubber seed is a viable option for bio-diesel, and  has low CO2 and  nitrogen oxide outputs among  potential biofuels. In this article  we do not examine bio-diesel production for use in motor vehicles, but simply the burning of seeds in high-efficiency generators to produce electricity. 

Elementary calculations show that using rubber seed  to make energy is profitable and sustainable. A yield of 100-400 kg of nuts per hectare per year is typical for the south-Asian region including Sri Lanka, while China has clones which produce 1500-2000 kg/ha/year [Wei-Wei et al. China Oils Fats, vol.30, pp. 63-66, (2005)]. According to Selle et al (1983), Rubber seed  has a total energy value of about 7000 kcal/kg. 

Sri Lanka has some 130,000 hectares of rubber plantations. Hence assuming a yield of 300 kg of nuts/ha and a collection efficiency of 66%, the annual rubbernut output can produce some 200-250 GWh of electricity by burning the seeds, using a Carnot-Rankin efficiency of 25-30%. The use of Chinese clones with high seed yields  boosts  outputs to 400 GWh. In addition,  rubber other biomass from the plantation can be used. Effective, safe herbicides like glypohsate have  been restored to the rubber industry. Hence crops like castor can be economically inter-cropped in plantations to provide additional high-energy biomass, and hence a near-term target of 400-500 GWh, i.e., about 5% of Sri Lanka’s electricity needs, is quite realistic.

Since the infra-structure, raw materials, etc., are already in place, the main cost is the installation of the burner-generators which can be amortized over 10-15 years, making it quite cheap compared to the cheapest coal. The additional profits from a hitherto wasted resource, namely, rubber seeds should be considered in Lanka’s Master plan of the rubber industry.

The expression of oil-synthesis genes in  seeds is controlled by known transcription factors like LEC1, LEC2, and WRI-1. Genetically modifying  plants by including a mutation in the cgi58 gene results in the accumulation of lipid droplets even in the leaves. Of course, there is a whole lobby of Luddites who oppose “GMO” technology just as many in the 19th century opposed steam engines. But in the end, the advantages and enhanced safety of such new technologies  makes them prevail. Furthermore, converting the energy in the rubber nuts using fuel-cell technology instead of directly burning them is a method of beating  the Carnot-Rankin energy loss. Then a near 95% efficiency can be achieved. But such technologies are still a matter for the research labs. 

What has been said here about rubber or coconut industries can also be adapted for cinnamon and other Industries. So there is no excuse for our planners  to opt for fossil-fuel  energies.  Solar-  Wind and bio-energy are unequivocally available as cheap, non-polluting,  firm power  implementable within a shorter time scale compared to the commissioning of coal power stations.

In summary, there is no excuse WHAT SO EVER  for our planners to continue to go for fossil-fuel based energy. The alternatives of solar energy and bio-energy are unequivocally available as firm energy which is cheaper, non-polluting,  sustainable and implementable within a shorter time scale compared to the commissioning of coal power stations.

*The author is attached to the National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa and the University of Montreal. 

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Latest comments

  • 2
    0

    Although there are these solutions to the Energy crisis in Sri lanka, there is a mafia that will only go for the solution with the highest commissions and kick backs to the politicians and their henchmen. That is the reality of Sri lanka. A committe headed by Mr. ranil Wickremasinghe has gone ahead to buy power from two Turkish power ships at the price of Rs 35 per unit, while cutting off solar power at Rs 18 per unit.

  • 0
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    Since 1948, Sri Lanka did not grow but went down. Rice-rubber Pact is very old. Srilanka did not go much into Manufacturing. Because it is the commis. “You know very well western businesses are eager to offer commis or sometimes as high as 50% So, the part that you do not discuss is Politicians are destroying th country.
    with respect to solar power industry, There are kits only to power up the Garbage bin along the road. Sri lanka had solar cell kits to produce residential electricity as far back as 1980. I heard Penthouse Ravi banned residential solar power production and now only the whole sale producers can produce solar power the problem with large installations i, I heard, that can scorch the birds fly on that.
    with respect to power production from living sources. the best is the single cell energy production. I think this is already active in Israel. So, instead of Multi cellular plants or trees, single cell algae such as chlorella or similar organisms can be used and the whole organism goes to the energy synthesis. In Arid areas, Garbage water from the city can be used in Aluminium trays and cells are filtered out as they grow and water is replaced. Cells can be sent directly to a bio-energy production used water, after the treatment can be used as agricultural water.
    I think the genetic engineering of Organisms or plants for Fossil fuel production is a long term plan for Sri lanka and should be very expensive if we are trying to by from overseas the way Raajitha Senarathne by vaccines. Who ever does it can have a far expensive ceremony in BMICH that what Raajitha Senarathen had for Rs SEVEN million (6.7 million reported value.

    • 0
      0

      Why is Professor Chandre not talking about nuclear power?
      Three power stations in Trinco (Thirukonamalai ) ,Kalutara (Kalturai) , and Matara ( Maturai) would be enough

      • 0
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        Why is Prof. Chandre not talking about nuclear power.?
        What ever his reasons are, to me it is obvious that nuclear power should always be the last resort.
        Why should one invest in a highly capital expensive energy source like nuclear power, when you can get enough energy from
        rubber seed, coconut husk, and solar? These simple technologies are what you can call technologies which have excellent domestic capabilities.

        • 0
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          “Why should one invest in a highly capital expensive energy source like nuclear power, “

          Surely a nuclear power station cannot be that much more expensive than the combined cost of Norochcholai and the useless Mattala airport and Hambantota port ?

  • 0
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    I think many seed types such Mustard (Canola?, Kohomba, even Sugar cane molasses or left over fiber can be used. Interested people should not wait for the govt and should develop it

  • 0
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    Now glyphosate is dead and buried, Monsanto is Bayer and things are different.
    /
    So we need to start looking for new chemical poisons to promote.Bread needs to be buttered though our friends are octogenarians!

    • 0
      0

      Who is this man who talks of eating bread with butter in Sri Lanka?
      Unfortunately, our people have got used to thinking that they live in
      a “punchi engalanthe” run by their Colombo set, and so they talk of glyphosate because they do that in california and england, Is uppsoe. But some of us living in SL have never even seen the stuff. So to divert us from the real problems of the country they talk about these matters that concern the Americans, while we are breathing tons of diesel fumes and sitting on mounds of garbage.
      In Sri Lanka people eat BATH (rice, in case these english types don’t know what BATH is).
      Our people used to cook their BATH using firewood. But they have given up firewood and now use propane or butane gas and LNG and so forth. The result is, we have a lot of firewood. Even cinnamon wood is thrown away. Dr Chandre D’s proposals fit in with the availability of fire wood, for conversion into electricity by burning the wood in high efficiency generators.

      • 0
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        Why indeed does Dr. Chandre call himself different names when talking to different people. Just as he has his own names for paces like , like Batakotte or Horagolla. BTW is Batakotte a place where they make leather shoes?

        • 0
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          His having talked of Battakotte, many people have learnt what the original name of Vaddukoddai was. We need more of that.

  • 0
    0

    The tropics have ample sunlight most of the year, and is given free by nature. Other forms of energy obtained from nature should also be researched and applied when the costs are comparatively feasible. Presently, even by research, theses are less polluting forms.

  • 0
    0

    “While energy from bio-mass is not as clean as hydro-energy, the growth of biomass has a corrective effect on climate change, reduces the catastrophic decline in biodiversity, loss of pollinating insect species etc., by reducing habitat loss and increasing green space. The agriculture sector is on the whole in decline, partly due to unscientific meddling by politicians who have absorbed partial truths and common myths about the environment, or frightened into going back to so-called “Toxin-Free” traditional agriculture. Tea, Rubber, coconut or even a staple like paddy are not prospering.”

    Who told you that? The Corn growers association of the US. If the proper Biomass is selected all that crap can be reversed.

    One person worked on it an he was rediculed for what he did by a PhD who did not know anything about utilising biomass.This is our Sri lanka.

  • 0
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    ” Surely, given that the biggest single expenditure faced by most nations is in meeting energy costs, and given that the availability of cheap energy is the single determining factor essential to all types of development, that is where the strongest effort of the government and the private entrepreneur should be”.

    Try to convince our politicians to go for alternate sources. I have tried it since 1994 and failed.

  • 0
    0

    ” I showed how the coconut plantation sector can be revived by making it an energy giant by using the coconut biomass for energy production. In that article I showed that there is enough energy in the currently produced coconut husks to supply ALL of Sri Lanka’s energy needs in a sustainable way, causing much less pollution than from the use of fossil fuels. At present, these husks are used for the production of low-value fiber products, and such industries have little or no future, unsafe to workers and cause much pollution”

    I have a friend who is in the coir fibre industry.He is gradually giving up as he cannot get enough coconut husks. They are being exported and we bring in brooms with plastic fibre.

    • 0
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      If coconut husks are exported the exporter will get only a pittance.

      I think the husks should not be exported, but made into electric energy as suggested by Dr. Chandra D in his previous article.
      Sri Lanka has always been exporting its raw materials without putting any value added, and then some country transforms it and adds value. Then we buy it at exorbitant prices. Is there anything more stupid?
      I am in some agreement with the comments of Upali W when he says that some of the raw materials (e.g., rubber seed) may not be sufficiently available. Cinnamon wood is available as people have moved to LPG and butane for cooking instead of using firewood. But there is no roganized collection of the wood, seeds, husks etc., with a view to ENERGY production. I think the main take away message is that we should look at all these things from the point of view of energy where as, up till now, the agricultural (or food) aspect has been emphasized. As an economist I like to know if is there is an energy potential in the biomass produced in the tea estates. The author has not discussed that topic.

  • 0
    0

    ” Sri Lanka’s Rubber Industry Master Plan needs to include its bio-energy potential to further improve its prospects. It is imperative that the rubber plantations move towards greater profitability. If not, these prime lands, often with road-and-bungalow infrastructure will be rapidly converted to housing or tourist chalets, asphalt roads, concrete buildings, night clubs, casinos and bars. The enormous loss of green habitat is catastrophic to the biosphere. Although having plantations is not as good as having virgin forests, they are the next best defense against continued habitat encroachment by humans. Making rubber plantations more profitable by moving them towards bio-energy production, we are resolving the energy crisis, and also safeguarding the environment”

    In the 1980, I worked for a alcohol distilling company. We wanted fire wood and it was supplied – rubber wood.I accept that in today’s world it is unacceptable. My point is not that. The supplier was a member of a family with high political connections. He told me that he got a repalnting grant from the Govt before felling the rubber trees.He also informed that he had no intention of replanting. This happens even today. Are the authorities who granted the subsidy paid to look the other side.

    The second is that Salawa was producing high class plywood doors.That was stopped and what do you get today as plywood doors – absolute muck. I have two chairs made out of rubber wood .they will not win at a beauty contest, but they are good and had lasted about 30 years.Whre they now?

    The problem is that we have lost any semblance of a patriotic politician.

    • 0
      0

      The answer to all these negative news is to go in for Dwarf-Hybrid
      Coconut varieties so successfully undertaken in South India, Malaysia
      Thailand etc. Even the Coconut Research Board has over-looked this
      change that could give an overall impetus to the Industry.

      • 0
        0

        Coconut, Rubber, cinnamon, and specially Maize (Indian corn), and Tea took a hard hit when the weedicide glyphosate was banned, because our rulers twho hink that we live in California joined hands with a Buddhist priest who thinks that he knows all about agriculture and toxins.
        Glyphosate has been given back to tea and rubber, but not yet to other crops. All these crops like cinnamon, rubber and especially coconut have a very lucrative future as energy sources. The previous article by this author about the energy potential of coconut husk was, at least for me, an eye opener.

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