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 Mahamad Rodzi Abdul Ghani
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 The Jakarta Post
 Alternative energy needs to focus on waste recycling

17/3/07 (The Jakarta Post)  -  The giddy-eyed proponents of alternative energy bio fuels derived from agricultural commodities received a bit of a wake up call recently when prices of almost all major raw materials such as corn, oil palm, sugarcane, wheat, soya, peanuts and even cassava shot up sharply causing widespread jitters.

Mexico had street protests over soaring corn prices, India banned grain exports to curb inflation and business models of ethanol plants were called into question due to raw material prices and scarcities. As with any "sunrise industry" speculators have rushed in making "grain or agriculture commodity futures" the hot asset class currently replacing minerals & stocks.

Farmland prices from Iowa to Argentina have shown faster rates of appreciation than apartments in Manhattan and London for the first time in 30 years according to The Financial Times. Closer home prices of plantation land in Sumatra and Kalimantan have more than doubled since 2000 and even tea estates and traditional farms are being eyed for bio fuel purposes.

Juxtapose the above with two other important environmental factors -- the growing shortage of water across the world and the concerns voiced by many ecologists that once the bio fuel genie escapes from the "green bottle", the remaining tracts of rain forests will face an irreversible decline -- and the conclusion becomes quite clear.

Whilst there is no argument that alternatives to fossil based fuels need to be found, bio fuels alone cannot fulfill the growing hunger for energy. They have an important role to play especially when grown on managed plantations on arid or abandoned (alang-alang) land but this requires a coordinated policy framework that provides incentives for the development of such plantations (e.g tax, concessional long term finance) but which equally ensures that there is no overexploitation of crops, ground water or residual forested tracts in the pursuit of short term profits.

The solution, ironically, exists all around us especially for those of us living in teeming third world cities like Jakarta. Al Gore in his recent eye opening documentary highlighted many "inconvenient truths" and one alarming one relates to the exponential growth in human population.

In the film he makes the scary point that the global population levels that took 10,000 generations to reach two billion will take only one human lifetime (ours) to cross nine billion! The levels of civic waste this will generate are frighteningly unimaginable.

This civic waste is being fed by chemicals, plastics, glass, metals, textiles, building materials and natural resources that are now an inescapable part of our consumerism driven development and lifestyle. Jakarta and suburbs alone produce a huge 8,000 tons of waste per day, a fact brought home acutely to each and every resident in early February when over 75 percent of the capital was submerged under floods. Streams of rainwater gushing down deforested Puncak and Bogor slopes spilled out of garbage-clogged Jakarta sewers and canals causing havoc. And the solution to this crisis goes beyond simply building or deepening canals.

It revolves around integrated waste management or what Martin Medina, an expert in the field, describes as "a hierarchical and coordinated set of actions that are socially desirable, economically viable and environmentally sound". These start with waste prevention (practical steps like limiting use of plastic bags or mandating recyclable raw materials), reuse (including a concerted effort by companies to repurchase discarded items), recycling (combining material recovery facilities that use modern technologies with traditional employment generating "scavenging expertise"), composting (biological decomposition to produce soil conditioners) and incineration (controlled with energy recovery programs).

Successful technologies also exist to produce methane or biogas from anaerobic discharge, organic waste, paper, plastic and other materials. Biogas can be used to generate "green electricity" without the noxious impact of greenhouse gas emissions or carbon dioxide. The raw material in the form of the waste is there but the infrastructure to turn it into bio gas and then electricity is woefully inadequate at present.

And imagine a grid of not coal or diesel or bio fuel fired electricity plants but civic waste derived bio gas plants dotting the archipelago. The concept, certainly on high density Java, appears attractive if implemented with vision and concrete policy measures.

Like CNG (compressed natural gas) bio gas also holds the potential with further research & development to offer a viable alternative fuel for vehicles and public transport. There has been some pioneering work on this already with a Swedish company, Svensk Biogas running a biogas powered train over a 600 km distance from near Stockholm to the Baltic Coast.

Can Indonesia not similarly lead the way in the region by using Jakarta's mounting waste to power the train between Jakarta and Bandung? Or buy modified Trans Jakarta buses that run on biogas only? Similarly like Pertamina's plans to introduce 'bio-pertamax' can PLN not make Bekasi, where the controversial Bantar Gebang waste disposal is located, entirely self sufficient on electricity made from biogas?

Civic waste is a reality and instead of relegating it into the "too-difficult-to-handle" category the government needs to look at it as a feasible resource for alternative energy.

The search for new fuels is complex and multifaceted and in recent months disproportionately hogged by agriculture/plantation linked bio fuels which have an important but ultimately finite scope. Instead of making ever greater demands on Nature let us demand more of ourselves and of the waste that we have sadly gotten used to incessantly and unconscionably generating.

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