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 Mahamad Rodzi Abdul Ghani
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 The Jakarta Post
 Indonesia's biofuel drive not fully thought through

6/3/07 ( The Jakarta Post)  - While the developed countries tend to throw money at problems, Indonesians like to throw vast tracts of land at a problem, even when easier solutions exist. About a decade ago, the then rulers committed a million hectares of land to overcome the shortage of rice; which still continues to be imported. The prospect of self-sufficiency in (expensive) domestic rice is slim considering the reduced buying power of the average Indonesia consumer since then.

To date, 5.25 million hectares of idle land and 5.06 million hectares of forest land have been reportedly set aside for growing the basic feedstock for bioethanol and biodiesel. The all-out efforts to develop the biofuel sector are laudable, but the basic problems related to energy usage must be identified and tackled, and efforts made to ensure that the development of biofuels does not go the same way as the rice self-sufficiency project.

The current official thinking on the future development of energy sources appears muddled and skewed towards grandiose plans. The Jakarta Post's editorial titled "Biofuel, the right way" (Thursday, February 15, 2007), extolling the virtues of developing biofuel capabilities, provides a good example of this kind of thinking. In describing how "virtuous" biofuel is supposed to be, the editorial states that "because biodiesel contains no sulfur, global demand for this fuel has been increasing, particularly in fuel-strapped, environmentally friendly countries in Europe and North America", indicating therefore that biodiesel is "good" and all other fuels are not.

The editorial also recognizes the harsh truth that "demand for biodiesel will continue to surge as long as international oil prices remain at or above US$60 per barrel." So, any unexpected development leading to reduced oil prices may scuttle all the grandiose development plans for biofuels on economic grounds, irrespective of how low the sulfur content of the biofuels may be. Perhaps as a consolation or a footnote, the editorial says that "even if fossil fuel prices fall below that line, palm oil remains a high-value commodity for use in cooking oil, soap, margarine and a host of other products".

The current craze for the breakneck development of biofuels ignores the fact that biofuels by themselves cannot fully replace fossil fuels, such as gasoline and diesel, but always have to be used as a blend (e.g. ethanol blended with gasoline or "gasohol", or palm oil blended with diesel), and that to the extent edible products like palm oil are diverted for use as fuel, their price for human consumption may go up with corresponding adverse economic effects. What is burned as a source of energy is not as important as how efficiently it is burned since any waste heat added to the atmospheric gases is as bad as the greenhouse gases themselves.

It is only after several years of effort, coupled with financial incentives, that the developed countries have managed to achieve blends of 20-25 percent biofuel (e.g., ethanol) with conventional fuels (e.g., gasoline).

Inefficient use of even the greenest of the biofuels will mean additional waste heat in the atmosphere adding to the greenhouse effect. The editorial acknowledges that "international consumers will not touch Indonesian biofuel, however, if it is produced through environmentally unsustainable practices".

It will thus be important to find ways of reducing the overall impact of high crude oil prices without producing adverse effects, such as unaffordable cooking oil (as a result of increased usage for biofuels), or increased emissions of hot gases. In comparison with the current blockheaded strategy of slash-and-burn replacement of forests with oil-palm plantations, several other potential approaches could achieve a much better balance between ecological impact and cost.

Peak load capacities for most electric power producers are governed by domestic lighting needs, which can be brought down to about one sixth by use of Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFL), with huge reductions in the corresponding investment needs. Indonesia could follow the good example of Australia, where regulations enforcing a total shift to CFL over the next few years are to be brought in.

Methane in underground coal seams is mostly wasted causing perennial haze/safety hazards/small fires. This gas can be "harvested" as an energy source and put to efficient use. Extensive use of compressed natural gas (CNG), a product of local origin (although some investment will be required for the distribution of CNG), will also make a significant impact as petroleum-based liquid fuels produce more waste heat and effluent gases as compared to CNG when burnt, and are mostly imported, making a shift to CNG both economic and eco-friendly.

Jatropha, a non-edible oil seed-bearing plant, which does not require as much fertilizer and water as oil palms, can be planted on wasteland, e.g., land left behind by abandoned coal mines, a totally unused resource creating eco-hazards. This would conserve the better land for more useful purposes, would avoid forest clearance for oil-palm plantations, and would put otherwise useless land to good use without in any way affecting the supply of edible oils.

Use of geothermal energy, of which Indonesia has huge untapped supplies, for power generation could make a major difference as this produces little waste heat; there are no "bad" effluents to deal with; and no recurring fuel imports would be needed, thus causing minimum damage both to the environment and the economy.

It is interesting to note that even in the U.S, a combination of the following carrots and sticks have been adopted to drive future energy usage: energy efficient buildings (since heating energy is major component of overall energy usage); incentives to switch to ethanol (to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and to develop renewable resources); power generation using resources like wind/tidal power; improving energy efficiency for cars (both through incentives for better mileage and penalties for mileage below an ever-increasing minimum efficiency); limits on emissions for industry, etc.

In Indonesia, previous attempts to develop huge tracts of land, such as land intended for forestry or sugarcane plantations, or for the development of shrimp aquaculture, turned out to be disguised attempts at money grabbing. Any attempted "solution" to our fuel problems involving the throwing of millions of hectares of land at the problem could well repeat the mistake.

Investigating and developing every possible alternative, especially where these are more economic and have less damaging impacts on the environment, should mean less use of productive/eco-friendly land, e.g., land that is used for growing edible products and forest land.

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