The Arenga Sugar Palm — Bio Energy, Sustainable Food Source, and Economic Driver

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arenga sugar palm

It lives on damaged, infertile, and eroded soils, improves the ecosystem of forest floors, removes CO2 from the atmosphere and produces a sugary sweet juice at an amazing rate. The Arenga Sugar Palm is arguably Indonesia’s best-kept secret.

The tree is capable of producing 19 tons of ethanol per hectare each year, it is a far superior ethanol source to the food crops previously used such as the 3.3 tons produced from a hectare of corn or 4.5 tons possible from sugar cane. The Sugar Palm’s life is actually extended by having its juice tapped by Indonesian natives who are provided with much needed employment income through the sustainable harvest of Sugar Palm juice. This elegantly simple solution to native poverty, rainforest destruction, and renewable energy demand is the brainchild of scientist and rainforest advocate Willie Smits and his company Tapergie.

Sugar Palms cannot be grown in rows over acres of cleared land. They do best as part of complex rainforest ecosystems, and can be grown among other crops such as vanilla, bamboo, bananas, and figs. Their deep roots make them well suited to very sloped and disturbed land where the tree never requires watering or fertilizing by humans, but can only be harvested by hand by the skilled tappers that carefully tend each tree by taking thin slices from the ends of the male-flower stalks twice per day to collect a portion of the tree’s prolific production of juicy sap. The sap spoils very quickly as it almost immediately begins to ferment and so must be preserved on site in the deep jungle.

The characteristics of the tree’s growth habits that make its harvest so sustainable have also made it unappealing to modern producers that prefer to grow their crops in extensive swaths that can be machine harvested in hundreds of acres at once. However, to Smits, these were not obstacles but the makings of an opportunity to provide poverty-stricken native Indonesians with viable alternatives to subsistence activities that offer no hope for impoverished communities and are destructive to the local environment.

Smit’s project, funded by a $105,000 grant from National Geographic’s “Great Energy Challenge,” uses portable “Village Hubs” that are carried into the jungle to concentrate the Sugar Palm juice on site from 20% sugar to around 60% sugar so that it is more stable and easier to transport to more central processing hubs. The sap is used to produce organic sugar, starch, alcoholic drinks, and bio fuel without producing any waste or requiring any inputs for the plant besides rain, sunshine, and air.

The main processing facility, based in Tomohon Indonesia, opened in 2008 and now employs almost 6,300 palm tappers that make two daily trips into the surrounding rain forests to collect the sweet sap from the village trees. The factory produces a special sugar from the palms which provides for payment to the tappers that amounts to twice the average local minimum. Tapergie runs off of waste heat energy generated by the local power plant, and processes some of the palm products into bio fuel for motorcycles, generators, and machinery.

Smits hopes to take his “Village Hub” model to the surrounding 3,000 islands of Sulawesi where residents lack clean water, medical care, electricity, and basic human services. He hopes that by providing them with means for tapping into potential of the local biomass that centers of economic activity could develop around the small scale palm processing mini-factories that could help meet these needs while providing a local, regional, or even global resource for producing renewable energy.

Eventually those carbon dioxide-spewing machines that lurk under carports and behind every garage door may not be running on excavated fossil fuels, but on the carbon dioxide and sunshine that was trapped in a local Sugar Palm, provided income to an indigenous economy, and helped build schools, provide clean water, and protected a regional rainforest. Yes, Sugar Palm’s fuel does all of that. Maybe it’s time we asked, “What does your fuel do for you?”

Photo source: National Geographic

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