A Rain Forest Advocate Taps the Energy of the Sugar Palm

Scientist Willie Smits says it's possible to provide opportunity for villages and protect tropical forests while producing biofuel—if you use the right tree.

Conservationist Willie Smits believes the best way to save Indonesia’s forests is to focus on its trees—specifically, the sugar palm, which acts as a one-stop-shop for the local population.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

One of Indonesia's most ardent rain forest protection activists is in what may seem an unlikely position: Spearheading a project to produce biofuel from trees.

But tropical forest scientist Willie Smits, ­­after 30 years studying fragile ecosystems in these Southeast Asian islands, wants to draw world attention to a powerhouse of a tree—the Arenga sugar palm. Smits says it can be tapped for energy and safeguard the environment while enhancing local food security.

Smits says that the deep-rooted feather palm Arenga pinnata could serve as the core of a waste-free system that produces a premium organic sugar as well as the fuel alcohol, ethanol, providing food products and jobs to villagers while it helps preserve the existing native rain forest. And scientists who have studied the unique harvesting and production process developed by Smits and his company, Tapergie, agree the system would protect the atmosphere rather than add to the Earth's growing carbon dioxide burden.

"The palm juice chiefly consists of water and sugar—made from rain, sunshine, carbon dioxide and nothing else," says Smits. "You are basically only harvesting sunshine."

Scientist Willie Smits believes that the Arenga sugar palm may be the key to protecting tropical forest in Indonesia while providing opportunity for villagers through a unique process of biofuel production.

The project, being funded in part by a 73,160 euro grant (U.S. $105,000) from National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge initiative, has potential to disrupt a cycle of poverty and environmental devastation that has gripped one of the most vulnerable and remote areas of the planet, while providing a new source of sustainable fuel.

The Fuel Threat to Forests

Tapergie's sugar palm production facility that opened last year in Tomohon (map), in the North Sulawesi province of Indonesia, and the microscale facilities called Village Hubs that Smits aims to launch on nearby islands, are a far cry from the oil palm biofuel operations that have devastated the rain forest.

Demand for oil made from the pulp and seeds of oil palm trees in Southeast Asia soared when European countries sought to displace petroleum fuels with biofuel in the past decade. It was a move that governments hoped would reduce carbon emissions, but the impact was the reverse. Tracts of rain forest were cleared, and peat land was drained and burned on a massive scale to make way for oil palm monoculture. Because of the carbon emissions caused by rainforest destruction, Indonesia leapt to the top tier of world greenhouse gas emitters, just behind giant energy consumers China and the United States.

Smits, who had been knighted in his native Netherlands, was among the forest advocates who sounded the warning around the world about the impact of large-scale biofuel production from oil palm in his adopted home of Indonesia.

Smits already had gained recognition as one of the world's most prominent protectors of Asia's great apes and their habitat, as founder of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. He laid out the biofuel problem, and the rain forest restoration efforts he had spearheaded, in talks around the world, including in the popular online series sponsored by the nonprofit TED.

But Smits felt he could take those restoration efforts much further, and the secret was a tree with a value that was first impressed upon him 31 years ago, when he was courting a native Indonesian woman of a mountain tribe of Sulawesi who would become his wife. (She was later elected a female tribal leader for her good deeds.)

By custom, before the marriage, he was required to pay his dowry in the form of six sugar palms. It seemed a meager offering, until Smits realized each tree's potential yield.

The fruit can be harvested and sold as a delicacy. A starch, sago, can be extracted from the stems. The wood is stronger than oak. Most important of all, the tree has a distinctive sap, which can be tapped the way a sugar maple is tapped for maple syrup, but year-round and in vast quantities. The high-carbohydrate juice can be used to make a palm sugar that is a healthier substitute for white cane sugar. Smits estimated that there are at least 60 different products that can come from the Arenga sugar palm, making it a wholly appropriate marriage gift.

"This was enough to support a young family," he said. "That got me interested in studying the sugar palm in more detail."

"The Most Amazing Tree"

He found that the Arenga sugar palm had numerous qualities that made it a virtual sentry of the forest. Its deep roots mean it can be grown on steep, almost vertical, slopes—offering protection against erosion. It needs little water and is drought- and fire-resistant, important on volcanic islands. It is resistant to pests and needs no fertilizer; its presence in a forest actually enhances the soil.

Because of these qualities, Smits found that the Arenga sugar palm could be a key species in his efforts to restore Indonesian rain forests that had been brutally logged and burned for decades.

"It's the anti-particle of oil palm . . . the most amazing tree I've ever run into," says energy expert Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, and member of National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge advisory board. Lovins recommended Smits' project as the first grantee in the society's three-year energy initiative when he learned of his idea for furthering his rainforest restoration and protection efforts by tapping the sugar palm for fuel.

Smits knew the sugary juice tapped from sugar palms typically was fermented to produce a traditional alcoholic beverage. That meant it also could be used to produce the alcohol fuel, ethanol.

And Smits said that he discovered that because of the tree's special leaf structure, its year-round production and extremely efficient photosynthesis, the yield of ethanol from the sugar palm was far greater than the biofuel output from other feedstocks in use around the world. Smits says that his process can produce 19 tons (6,300 gallons/24,000 liters) of ethanol per hectare annually. That's a staggering output-to-land area ratio compared to corn, the favored ethanol crop of the United States, at 3.3 tons (1,100 gallons/4,200 liters) per hectare, by most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture yield figures. It also far outshines Brazil's sugarcane; output was assumed to be 4.5 tons (1,500 gallons/5,700 liters) per hectare in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recent lifecycle analysis of renewable fuels. [A hectare is 2.5 acres.]

But there's a catch. Producers can't sow row upon row of sugar palms the way they blanket the countryside with cornfields in Iowa, sugarcane in São Paulo or oil palm plantations in Sumatra. For one thing, the sugar palm flourishes best in a diverse forest environment, not in a monoculture.

And, importantly, each sugar palm requires constant attention. For optimum production, it must be tapped twice a day by tappers trained to slice a thin layer from the end of the stalk on which male flowers are growing. If done properly, the tapping extends the life of the tree—by "stealing" some of the tree's energy that was intended as storage for its seeds. (The ripening of fruit is thus delayed.) But the juice in which the energy is stored must be preserved quickly on site or nearby, or else it spoils due to uncontrolled fermentation. Smits says that the tapping process cannot be mechanized.

"It is five-to-20 times more labor intensive than harvesting oil from the oil palm," says Lovins. "You don't hear about it from those in who are locked into the industrial monoculture mentality. They think the economics are bad. But Willie thinks the economics are terrific."

That's because the sugar palm Village Hubs, as Smits envisions them, would provide something as important to this region as fuel—economic opportunity.

A Stake in Forest Protection

Tapergie's facility that opened three years ago in Tomohon—the world's first Arenga palm sugar factory—now has 6,285 palm tappers as members of the cooperative, making the twice-daily journey into the village forests to collect juice to be brought back to the factory. Thanks to sales of the special palm sugar they produce, they earn an income that is twice the region's prevailing minimum.

Sustainable energy is also a part of the design of the factory. It operates on geothermal heat (waste energy captured from the state energy company). In this way, clean energy replaces devastating practices that prevailed for making traditional palm sugar, in which hundreds of thousands of trees were cut to fuel the fire that boiled the sap. In addition, the biofuel produced on-site from the sugar palm is used to replace gasoline in motorcycles, small vehicles, small machines and generators, and is also used as cooking fuel in special burners. Once scaled up, biofuel could be transported for further refining for use in conventional vehicle engines elsewhere, Smits says.)

The Village Hub idea that Smits now aims to test would bring small, turnkey versions of the Tomohon factory—and its employment and energy benefits—to remote areas on the 3,000 or so islands east of Sulawesi. These are areas where people typically live without electricity, fuel, communication, education, health services, or potable water.

Smits says his portable mini-factories, running on local biomass and solar heating, could help villages meet all of these needs, because they would include equipment for telecommunications as well as for making fuel. He sees the sites becoming economic centers that provide more than jobs—they would produce drinking water, electricity, cooking fuel, compost and cattle feed, while enabling telephone and satellite-based broadband Internet access.

Because the wellspring of all these benefits would be the Arenga sugar palm, the villagers would have a shared investment in protecting and cultivating the trees and the needed diverse surrounding forest, as Smits sees it. So the system, in which communities would own 49 percent of the operations, would be designed to establish a virtuous cycle of protection.

"It's what we call 'sustainability,' " says Smits.

There have been past efforts in Singapore and Borneo to cultivate sugar palms for their fibers or sugar. But Smits believes Tapergie's effort can be successful where others have failed, because of its determination to maintain a mixed village forest, and to do it with community ownership.

The sugar palm has vast potential, he says, but it can only be unlocked in a holistic system, with production working hand-in-hand with protection. Lovins says the two are tightly interwoven in the system Smits has designed; "It gives people a stake and the clout needed to protect the land and forest themselves," he says.

Smits will be reporting to National Geographic on the success of his first Village Hub deployment over the course of the next year.