Rural Training Center, Thailand (RTC-Thailand)

RTC-TH Programs: I.F.S.

Feb 23, 2010

Independent Fuel Systems (I.F.S.) programs seek to reduce off farm energy expenses through the use of renewable non-fossil fuel alternatives. The acronym IFS is a takeoff from the word ?“if?”. It seems appropriate to use this conditional term when talking about alternative energy. The inescapable fact is the use and dependence on fossil petroleum fuels derives from the low cost for the energy units produced in contrast to the many proposed alternatives. For example, solar panels to produce electricity for a home are cost effective IF the home is favorably located in terms of solar azimuth and altitude and exposure duration, IF the home/land space is suitably matched to the size of the solar panel array, IF the price of the solar equipment is offset by government subsidies/tax breaks in sufficient amounts, and IF utilities purchase surpluses produced at a specified price, and IF competing energy sources cost more, etc. As you can see, there are many IFS to be considered. And no two homes, farms, or owners are the same.

Thailand is nearly totally dependent on imported oil. It has developed some natural gas domestically but depends on large imports of natural gas for electric power generation. Some coal (lignite) is domestically mined and used for electric generation. Some hydroelectric stations exist, but strong environmental action has limited further hydroelectric projects. Thailand is looking at investing in hydro projects in Myanmar and Laos, but this makes Thailand vulnerable to shifting politics and prices from those countries. Recent industry reports point out the future of energy costs in Thailand is on an upward trend.

A key concern we have in the conditional ?“ifs?” way of thinking is what to do if the unimaginable happens? If fossil fuels are not readily available, how much time do we have to shift to an alternative energy source which is available but ?“uneconomical?” in the presence of fossil fuels? Obviously, different alternative energy sources require different sets of knowledge, skills, and equipment. How quickly can you get these and put the alternative to use? These concerns cause the RTC-TH to set up these various options in order to study them in more detail. Actions speak louder than words and theory. We hope we can accomplish this before the need is forced upon us.

The RTC-TH I.F.S. process begins with an inventory of current farm energy / fuel uses, sources, costs, and existing on-farm fuels resources. General economic conditions (e.g. annual and long range forecasts on cost of living, market conditions and inflation trends) need to be considered as well. These change over time, so we need to track these over time and re-examine any plans made for our farm. For most farms in our area the primary fuels are wood (including bamboo), bottled gas, diesel, gasoline, electricity, and sunlight.

A main goal is to reduce off-farm fuel costs which are mainly bottled gas, diesel, gasoline, and electricity. Strict conservation practices are the first step. These require changes in habits and behavior. Small things such as turning off lights when leaving the room become a bit more complex if you consider the type of lights and light bulbs involved. In Thailand, several types of fluorescent light bulbs are in use; some are more energy efficient than others and tend to last longer if they are not switched on and off frequently. The electric utilities have information about the overall cost savings in electric consumption using these types of light bulbs. But our experience shows that the general public seems to be unaware of the information. Add to this the lower education levels in rural areas and it is clear why awareness is an important activity.

In the RTC-TH, we see a major cost savings when turning away from commercial agriculture which requires transporting goods to market. We have encountered numerous stories of local farmers harvesting their crops, contacting potential buyers, getting assurances of certain prices for their crops, loading up their trucks and driving to Bangkok expecting to get rich. Arriving after a 668 km / 415 mi trip, the prospective buyer announces the market conditions are lower. If the farmer is unwilling to accept the lower price, they can try to find another buyer. Any delay can mean deterioration of quality in a perishable crop along with increasing costs for lodging and food for the trip. They also risk being black balled by other potential buyers who can work together behind the scenes to manipulate purchase prices. Many we talked with took the lower price and barely made much profit for all their efforts. The hidden costs include the wear and tear on their vehicle for the long round trip as well as the psychological impact on themselves and their families. But our main point here is the major expense in the fuel costs for this trip to and from the market.

No-till methods also reduce fuel consumption needs. Most farmers don?’t own a tractor. They hire a tractor or rent one. If hiring the tractor, the fuel costs are a hidden one built into the fee for the tractor and operator. Renting the equipment may include the operator or not, but then requires direct purchase of fuel. It is important that farmers realize petroleum fossil fuels expenses are always threatened with price increases. So weaning farmers from petroleum fossil fuels is a long term benefit for the family budget.

During the dry season (Nov to May), many people are irrigating fields by pumping water. Pumping water is done by gasoline or diesel powered engines or electric water pumps. Considerable energy is being consumed. [Note: Safety concerns abound as you see people riding motorbikes carrying plastic containers with gasoline (benzene). There are countless scenes of people refilling the small fuel tanks on hot engines recently stopped for refueling.]

Cooking and heating water are daily activities consuming energy. Wood fires are a common way to do this work. The use of charcoal provides more heat energy than simple wood fires. Charcoal can be made from wood or bamboo. Both of these are renewable resources. Careful design of the charcoal kiln can provide heat for cooking, heating water, and drying food. There are more efficient types of charcoal stoves that can be used. But these have yet to be introduced to the area. [Note: Charcoal has other benefits as well: condensing the smoke provides liquids that can be used as organic weed/bug killers and treatments to protect wood from insects. Smaller chips/flakes (too small for use in cooking) can be crushed to a powder and used to deodorize toilets. Charcoal powder put into a container used to collect urine. Diluting the urine 1:10 with water is a clean safe source of nitrogen. The nitrogen fortified charcoal powder is mixed with compost and used as a soil additive to boost the soil moisture and nutrient retention. The use of powdered charcoal can be applied to an entire farm to boost soil moisture and nutrient retention if quantities of charcoal are available.]

Many farm families cook using bottled gas (LPG) which is a non-renewable fossil fuel. It is currently subsidized by the Thai government. The majority of the LPG is imported. And it is subject to price increases and possible deregulation. For now, the subsidies make it economical. We see this as a grace period that farmers should use wisely to prepare alternatives. Cooking gas could be replaced by biogas digesters. Not only is this a good way to treat a variety of farm wastes (e.g. animal, plant, and human), the methane produced can be used as cooking gas. Additionally, the resulting effluent slurry) can be used to produce duckweed (a rapid growing highly nutritious animal feed rich in amino acids necessary for protein building) before being used as organic compost on the farm. In the past, the Thai government had programs providing free biogas digesters to farmers with at least 25 larger animals (e.g. pigs, cattle, etc) to provide manure as feed stock for the biodigester. The technology is already known available and adapted to Thailand.

Sunlight is an abundant and free on-farm energy source. Solar photo voltaics (PV) come to mind when talking about solar power. In March 2005, we received a free demonstration solar PV set up from the Thai government. The panel charged a battery capable of powering 2 small fluorescent lights and a 12?” TV. Generally, the cost is too high for most farm families. And in light of the current subsidies for electricity on small farms, solar PV is not a viable cost effective project. Most experts agree that solar PV is not a very cost effective technology for small rural family farms in Thailand. However, as the cost for electricity increases, this situation could change. For now, we focus more on passive solar projects. [Note: We may pursue the use of solar PV panels to recharge batteries for our EmComm---emergency communications---community service activity.]

Passive solar systems can be made with existing materials on the farm to: heat water, cook food, dry food, pasteurize and purify drinking water. The key factors to utilize this free energy source are an open area free from severe shadows and the solar collector. Solar collectors can be readily made using locally available materials (wood, glass, and insulating materials). Insulating materials can be newspapers, dry grass/straw, or discarded foam packing materials. By trial and error, cooking and food drying times can be easily determined and adapted to personal preferences. [Note: In Jun 2009, instructions for making an emergency solar cooker were posted to the PDF section of the RTC-TH website.]

Many families in rural Thailand do not wash dishes or their hands with hot water. It seems to be a matter of habit and energy cost savings. Water can be easily heated by the sun. Leave a container of water sitting out in direct sunlight will get it quite hot. No plumbing system is really needed. Various plans are readily available for solar water heating systems ranging from very basic to the very elaborate. Washing with warm/hot water improves sanitation and hygiene. Since the sunlight is free, it becomes a matter of education and awareness to help improve the quality of life in rural Thailand.

In times of emergency, fuel may be in short supply or non-existent to boil water. Passive solar pasteurization has been used successfully in Latin America. Clean bottles were filled about 2/3 with water, loosely capped, vigorously shaken to oxygenate the water, then tightly capped and set out in full sunlight for several hours. Full solar distillation would be the best way to purify drinking water. A distiller could be made with locally available materials (wooden cabinet, shallow pan/tray for dirty water, sloping glass condensing surface, a clean drip rail leading to a clean water container). Solar distillers with glass surfaces about the size of sliding glass door in northern Mexico produce about 1 gallon of purified water per day.

Most farmers dry their rice and chilies outdoors in the sun. Weather is the primary constraint. While passive solar drying units may not be commercially viable, enclosures sized to subsistence quantities could make the drying process go faster and be less constrained by the weather. For example, a food drying cabinet might readily handle the amount of chilies from a home garden. Cloudy weather or rain would not affect the contents in an enclosed drying cabinet. However, chilies put out in the open could be ruined.

Jatropha curcas SVO (straight vegetable oil) as a fossil diesel substitute is a long range RTC-TH investigative project. We have an experimental effort growing this plant. The seeds have a high oil content. The oil can be pressed from the seeds, filtered, and used to run small, low-rpm/low compression diesel engines. The plan is to use this fuel to run diesel pumps on the farm and to generate our own electricity. If this project is successful, it may be possible to work with EGAT (the Electric Generating Authority of Thailand) in the VSPP (very small power producer) program to sell surplus electricity generated on the farm. This would give small farmers a chance to derive a new source of revenue. Jatropha is a renewable energy source. It can grow in soil/land that is not suitable to grow crops. This poor farmers and villagers could make have a new way to earn cash from previously non-productive land.

At this time, there are no studies of the effects of long term use Jatropha SVO on diesel engines. Some reports suggest few significant problems. There are some reports indicating damage to engine seals and gaskets and residue build up in engines. The many different diesel engines and models make generalizations difficult. So far, no major diesel engine manufacturer has undertaken studies to evaluate Jatropha SVO as an alternative fuel. Most manufacturers cite the lack of a significant market for Jatropha SVO as an alternative fuel to warrant undertaking research in this area.

Jatropha oil can also be used to fuel oil lamps. Saifon?’s grandfather used Jatropha for this purpose years ago. Though the use of oil lamps seems unrealistic in the age of electricity, for rural farm families, these oil lamps have another benefit. The aroma from Jatropha oil lamps help to repel mosquitoes. Residue from husking the seed pods becomes mulch or can be composted. Seed cake (the residue from oil extraction) could be used as compost or used a fuel.

A significant problem facing any alternative for the traditional petroleum fossil fuels is distribution. Currently, vehicles in Thailand use gasoline (benzene), diesel, LPG (liquefied propane gas), CNG (compressed natural gas), ethanol/gasohol (E10), B5 and B10 (5% and 10% transesterized biodiesel blended with fossil diesel). Each requires different storage and fueling equipment at a dispensing station. This equipment investment limits the number of stations dispensing alternative fuels. Add to this the limited market of vehicles using these fuels. The result is a strong barrier to a national alternative fuel distribution system. We don?’t advocate Jatropha SVO as a national alternative fuel.

Some Thai farmers have ?“iron buffaloes?” (small hand tractors) or ?“rot etans?” (a small rural Thai home-built truck using diesel engines from an iron buffalo). These engines can run on Jatropha SVO. The big picture for the RTC-TH is using Jatropha SVO to power a generator to produce electricity on the farm and to power existing diesel engines/pumps on the farm. The electricity is used for existing water pumps, lights and appliances. Some of the electricity would recharge the batteries for the electric vehicle and trailer as well as the EmComm (emergency communication) radios. Surplus electricity could be sold to EGAT under the VSPP program. This integrated system seems well suited to our goal of self-sufficiency and sustainability for small rural family farms.

For farmers who cannot afford to do this, a viable alternative would be to form a cooperative or do this as a village community effort. Instead of the benefits going to an individual, the benefits can be shared. For example, a village producing electricity using Jatropha SVO might be self-sufficient in electricity. If surplus electricity is sold to EGAT, the entire village can benefit. Jatropha could be grown throughout the community, along roadsides and other common land. No productive crop land needs to be taken out of production. The community would work together to harvest the Jatropha seeds and extract the oil to supply the generator.

Once our farm begins to generate its own electricity, we plan to shift away from gasoline powered tools to electric powered ones. This would remove the need to buy gasoline off the farm. At present, we have a spray pump, and some large weed cutters run on gasoline. The storage batteries needed for the electric tools would be multipurpose and can be used in the electric vehicles, lighting systems, and EmComm (emergency communication) radios.

Modern economies need electricity to grow. Government reports show demand for electricity increasing. Economic growth and recovery call for large electric generating stations in the industrial areas in the coast areas. The rural north can expect few new generating stations. The potential market and ?“payoff?” is not as high as in the coastal industrial centers. Hydroelectric power may be purchased from Laos and Myanmar. But ?“imported?” power makes Thailand vulnerable to external forces that can drive up the cost of electricity. Small electric power generating systems could be the most viable solution for small rural farmers and farm communities.

It is hard to foretell the future. But it seems clear enough that fuel and energy costs are a major part of the off farm expenditures for small rural family farms. Shifting to subsistence agriculture helps reduce off farm expenses. Becoming more independent of off farm fuel and energy systems helps to make a small rural family farm more self-sufficient. Developing on-farm renewable fuel and energy systems makes small rural family farms more sustainable.

[Note: This was a brief description of IFS. For the lessons to be meaningful, they are all adapted to local site conditions prior to training. A typical scenario for off-farm training involves time to pre-view the area for the training (about ?½ to 1 day prior to the training). This lets us tailor the lessons to be as site specific as possible. Relevance is critical to making the lessons useful. Thus, there isn?’t a ?“standard?” lesson booklet as such. Included with the training is the ?“teach back?” model. This encourages the participants to share the knowledge with others, just as we are freely sharing our knowledge with them. Payment for the training consists of covering our costs to get to and from the training site, and room/board for the duration of the training. Although we are not a formal / legal non-profit organization, we conduct ourselves in that manner. We are not doing this to make a profit. This is primarily a ?“give back to the community?” activity.

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