Thai Farmer's Coconuts Fuel Green Hopes
Story by Dominic Whiting
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
THAILAND: March 12, 2001 SAMUT SONGKRAM – A Thai farmer has found his own solution to global warming and the stagnation of Thailand's rural economy – his coconuts. "Coconut trees can do everything," said Kitti Maneesrikul, a village primary school teacher and coconut farmer in Samut Songram province, 75 km (47 miles) south of Bangkok.
"You have food from the flesh, wood from the trunk, drink from the juice…and now I've had coconut oil in my car engine for four months," he said.
Environmentalists say Kitti's coconuts offer cheap and clean fuel which could be copied by others to help millions of poor farmers across Southeast Asia and other tropical regions.
Coconuts have long provided a staple income for Thai farmers but only recently has their oil been used for fuel.
Oil is extracted from the dried flesh of coconuts and used for frying. After using it for cooking, Kitti filters the oil and adds a small amount of kerosene – one part per 20 – to give it a little extra "kick".
The fuel is suitable for trucks and industrial engines, does more miles per gallon and is 30 percent cheaper than diesel.
Kitti and his family use the coconut oil in a pick-up truck and a lorry, saving about 5,000 baht ($115) a month.
"I make about 300 litres of fuel each week," he said. "I prefer to buy used coconut oil from street stall vendors who have used it to fry donuts, but you can use pure coconut oil.
"We are buying used oil which otherwise would be thrown away, often into the river. Secondly, the fuel is much cleaner than diesel."
Kitti says burning coconut oil does not produce carbon dioxide – one of the causes of global warming. The government, while keen to tap into the potential of Thailand's yield of more than a billion coconuts a year, says more research must be done. Recent research in Sweden has questioned the benefits of some alternative fuels, by suggesting that rapeseed oil, considered one of the best alternatives to fossil fuels, produces 10 times more cancer-causing pollutants than diesel.
"We know people have been using coconut oil, but we want to do more research before telling people they can use it," said an official at the National Energy Policy Office.
"But we do think it could be very useful for agricultural machines and fishing boats."
Other alternative fuels used in vehicles include ethanol in Sweden, Brazil, Australia, Canada and Mexico, and palm oil, which is being developed as a fuel in Malaysia.
The environmental group Greenpeace says governments in Southeast Asia are obstructing the up-take of renewable fuels.
"At the moment policy is in favour of large scale hydroelectric projects and fossil fuels, which are only cheap because of the huge government subsidies. No subsidies are being given to renewables," Greenpeace's Southeast Asia Campaign Manager Athena Ballesteros told Reuters.
"We are facing a climate emergency and it is time to embrace solutions – a switch away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy," said Greenpeace energy campaigner Penrapee Noparumpa.
DIESEL UP, COCONUTS DOWN
With little government regulation over what people put in their engines, farmers who have been suffering from an economic crisis, high fuel costs and low commodity prices are turning to coconut oil because of the bottom line.
"We firstly decided to experiment with coconut oil in our vehicles because the price of diesel got so high and the price of coconuts fell from 10 baht to two," Kitti said. Kitti has had some success in spreading the use of his alternative fuel. His brother, Tanate, and several friends use it in engines on their shrimp farms, and the brothers are teaching others how to make it.
"Two or three people come to us each day, sometimes from other provinces, to see how we make it… About 10 families are using it here in the village and we've had no problems at all, but other people are afraid because they think their cars will be damaged or blow up," Tanate said.
In coconut-rich southern Thailand, the use of the oil is more widespread, and some ferries to the holiday island of Koh Samui are using it instead of diesel. One company running three boats estimates it saves 440,000 baht ($10,000) a month.
"People say only the rich have choices, but I think we've shown the poor can also take the future into their own hands," Kitti said.