The Sunday Leader

Converting Invasive Plants To Electrical Energy

Invasive Pathok cactus at Bundala and Clearing Bundala of Juliflora

Converting invasive plant species into electrical energy, that’s one of the new projects the LOLC Group has embarked upon.
The company is in the process of installing a 10 mega Watt (mW) biomass power plant costing US$ ($) 16 million in Hambantota in this connection, which would be operational in another year to 14-18 months time.
The firm and the authorities have had identified an invasive plant called Juliflora in this context, which would be used for the creation of biomass electrical energy.
This thorny invasive plant, said to have had been introduced as cattle fodder in the dry zone some years ago initially, has since spread to the protected, 3,700 hectare Bundala wetlands*, choking the indigenous flora which comprise fodder for herbivores such as elephants found in the Bundala sanctuary and supported by another invasive plant, a cactus called Pathok.
Both of those two invasive plant species are not native to Sri Lanka. And they appear to work in tandem. The Juliflora tree may reach up to a height of 10 feet or more.
The mature Juliflora plant doesn’t serve as fodder for the herbivores inhabiting the jungles of Bundala.
And under the Juliflora one finds the other invasive plant, the thorny Pathok cactus also growing, while the native plants which should be usually found in and around the habitation of those invasive plants and on which the herbivores in Bundala generally feed, however being missing from the vicinity, obvious victims of being choked to death by those invasive plants, thereby placing at risk the survival of those herbivores which inhabit Bundala, due to their source of food  being gradually decimated.
The project is being implemented by an LOLC subsidiary called United Dendro (UD). It has however been found that the fresh and new shoots of the Juliflora are fed by the elephant and deer, but not so the Pathok.
The initial capital cost to be incurred by the company in this clearing operation, including buying the necessary excavators and the required ancillaries has had been placed at Rs. 100 million, with those costs expected to rise with time, inclusive of the purchase of more capital goods needed for this operation.
The company targets to finish clearing Bundala of those invasive plants in five years.
In UD’s operations, which are ongoing, they cut the Juliflora tree down to almost to its roots (so that the herbivores may feed on its green shoots which may resprout with time), whilst completely uprooting the Pathok and getting rid of the same.
UD finds the Pathok unsuitable to be coverted to energy because it, like any other cactus plant, retains water within its body, thereby being unsuitable for incineration for the purpose of electrical energy generation.
The brush cutter fitted on to the end of the arm of the excavator for the purpose of cutting those invasive plants has been developed locally, with the parts obtained from Panchikawatte.
The inventor of this brush cutter is UD’s Managing Director Haresh Karunanayake, thereby resulting in a massive cost saving to the company, which, otherwise would have had to import this costly equipment.
Karunanayake has a 25% stake in UD and the LOLC Group the balance. Originally Karunanayake fully owned UD, before selling its controlling stake and more to LOLC for an undisclosed sum.
The buyer of the energy so provided will be CEB, with which UD has signed a 20 year power purchase agreement (PPA).
Currently the CEB pays a price of Rs. 20.50 for a unit of electricity generated by biomass producers. UD is negotiating for a higher price, ie a price of Rs. 25.09 for a unit from the Board.
Some 1.2 kilos of biomass is required to produce one unit of electrical energy.The company will also be paying the Wildlife Department (WD) 35 Sri Lanka cents for a kg. of biomass. UD further plans to grow gliricidia in Amara Wewa in the Hambantota District on land given out by the WD to a dairy farmers’ association. Gliricidia apparently has triple benefits: It nourishes the soil, its leaves provide fodder for cattle, while the burning of its wood may be used to provide electrical energy. However due to a case filed by an NGO, Amara Wewa project is now before court, thereby, at least partially stultifying UD’s programme to grow gliricidia on this land, till this case is cleared.
The company also plans to buy gliricidia from the farmer to feed its operations at Rs. 3 a kg. UD also has projects to increase the output of its proposed plant in Hambantota to 40 mW consequentially in stages, whilst simultaneously, while having the initial 10 mW on stream, a corresponding biomass plant, also of a 10 mW capacity, up and running in Kalutara.
One obvious benefit of generating electrical energy by using bio fuels, where even paddy husks also do play a role (with the company examining the potentiality of importing paddy husks from Burma, one of the bigger rice producing countries, in the event the required biomass is not available in sufficient quantities locally to fuel its operations), is that biofuels are a cheaper substitute to the more expensive imported fossil fuel.
Additionally, if the operation also includes the clearing of invasive plants such as those found in the Bundala wetlands and as planned by the company, it does the triple act of freeing Bundala from such parasitical plants, thereby encouraging the flourishing of herbivores such as elephant in the area by the regeneration of the native plants on which such animals are used to feed on, thereby giving a thrust to the tourism industry as well.
Development takes its toll on wildlife and with it, eco tourism (see below).
Another problem facing the WD is the loss of salinity in the lagoons in Bundala which has resulted in the disappearance of a certain type of crustacean on which flamingoes from India, which used to roost in Bundala in winter, feed on.
That has been caused by the Kirindi Oya development project.
It has therefore resulted in the virtual disappearance of the flamingo, another attraction to draw tourists to Bundala, from the area. However as a compensatory factor, after the war end, those flamingoes now winter in the Jaffna and Mannar areas.
WD now has plans to cut canals to redivert this fresh water elsewhere so that that particular crustacean (Daphnia) on which those flamingoes feed would once more proliferate, thereby re-enticing the flamingo to make a return to Bundala.In this connection the WD with a Rs. two million grant aid provided by UNESCO, has obtained the necessary laboratory equipment to test the water quality in Bundala. The other closest country which has similar lab equipment is India.
Bundala is among six global wetland sites recognized by UNESCO, with the 6th and the last being Wilpattu. The WD is working on getting similar sites in the North and East too, to be recognized by UNESCO. Globally there are more than a 1,000 of such sites recognized by UNESCO, according to the WD.LOLC is also into mini-hydros, with the capacity to develop 22.7 mW of hydroelectricity. Currently the plants on board generate some 3.27 mW of electrical power or thereabouts, with those been located in Deniyaya.
*According to a Wildlife Department note.

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