FEATURE: Interview with Dr. Rico O. Cruz, Filipino scientist and global bio-energy expert

Expert to PH officials: Allow energy developers to have more power to operate their projects

Dr. Rico Cruz, a known US-based Filipino biofuel expert, maintains that by allowing energy developers and investors to have more power to operate, control and manage their projects, realistic energy development will take place in the Philippines.

Dr. Rico Obligado Cruz, a US-based Filipino expert on bio-fuel and alternative energy, spoke here with journalist Ronald Reyes on why the Philippines continues to lag behind in terms of achieving a sustainable and renewable energy despite the country’s vast resources. Excerpts below:

Ronald: The country is into massive campaign on solid waste management today. What do you think our government officials and citizens have missed from this development?

Dr. Cruz: The government officials missed almost all aspects of successful solid waste management: technology, operations, implementation of policies and enforcement. For example, landfills are poorly built. They just dig a hole and dumped the waste. The landfill must be double-lined and instrumented so leachate of toxic /hazardous chemicals are contained, stabilized and is prevented to enter the aquifer and groundwater for hundreds of years.

The biodegradable materials must be segregated from the non-biodegradable, so the former can be tapped for production of compost (organic fertilizer), biochar, synthetic gas (gasoline, kerosene and diesel) and methane (for engines, lighting and cooking). The non-biodegradable solid waste materials such as plastics, painted/pressurized wood, composites and rubber that can be shredded can be feedstock for manufacturing of composite building materials (e.g., dimension lumber, concrete, carpets, roofs, walls, and floor). Open burning of combustible materials must be regulated. For cooking purposes, the wood or other materials such as rice hull, palm leaves, charcoal and saw dust should be used on fuel efficient stoves.

Use of plastic grocery bags must be minimized, and should encourage the use of native bags (abaca, coir, bamboo, bamboo vine, rattan, grass, and palm leaves) and multiple-use plastic bags. Most important and urging matter right now is to separate the environmental protection entity from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. This is clearly conflict of interests.

Another urging matter is the enactment of a natural resource damage assessment and restoration policy. This will allow any polluters and potentially responsible parties to compensate or restore for the damages incurred to the environment and resources.

Ronald: Having a stable supply of energy has been a major problem in the country. What do you think would be the most doable alternative or feasible solution on this?

Dr. Cruz: By 2040, I hope to see a sustainable supply of energy using a trio of resources: 1/3 fossil fuels, 1/3 renewables and 1/3 nuclear. However, this can be attained only if mitigation is conducted now. Such immediate mitigation measures are: a) the use of doable renewables ; b) population control (embrace the national reproductive health bill); and c) minimize corruption. I was convinced at least 15 years ago, that biofuels, solar and wind were doable. These energy sources can be installed within a year.

Biodiesel can be produced tomorrow and be used the following day. Solar panels and accessories can be installed in a week, and depending on what type of solar technology, power can be used instantly. There are places that wind turbines can be installed without the need for wind assessment and characterization by just studying empirical data, ocular observation and interviews of locals. Other renewables that can be done are mini hydropower, geothermal power, wave/tidal/current power and nuclear small mobile reactors (SMR).

Ronald: Do you believe that there is a future for bio-fuel in the country?

Dr. Cruz: Future of biofuels has existed at least 15 years ago. In the Philippines, ethanol from sugar cane for fuel was done over 35 years ago. I did research work on ethanol from cassava 29 years ago; introduced biodiesel from coconut and used cooking oil 16 years ago; and installed a pilot biodiesel plant from crude coconut oil in Zamboanga in 1995. I have introduced biodiesel in other countries, and within a year, most of them have fully embraced the utilization and production, but not in the Philippines.

I have introduced the use of tubatuba (Jatropha curcas) as biodiesel feedstock 10 years ago, but the country made a lot of blunders that wasted hundreds of million of dollars (i.e., $320 M for Jatropha energy development). Mistakes observed were: a) letting politicians/family members and military honchos to run the projects, instead of land grant institutions; b) the displacement of food or existing crops (plantation-type production, instead of complementary or intercropping, or besides roads and highway planting); and c) the notion of re-inventing the wheel (have to conduct repetitive/unnecessary research, instead of technology deployment by relying empirical and proven technologies from other countries).

Elaborating more on biodiesel feedstock, right now, the country can displace at least 25% of transportation fuels using used cooking oil, excess coconut oil, and oils from other oilseeds like Moringa, Jatropha, castor bean, petroleum plant, etc. However, such crops should not be plantation type, but, as complementary crop. Planting these non-edible oilseeds besides roads and trails can yield 750 liters per km per year for 40+ years. As intercrop, these oilseeds can yield up to 400 liters per hectare per year in addition to whatever crops planted (e.g.. coconut, mango, abaca, corn, sweet potato, cassava).

Other promising biofuel feedstock are algae and cellulosic ethanol, however, there is at least 10 years needed for competitive production of the algal biodiesel and ethanol from cellulosic materials in the country. Algae is the most promising, because oil yield potential is 100,000 liters per hectare per year using the right algal strain, and plenty of carbon dioxide to tap. Cellulosic ethanol is also promising because you can convert any plant materials into ethanol (e.g., grass, leaves, paper, waste wood, husks, hulls, etc).

Ronald: What is your assessment on the energy development in the Philippines?

Dr. Cruz: Over the last 20 years, energy development in the country is very slow mainly due to corruption and short-term thinking. I would have to provide an “F” grade. It is an uphill battle to convince investors outside the country because in almost all cases, from their prior experience, only 15% of their funds go to the actual project, 85% goes to red tape, and under-the-table payment to politicians and permitting officials. Since the mid-1990s I tried to convince executives of investors of renewable energy (solar, wind, biomass, hydro and geothermal), but every time I mentioned that the project will be in the Philippines, they abruptly lost their interest.

I do hope that their thinking will change with the new administration. Most of the officials I talked to think of grandeur things, getting monetary rewards the quickest fashion, hence always want big projects immediately. Examples are the palm oil and Jatropha projects.

In my opinion, to stimulate the energy development in the country, an energy commission should be formed to advice the President on what renewable energy types to be deployed; President’s commitment for a transparent implementation of projects; and allowing energy developers and investors to have more power to operate, control and manage their projects.

Since 2004, Dr. Rico O. Cruz has managed the laboratory and biological service program of Department of Science and Engineering-The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Northeast Oregon, USA. Dr. Cruz was a former consultant of then Eco Energy International, a US based company that provides high quality alternative energy systems at a cheap price. An outstanding Southern Leyteño for 2010 and an outstanding Boholano in the World (TOBAW) for 2006, Dr. Cruz was also awarded an outstanding alumnus of VISCA, now Leyte State University, in Baybay, Leyte, Philippines. At present, he is leading various speaking engagements on the boon of renewable energy here in the country and abroad.

Republished by the author for Manila Channel.First appeared online in 2010.