Pongamia: a mid-course check

I first met Sreenivas Ghatty in 2003 in Bangalore. We were at a conference on tree based biodiesel. I actually sat in the section reserved for journalists, on the strength of stories I had been publishing in GoodNewsIndia. I had met Prof Udipi Shrinivasa two years earlier and visited his seminal work at Kagganahalli where he had demonstrated on a large scale, pongamia oil driven power generation. That and my other stories on tree based oils earned me much attention and the pongamia tree itself became quite a star.

Whether the tone of my reports was pardonable enthusiasm of an engineer or it was the hype of an uncritical evangelist, is not for me to declare. At a minimum I was a convert who ceaselessly searched to see how a plantation may come about and actually fill a local community’s need for a petrofuel substitute.

“From year-3 it yields pods and production is a mature average of 160kG per tree per year from year-10, through to its life of 100 years. Ten trees can yield 400 litres of oil, 1200 kg of fertiliser grade oil cake and 2500kg of biomass as green manure per year”
“….If the farmer collected the seeds free from his land, had it milled and sold the oil cake at Rs.3 per kG, the cost of oil to him was Rs.4 per litre. [The cost of diesel is Rs.18 a litre today.] If he bought the seeds at Rs.3.50 per kilo, the cost was Rs.9 per litre and if he bought the ready oil from the market it was Rs.20. The potential to drive the rural economy, make it autonomous and put some cash in its pockets was obvious.”
[from my first story on pongamia in Sep, 2001]

That search, after many false starts, dead leads and dud investments, eventually led me to commit myself to pointReturn. The project’s mission still remains this: “Self sufficiency in food, water, energy and cash for 40 people from 15 acres of wasteland”. If that comes about, wouldn’t it be a compelling model on permanent view? Well, with such delirious dreams are some men afflicted and they are often loath to let go of their affliction.

Pongamia pinnata, the tree that holds me in thrall, is to play the lead role in the ‘energy and cash self-sufficiency’ part of the pointReturn mission. Since 2007, pongamia saplings have been planted, and they form about 50% of the 800 trees now growing at pointReturn. The plan was to have a 1,000 pongamia standing eventually.

The ethical, technical and economic arguments favouring the tree have been stated in my earlier stories. In this I argued that the small scale, tree based liquid fuel alternative cannot be viewed through George Monbiot’s lens of ire. In this, I described how local and non-exotic our saplings are. As for pongamia economics, although I squirm a bit about what I wrote in my 2001 article [see box], when I came to estimate how much an acre of trees at pointReturn might return, I am gratified – and much relieved- I had been quite prudent. In 2006, I had prepared a 12 year financial perspective. From it, I reproduce the following footnotes:

basis :
production: 250 trees per acre; 10 kg seed/tree
selling price:
oil: Rs.40/L in 2015 and 10% increase per year. ie: Rs.40, 44, 48, 52…
cake: 10/kg in 2015 and 10% increase per year. ie: Rs.10, 11, 12, 13

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