Trip Start Jan 08, 2004
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A nine-year-old hilltribe girl's answer to a pollution problem is helping to change the way Thailand looks at its energy needs
Story by ARANEE JAIIMSIN
Free hot lunches are a staple at most primary schools in Thailand. But the hissing gas flames in the kitchen of Baan Ruam Mitr School, a primary school in Chiang Rai, not only boil the rice and fry up the main course, they also demonstrate the real-world advantages of alternative energy development
That's because the energy source used at the school is biogas, collected from fermented elephant dung in a low-tech concrete digester that the villagers and school staff built by themselves.
In line with the Energy Ministry's policy of promoting the development of substitutes for fossil fuels, the school's programme offers a secure, nearly free source of fuel. Ministry officials say the need for such creative solutions to the nation's energy needs has been amply demonstrated by the global fossil fuel market's wild mood swings over the past year, not to mention the fact that Thailand is a net importer of petroleum, spending some 400 billion baht a year on energy.
Living in remote Tambon Mae Yao, 25 kilometres from Chiang Rai, the school's 383 students from the surrounding Karen, Akha, Lahu, Hmong and Tai Yai hilltribe communities may lack such simple modernities as a telephone line, and consequently Internet access, but that has not stopped them from applying their creativity and intelligence.
Prathom 6 students in the 2003 academic year began a science project involving the production of biogas from elephant dung. Aside from being a cheap source of energy, it offered attractive side benefits such as reduced pollution, flies and smell from the mountain of manure produced by the village's 35 elephants, which are a key source of income from trekking tours.
After some basic research, the students discovered that each elephant produces 40 kg of dung per day or about one tonne for the herd altogether
"Two years ago, when I was in Prathom 4, I conducted a village survey with my seniors from Prathom 5 and 6 and we found out that elephant dung was causing a serious pollution problem in our village. Then, I went back to school and spent time in the library studying the possibility of producing organic gas from elephant dung. After that, I consulted my teacher and the experiment got started last year," said the project's president, 11-year-old Apure Uoimae.
Apure Uoimae, now 11, is the project president
"We found that after elephant dung had been fermented in a 200-litre container for three weeks, it generated methane, the main component of organic gas, which could be used for cooking with a low-pressure gas stove."
The idea caught on, and the next year a 16-cubic-metre fixed dome digester was built near the school at a cost of 35,000 baht through co-operation between parents and professional technicians, with financial support from the Mae Yao Tambon Administration Organisation.
Three weeks after the completion of the digester, methane from the fermentation process was piped in for use as cooking gas for the school's lunch programme.
According to director Boonhuang Pattarachao, the school now saves about 58 baht per day in liquefied natural gas expenses.
In addition, the school uses biogas instead of electricity to run its water heaters in the winter months. Along with five low-pressure lanterns at night, the new energy source offers a further saving of 13.23 baht from its daily electricity bill.
At current gas and electricity rates, the school expects to see its investment in the biogas digester pay for itself within one year and five months from its first day of operation.
To increase project value, the students process the leftover, exhausted dung residue into compost which is an excellent fertiliser for their flower gardens and plantations.
"Actually, the greatest benefit we have seen from this type of potting soil production is that it eliminates the need for black plastic bags, which is what we used to use for composting elephant dung. Those plastic bags are not very durable and cannot be recycled," explained the president for compost production, nine-year-old Adoor Murlaekoo.
Unfortunately, the environmental problems from the village's mountain of elephant dung cannot be completely eliminated yet, because even at full capacity, the biogas digester can use only 20 kg of elephant dung per day.
But that problem may not be around for much longer. Encouraged by their success, Chiang Rai MP Samart Kaewmeechai has secured funding to build 10 more digesters in the village from the Department of Local Administration.