By Sarwell Q. Meniano, Correspondent

Leyte sugar land future could lie in renewables

Posted on April 09, 2015

TACLOBAN CITY -- The Department of Energy (DoE) is studying the conversion of sugarcane plantations in western Leyte into farms growing Napier grass, which it intends to develop as feedstock for renewable energy projects.

DoE Renewable Energy Management Bureau Director Mario C. Marasigan said a study will be undertaken this year to look into technologies suitable for Napier grass production in the target area.

“The potential is there and a comprehensive feasibility study would be the key. The DoE will provide necessary support and assistance to the business chamber and (German development agency) GIZ in the conduct of the study,” Mr. Marasigan said.

The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) and GIZ recently organized a forum on climate change resilience in agriculture in which options for more disaster-resilient business ventures for Eastern Visayas were presented.

“Sugarcane plantation owners in Leyte have not been earning much from the produce since three years ago, even prior to super typhoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan). The infamous storm was just the last nail in the coffin. Hence, they are willing to shift to Napier grass from sugar to ultimately produce renewable energy,” said Oliver Cam, PCCI Eastern Visayas point person for trade and industry.

Some 8,000 hectares in Ormoc City and Kananga, Leyte have been devoted to sugar farming, according to PCCI, but the average yield has only been 50,000 tons per hectare, which is 30,000 tons lower than the production in neighboring Negros.

The industry suffered nearly P1 billion worth of damage from the super typhoon.

Mr. Cam said since the climate in the region is primarily wet, short-term crops like Napier grass are being introduced to farmers.

“It has a 45-day gestation period compared to that of sugar which is one year,” he said.

Iñaki P.Larrazabal, Jr., president of the Ormoc Sugarcane Planters Association, agreed that the soil in Leyte is potentially suitable to Napier, noting how grass has been briskly sprouting at sugar farms after Yolanda.

“But the process (of) shifting takes a lot of time. There are also problems that may arise on the permits that should be secured from various government agencies such as the Department of Agrarian Reform, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and Department of Agriculture,” Mr. Larrazabal said.

The PCCI-Eastern Visayas is looking at two business models for Napier production: pure planter and supplier; and planter and renewable energy producer.

Danilo P. Manayaga, president and chief executive officer of bioenergy firm Secura International Corp. said a Napier grass planter can earn P80,000 to P100,000 per hectare while a 125-hectare plantation can produce one megawatt of electricity.

During the forum, sugar planters agreed to review financial considerations, retraining of workers, logistics and suitable technologies before making the shift.

Promotion of Napier has intensified in the past year, there is no sufficient data on the grass as a renewable energy feedstock since local producers have used it mainly as cattle feed, according to PCCI.

The shift from sugarcane to Napier grass cultivation will expand the share of renewable energy in the country, according to DoE’s Mr. Marasigan.

Currently, 26% of the country's power supply is sourced from renewable energy, primarily geothermal and hydro.