Myth of the perfect soil: Quick, general principles of fertile soils

I was once asked by a gardening enthusiast why the perfect soil could not be “manufactured”; that is, one concocted or formulated in such a way that is perfectly suitable for all plants – to which I replied: such type of soil cannot exist because different plants have different nutrient demand. In other words, different plants eat differently, so to speak. In the same way that there is no one type of animal feed suitable for all animals, a one-size-fits-all type of soil is simply impossible.

But if a perfect soil cannot be formulated, my gardening enthusiast friend continued, then why not develop instead a specific soil perfectly suited for a certain plant? For instance, one could formulate a soil perfect for mango trees, another for roses, yet another for chilies, and so on.

Yes, why not indeed. In fact, some stores are already selling bags of potting soil or mix formulated specifically for certain plants such as tomatoes, cactus, vegetables, and flowers. So, are these formulated plant growing media perfect?

I don’t quite remember what my exact reply was, but I do remember not being quite satisfied with my answer. It was a question that cannot be answered in just short few sentences or in a hurry.

A fertile soil is essentially one that is able to meet the plant’s nutrient and water demand, as well as physically able to support the plant. In other words, developing a fertile soil is not a case of simply packing the required plant nutrients and in their sufficient quantities into the soil. Instead, soil fertility is governed by a myriad of biological, chemical, and physical factors that interact with one another in a complex matter to affect the final outcome of soil fertility.

Soil fertility is determined by a myriad of factors that interact with one another. A perfectly fertile soil requires each of these factors to be simultaneously attained. (c) andreusK @ fotolia.com.

So, if we want to create a perfect soil, even if for one specific target plant, we need to simultaneously attain or meet all the criteria that ultimately create a fertile soil. But in practice, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to simultaneously achieve all these criteria at once.

Urban gardeners often ignore soil structure. A soil must be strong enough to securely support the plant, yet weak enough to allow us to work it: to till the soil to improve soil aeration, for instance. A soil must be strong enough to resist erosion particularly by water but yet sufficiently weak enough to allow water to penetrate and wet the soil and allow the plant roots to expand freely within the soil in search of more water, nutrients, and anchorage.

A very coarse-textured soil like sandy soils (like those at the beaches) are structurally too weak to support large or tall trees. Sandy soils also suffer from lack of inherent plant nutrients because these soils are unable to hold onto the nutrients. Sandy soils are also very porous. They receive water very easily (which is good), but they also lose it very easily too (which is bad). “Easy come, easy go,” is the unfortunate story of sandy soils when it comes to water and nutrients.

On the other extreme, very fine-textured soils like clayey soils (like those we can wet and mold into shape, like clay pottery) might be strong enough to physically support large trees, but they also tend to suffocate the plant roots. Clayey soils are very much less porous, so they tend to be easily inundated with water (i.e., flooded); thus, more they are more prone to erosion and plants grown in such soils experience greater risk of plant root rot or decay. But clayey soils do have one advantage over sandy soils: clayey soils hold onto soil nutrients stronger than by sandy soils, so more nutrients would be available to the plants planted in clayey than sandy soils.

What we need then is a soil that is between these two extremities: one that is not too sandy and not too clayey. Generally, a good, fertile soil is one with equal parts of sand and clay (50:50 % by weight). But even better is one with more sand than clay, about 60:40 to no more than 70:30 % sand and clay proportion. Having such proportions provide the best of both worlds: the sand part in the soil provides good drainage and aeration, whereas the clay part provides strong nutrient retention, and at this sand and clay combination provides strong physical support and environment for a growing plant.

Potting mix, commonly sold at stores, are very popular because they are light, easy to work with, and formulated to be in rich in nutrients for plants in general. Potting mix rarely contain any soil, so while their absence makes potting mix very light, they cannot support large or tall plants. Potting mix are also very porous, so they risk drying out very quickly and can experience large losses in nutrients via the downward drainage of water (caused by over-watering, for instance). One way to remedy potting mix’s very rapid drainage and weak structural support for plants is to mix some fertile soil in equal parts with the potting mix.

But, unless we are dealing with soils in a few potted plants, it is difficult, costly, and impractical to alter a soil’s texture; that is, to change the soil’s proportion of sand and clay because this would involve bringing in vast quantities of soil from an external source (or buying way too many bags of potting mix) and mixing them with the soil in our garden.

Another important factor that strongly affects soil fertility is soil acidity, which is measured in the unit pH (recall that pH ranges between 1 to 14, where 1 is strongly acidic, 7 neutral, and 14 strongly alkaline). Malaysian soils are unfortunately very acidic in nature and often range between pH 2 to 4. In this acidic range, vital soil nutrients for plants like nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), potassium (K), calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg) are very much less available for plants (Fig. 1). That they are less available does not mean they are in low quantities or absent in the soil. Instead, these nutrients tend to be in chemical forms that cannot be directly used or taken up by the plants.

Fig. 1. Nutrient availability depends on soil pH (image from Kgopa, P., Moshia, M. & Shaker, P. (2014). Soil pH management across spatially variable soils, 4: 203-218.).

Even worse is low soil pH also encourages elements like aluminum (Al), iron (Fe), and manganese (Mn) to be more available to plants, and these elements are toxic to plants in excess amounts. In other words, Malaysian soils are inherently not fertile due to their low soil pH. In fact, if I were to grade our Malaysian soils, where grade A means very fertile soils and grade F means toxic soils, our Malaysian soils in general score a grade C – not the worst but not great either.

Ideally, soil pH should be between 5.5 to 6.5 (near neutral) because, at this range, most nutrients are in forms available for direct plant uptake. How then to raise the soil pH? One common method is to add lime (calcium hydroxide or calcium oxide) to the soil. Generally, for Malaysian soils, about 600 g of lime is needed for every 1 square meter of soil area (or roughly, 40 g per medium-sized pot).

As stated earlier, essential plant nutrients are N, P, K, Ca, and Mg, so one common question I am asked is what are the quantities of nutrients should fertile soils have? Their approximate quantities have been worked out, like shown in Table 1-5, but we must remember these approximates are exactly just that: general guidelines. This is because, as stated earlier, different plants have different nutrient requirements. Moreover, plant nutrient requirement would change as the plant ages or progresses into different life phases or stages, so the nutrient requirement of a seedling would be different than a plant that has matured or a plant that has started to the next life phase: flowering or fruiting.

Table 1. Nitrogen (N) levels in soil
N (% by weight)Description
<0.05Very low
0.05-0.15Low
0.15-0.25Medium
0.25-0.50High
>0.50Very high

Table 2. Phosphorous (P) levels in soil
P (mg P / kg soil)Description
<5Very low
5-10Low
10-17Moderate
17-25High
>25Very high

Table 3. Potassium (K) levels in soil
K (cmol / kg soil)Description
<0.2Low
>0.6High

Table 4. Calcium (Ca) levels in soil
Ca (cmol / kg soil)Description
<4Low
>10High

Table 5. Magnesium (Mg) levels in soil
Mg (cmol / kg soil)Description
<0.5Low
>4High

To complicate things even further, one nutrient can affect the plant uptake of another, either positively (synergistic) or negatively (antagonistic) (Fig. 2). Having an excess of N (a very important nutrient that is often applied in large quantities), for instance, can suppress the uptake of K and the micronutrients boron (Bo), and copper (Cu). Too much of Ca would instead reduce the uptake of a myriad of nutrients, particularly Mg. This phenomenon of nutrient antagonism complicates fertilizer formulation and recommendation because it risks triggering nutrient uptake suppression when one nutrient is oversupplied or appear in excess amounts. In other words, it is not just the quantity of nutrients in the soil that is important, but their amounts relative to one another.

Fig. 2. Nutrient interactions mean the presence of one nutrient can affect the plant uptake of other nutrients in a synergistic or antagonistic manner (image from nutriag.com/article/mulderschart).

This phenomenon of nutrient antagonism is also why we should never over-fertilize our plants partly because it risks oversupplying one or more nutrients which in turn suppress the plant uptake of others. In my experience in helping urban gardeners, the problem of over-fertilization is very common, where gardeners tend to experiment with using various fertilizers too frequently or using excessive quantities. They are also sometimes too impatient when their plants appear not to respond to a certain type of fertilizer, so they then try another fertilizer, and another, and so on – risking oversupply of nutrients and nutrient toxicity.

One of the most effective ways to improve soil fertility is to add organic matter such as from composts, waste materials from our gardens (wood chips, lawn cuttings, or dried leaves and twigs), and certain kinds of food scraps. Organic matter is often regarded to be the lifeblood of soils – with good reasons. Its addition to soils improves a multitude of soil properties related to soil fertility. Addition of organic matter makes the soils less acidic (recall Malaysian soils are generally very acidic), provides plant nutrients in a gradual manner (like a slow release fertilizer) as the organic matter decomposes in the soils, increases soil aeration and drainage, increases the availability of both water and nutrients in the soil, and increases the soil’s resistance to erosion.

Building up organic matter in our soils, however, require regular applications. This is analogous to going to a gym to build up or maintain our muscles. Start skipping some gym exercises and our muscles start to shrivel. In the same way, regular applications of organic matter are required to increase or maintain the level of soil organic matter. Applying organic matter in lesser quantities or irregularly and the organic matter level in the soil will gradually decline over time.

But the unfortunate truth is large portions of the organic matter are lost when applied to the soil. This is particularly true for Malaysian soils. Our tropical climate’s large rainfall amounts and high air temperatures lead to rapid organic matter decomposition and large organic matter losses by erosion.

There is also a limit to which we can increase the organic matter amount in our soils, even with regular applications. Organic matter levels rise rather rapidly in the first 6 months after application, then gradually slow down and subsequently stagnate at some level, typically no more than about 5% of the total soil weight. Applying large quantities of organic matter may not necessarily lead to high soil organic matter levels and at times actually be counterproductive because applying too much organic matter in our soils can lead to anerobic (oxygen-starved) conditions which leads to poorer, not better plant growth.

How much organic matter can we safely apply then? Generally, no more than 8 kg per one square meter ground area (or roughly, no more than 600 g per medium-sized pot) should be applied at any one time. Re-application should only be done when the organic matter has nearly all decomposed (or no longer visible on the soil surface).

Lastly, watering. Lack of water has a more detrimental effect to plant growth than the lack of nutrients. Even a soil rich in nutrients is of no use to the plant if there is inadequate water. This is because nutrients in the soil or fertilizers must be in solute forms before they can be taken up by the plant roots. The ability of a soil to retain water is therefore crucial. All soils will eventually dry out over time, some faster than others, depending on soil texture, as discussed earlier. Soils lose water via evaporation and drainage, and we, therefore, need to supply enough water to replace the amount of water lost from the soil. Supplying too much water is equally as bad as supplying an insufficient amount of it.

Urban gardeners I have met tend to overwater their plants, but their plants tend not to experience any detrimental effects. This is probably because the soils (particularly, if the gardeners are using potting mix) have good drainage where the excess water is allowed to drain out; thus, avoiding flooding or soil saturation. The problem can arise when the soils have poor drainage or simply too much water is applied in a short time. Soils that are saturated all the time risk causing plant root rot, among others.

Like for nutrients, different plants have unique water requirements. But as a general guideline, plants require about 5 L of water per one square meter ground area (or roughly, 350 mL of water per medium-sized pot) per day. For very hot, dry days, the amount of water to apply can be increased by two times.

The perfect soil may not exist or can be developed. We often have to make do with the soil in our gardens. But the good news is that even problematic soils can be significantly improved through proper management. Applying organic matter to our soils is one very effective way to increase soil fertility, but even then watering and fertilizer applications still need to properly managed. Most of all, it requires our patience. Improving soil fertility takes time. Do not be impatient, and avoid the common mistake of experimenting with too many fertilizers too quickly when results are not forthcoming.




Root of all evil: How agriculture became our bane and worst mistake

In 1987, esteemed Professor of Geography, Jared Diamond, stunned many people with his article in the Discover magazine entitled, “The worst mistake in the history of the human race” in which he argued that agriculture, far from being a blessing, was instead our worst mistake. Agriculture has indeed changed the world – but for the worst, causing gross social and gender inequality and increases in malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases. In some ways, Jared Diamond added, pre-agriculture societies were actually better off than post-agriculture societies. UK newspaper, The Telegraph, went as far as to ask in their article in 2009: Is farming the root of all evil?

How could that be? Could agriculture really be our worst mistake, the root of all evil?

No one is certain exactly how agriculture started, only that agriculture started around 10,000 years ago independently and almost simultaneously at six main locations in the world. Charles Darwin, in his book, “Descent of man, and selection in relation to sex” (published in 1871), casually speculated that agriculture may have started when humans observed that seeds fallen to the ground have gone on to sprout and grow into plants that had desirable qualities.

But it wasn’t until the late 1970s that archaeologist Mark Cohen of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh suggested that agriculture started probably more out of desperation than inspiration. Evidence suggest Cohen could be right: that rising human populations, combined with a cooling and drying climate, left pre-agriculture societies short of food. People became desperate and started to grow their own food, rather than depend on the unstable food supply via hunting and gathering.

Considering that modern humans appeared about 250,000 years ago, agriculture is consequently a very recent human discovery – and a momentous discovery too. The start of agriculture is undoubtedly a very important milestone, for better or worse, in modern human history for several reasons.

Agriculture is the foundation upon which all human civilizations, past and present, from the least to the greatest, are built. Every civilization, without exception, begins near rivers for a simple reason. They required easy access to freshwater to feed their crops and animals. Ancient Egypt and Nubia civilizations, for instance, begun along the Nile River in North Africa, and the Yellow River in China was the birthplace of the Xia, Shang, and Zhou Dynasties. Likewise, the Harappan civilization begun along the Indus River and the Mesopotamian civilization along the Tigris-Euphrates River.

From the least to the greates human cilizations, each one of them started off with agriculture (c) Pius Lee @ fotolia.com

Agriculture is the foundation of every human civilization, from the least to the greatest. Only with agriculture could a civilization expand its population to large numbers quickly and to develop complexity and sophistication in its culture and socioeconomic and political structures (c) Pius Lee @ fotolia.com.

Agriculture allowed humans to stop moving from place to place in search of food and to settle down permanently in one area. This carried important consequences. Agriculture provided humans stability. And stability meant humans could increase their populations to large numbers and to do it very rapidly. Before agriculture, humans depended on hunting animals and gathering of fruits for food. Such a lifestyle would simply not be able to sustain a large population all year round.

It is estimated that the world population, without agriculture, could not exceed 150 million people. But today the world population stands over 7 billion people, nearly 50 times more than what a hunter-gatherer world could cope.

Hunter-gatherer societies or tribes are small, nomadic, and austere (c) marziafra @ fotolia.com

Hunter-gatherer societies or tribes are small, nomadic, and austere (c) marziafra @ fotolia.com.

Having stability also meant post-agriculture societies could develop increasingly complex and sophisticated culture, education, and socioeconomic and political structure. Human skills, no longer limited to just hunting and gathering, became more diverse, specialized, technical, creative, and methodological. Because of agriculture, societies could now comprise a myriad of professions such as teachers, doctors, politicians, musicians, artists, engineers, farmers, and builders.

But a farm is no Garden of Eden. Agriculture has several important and serious drawbacks. In recent years, anthropologists have quietly revised the view that the outcome of agriculture, rather than a blessing, was more of a fall from grace. Why?

Because of agriculture, we have inadvertently traded quality of our food for quantity. True, agriculture has allowed us to produce abundant food consistently, but agriculture has also limited the types of food we eat. This in turn caused higher incidences of nutrient deficiencies and unbalanced diets. Hunter-gatherers, for instance, ate a much more varied of food, as many as 60 to 70 types per year. But once we converted to agriculture, we became dependent on a much smaller number of food types.

Today, for instance, half of our daily calories come from only three crops: rice, wheat, and corn. Without these three grain crops, we would truly have difficulty in fulfilling our daily calories. Such staple foods are rich in carbohydrate but low in protein and do not contain the essential nutrients in sufficient amounts for a healthy life. Having to depend on a very limited number of crops means we are vulnerable to food shortages and society upheavals should our crops fail from drought or pest and disease attacks, for example.

The Great Famine in Ireland between 1845 to 1879 highlights such a case. The Irish’s over-reliance on a single crop (potato) as their staple diet and the lack of genetic diversity in the planted potatoes meant that when the potato blight attacked in the 19th century, the blight disease caused devastating and widespread losses to their food supply. Mass starvation ensued during which a million people either died from starvation or famine-related diseases and another one million people emigrated. Even those of whom emigrated, it is estimated that one in three still lost their lives.

Examinations of human skeletons in the Nile Valley, Egypt showed that the hunter-gatherers who lived there some 13,00 years ago had lower signs of malnutrition and illness (as indicated by their teeth) by as much as 40% than their farming successors 1,000 years after they had adopted agriculture. Furthermore, the average height of a hunter-gatherer was 5’ 8’’, but when agriculture was practiced, the average height of people fell by four inches.

Examination of human skeletons showed that hunter-gatherers were actually more healthy and longer-living than their early farming successors (c) ymgerman @ fotolia.com

Examination of human skeletons showed that the hunter-gatherers were actually more healthy and longer-living than their early farming successors (c) ymgerman @ fotolia.com.

Such discoveries in Nile Valley in Egypt are not unique. Skeletons in Greece and Turkey showed similar signs. Prior to agriculture, the average height of a hunter-gatherer there was 5’ 9’’ for men and 5’ 5’’ in for women, but after agriculture, people’s heights fell by nearly half a foot on average. Yet again, people’s health deteriorated as a result of agriculture, where early farmers, compared to their hunter-gatherer predecessors, had 50% more enamel defects which is indicative of malnutrition, four times more iron-deficiency anemia, three times more bone lesions which are indicative of infectious diseases, and an increase in degenerative spine conditions which are indicative of harder, more physical labor. Even life expectancy fell from 26 years for hunter-gatherers to 19 years for people in the early post-agriculture period.

And the fact that agriculture allowed humans to settle permanently in one area and in large numbers and in crowded spaces encouraged the occurrence and spread of infectious diseases and pestilence. Keeping farm animals close to people further exacerbated the risks of epidemic diseases.

Besides encouraging malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, agriculture worsened social divisions and inequality. Research from the 1960s to 1970s showed anthropologists such as Richard Lee (University of Toronto) and the late Yehudi Cohen (then Rutgers University) that hunter-gatherer societies were more egalitarian and consensus-based. Food was not always available and whatever food that were available were consumed quickly; little were stored. Such survival conditions meant that hunter-gatherers had to closely depend on one another for finding food; thus, cooperation, sharing, and mutualism were essential in such societies.

But with the adoption of agriculture, food became abundant, so much that now not everyone needed to be involved in obtaining food. The society eventually divided into food producers and non-producers. Skills became diversified and specialized, some of which were more useful and more sought after than others. Distribution of wealth became more disproportionate, depending on how well one could control the production and distribution of resources. Social hierarchy gradually evolved and became institutionalized, polarizing groups of people, creating the haves and have-nots, the elites and peasants, the rich and the poor. Social inequality was inevitable and that meant some people had more food and were consequently in better health than others.

Examinations of skeletons from the Greek tombs at Mycenae around 1500 B.C. suggest that royal members had a better diet than the commoners, since the royal members were two to three inches taller and had better teeth than the commoners. Likewise, Chilean mummies around the year 1000 showed that the elites were healthier, as indicated by their lower bone lesions by as much as four times, than the peasants.

There have even been suggestions that agriculture created gender inequality, or at least made it worse. In farming, it is the women who often have the harder, more physical labor than the men. Frederick Engels, the German philosopher and social scientist, remarked nearly 150 years ago that farming was the onset of social and women inequality and the time when political innocence was lost.

Agriculture may have worsened gender inequality. Women often had the more labor-intensive jobs than the men in the farms (c) cronopia @ fotolia.com

Agriculture may have worsened gender inequality. Women often had the more labor-intensive, back-breaking jobs than the men in the farms (c) cronopia @ fotolia.com.

Agriculture, together with forestry, are today responsible for a third of the world’s total greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions – gases that are responsible for global warming. In 2003, William Ruddiman of the University of Virginia proposed that it was the start of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, not the start of Industrialization period in the early 18th century, that started the detrimental climate change which we now experience today. Ruddiman could well be right. Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) have risen steadily since 8,000 and 5,000 years ago, respectively. Their rise in atmospheric levels are consistent with the timeline of farming intensity. Ruddiman proposed that large scale land clearing and expansion of irrigation have been increasing GHG emissions ever since farming begun. A study in 2011 by Dorian Fuller of the University College London suggested that the expansion of rice and livestock could be responsible for the additional atmospheric methane levels 1,000 years ago.

The litany of detrimental effects due to agriculture activities is long. Climate change is only one of them. Loss of biodiversity and environment damage due to land clearing and farming activities are two more.

Talk about returning to our hunter-gatherer roots is pointless. Even if we could reset history and have humans return to their pre-agriculture days, it is most likely that nothing would change: that humans would again discover and practise agriculture. Agriculture is not a random event, started spontaneously out of chance. As discussed previously, agriculture occurred not once but six times around the world, independently of one another and nearly simultaneously. In other words, agriculture was inevitable. As human populations grew, humans simply needed another way to obtain their food in a more reliable and effective manner.

Do we want to return to a hunter-gatherer life anyway? A hunter-gatherer life was hardly romantic or idealistic but arduous, short, and ruthless. Violence was common in such societies. Two-thirds of hunter-gatherer societies were in constant warfare, and nearly 90% of them would go to war at least once a year. The death rate due to tribal warfare was about 0.5% of the population per year, as calculated by Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois. This rate is equivalent to 2 billion people dying during the 20th century. Other research estimated that 15% of young men in hunter-gatherer societies were murdered, and Richard Wrangham of the Harvard University calculated that more people had died before than after the advent of agriculture.

Incessant innovation is our intrinsic characteristic. We cannot help but innovate. Agriculture is only one of our innovations, as means to obtain food more reliably and abundantly. Without agriculture, nearly all of our innovations we see today would not have been possible.

Yes, our innovations have caused us problems and crisis, often as unintended side-effects, but our innovations have also brought much benefits to improve our quality life. Health during the early periods of agriculture may be worse off than that before the advent of agriculture, but today, health has greatly improved due to better knowledge and more effective resource management.

Agriculture practices today too have changed, no longer solely focusing on profits and productivity but also on adopting sustainable practices to reduce agriculture’s negative impacts on the environment and society. Zero burning (during land clearing practices), mixed farming, organic agriculture, permaculture, intercropping, crop rotation, minimum soil tillage, mulching, composting, and biological pest control are only some of our agriculture innovations to reduce our energy use and detrimental impacts.

Intecrop of maize and rice in the Daklak, Vietnam (c) xuanhuongho @ fotolia.com

Agriculture practices today are moving towards greater sustainability to reduce agriculture’s detrimental impacts on the climate, environment, and society. This photo shows an intecropping field of maize and rice in Daklak, Vietnam (c) xuanhuongho @ fotolia.com.

There is no turning back; only onward. So, whether agriculture is for our better or worse would very much depend on how we respond to agriculture and its consequences.

References

  1. Diamond, J. (1987). The worst mistake in the history of the human race. Discover, May 1987, pp. 64-66.
  2. O’Connell, S. (2009). Is farming the root of all evil? The Telegraph, June 23, 2009.
  3. The Economist (2007). Noble or savage? The Economist, Dec 19, 2007.
  4. Tollefson, J. (2011). The 8,000-year-old climate puzzle. Nature online, March 25, 2011.



Electricity from solar energy in Malaysia: Clean, renewable, and abundant energy source, so what’s the problem?

In 2010, Malaysia’s electricity generation totaled at 137,909 GWh. Malaysia, being near the equator, receives between 4,000 to 5,000 Wh per sq. m per day. This means, in one day, Malaysia receives enough energy from the Sun to generate 11 years worth of electricity. This is an incredible potential amount of energy into which Malaysia can tap.

Malaysia currently adopts a five-fuel mix (gas, coal, hydro, oil, and other sources) for electricity generation. From 2000 to 2010, electricity generation in Malaysia increased an average of 8% per year from 69,280 GWh in 2000 to 137,909 GWh in 2010. In this period, the contribution from gas for electricity generation declined from 77.0 to 55.9%, hydro from 10.0 to 5.6%, and oil from 4.2 to 0.2%. In contrast, the contribution from coal for electricity generation increased from 8.8 to 36.5% and other sources from 0.0 to 1.8%.

Under the 10-th Malaysia Plan, the Malaysian government wants 5.5% of total electricity to come from renewable energy sources by 2015. However, the current contribution from renewable sources (such as biomass, biogas, wind, and solar) for electricity generation remains very low, of which solar energy only contributes a mere 0.007% of the total generated electricity in Peninsular Malaysia. The negligible contribution by solar energy is due to several reasons. One of them is the lack of awareness among Malaysians about the use of solar energy for electricity generation. However, the largest hurdles to solar energy adoption are the high cost and low efficiency of solar panels or photovoltaic (PV) cells.

Solar irradiance generally declines from the north to the south of Malaysia, so that northern states such as Kedah, Penang, Kelantan, and Sabah receive the most amount of solar radiation, whereas southern states like Johor and Sarawak receive the least (Fig. 1). The mean daily sunshine hours in Malaysia ranges between 4 to 8 hours per day.

Fig. 1. Average daily solar radiation (MJ per sq. m) across Malaysia (Mekhilefa et al., 2012)

On average, Malaysia receives about 17 MJ per sq. m of solar radiation per day (Fig. 2 and 3). From 1989 to 2008, there is no trend that the average daily solar radiation would increase or decrease throughout this period, except for towns such as Kuala Terengganu and Senai where there is a weak linear trend showing a decline in solar radiation received by these two towns. Kota Kinabalu in Sabah also showed declining solar radiation from 1990 to 1999, after which solar radiation would increase and stabilize at around 20 MJ per sq. m per day.

Fig. 2. Average daily solar radiation (MJ per sq. m) for some towns in Malaysia from 1989-2008: part 1 of 2

Fig. 3. Average daily solar radiation (MJ per sq. m) for some towns in Malaysia from 1989-2008: part 2 of 2

In Malaysia, solar energy is used for two purposes: 1) solar thermal applications, and 2) PV technologies. Solar thermal applications are where heat from the solar energy is used for heating purposes, while PV technologies are for electricity generation.

Solar panels for either thermal or electricity purpose can be mounted on rooftops. Although the rooftops of house and buildings are said to be “dead space” because they are unused, not all rooftops are suitable to be mounted. It is estimated that only 2.5 million houses and 45,000 commercial buildings in Malaysia are suitable for solar panel mounting. This is because the design and orientation, as well as the external environment, of the buildings would affect the harvest of solar energy.

PV cells are emerging as one of the attractive alternative to national utility grid power. PV systems was introduced in Malaysia in the 1980s, and from 1998 to 2002, six pilot grid-connected PV systems was setup at high monetary costs. Since then, PV systems have grown steadily so that in 2005, a total of on-grid 470 kW peak was established, with 3 MW peak as off-grid.

Solar panels on a rooftop of a bungalow in Malaysia (photo from mbipv.net.my)

To further encourage the adoption of solar energy, the Malaysian government introduced the MBIPV (Malaysia Building Integrated Photovoltaic) project in 2005. MBIPV was to design the integration of PV cells into buildings or structures; thus, saving costs because the PV systems would be fabricated within the structure of the building. MBIPV aimed to increase PV capacity in buildings by 3.3 times while reducing costs by 20% compared to the baseline. Currently, PV systems with a total of 213.61 kW peak have been installed over 18 locations in Malaysia via the MBIPV project. Moreover, through MBIPV, SURIA 1000 was established, with the aim to install solar panels on 1,000 rooftops in Malaysia (to date, however, only about 100 households have PV systems in Malaysia).

One important progress towards reducing dependency on fossil fuels and mitigating climate change is the establishment of Feed-in-tariff (FiT) scheme in Malaysia last year. FiT encourages the adoption of renewable energy such as solar energy by households by enabling house owners to sell excess electricity generated from their homes to TNB (Tenaga Nasional Berhad), for example. For every 1 kWh, house owners could get between RM1.20 to 1.23. Moreover, homes with solar PV would obtain an additional 26 cents. It is thus possible for house owners to earn as much as RM700 per month if they could generate as much as 4kW peak of electricity from their homes.

Although Malaysia is the world’s fourth largest PV modules producer, solar technology is ironically not adopted widely here. One reason is the cost of installing PV systems in Malaysia is expensive, even though the cost is falling at a rate of more than 10% per year. In 2005, for instance, the cost of PV system per kW peak was RM31,410, falling to RM24,970 in 2007, and to RM20,439 in 2009. Today, the cost has reduced to about RM15,000 per kW peak – a rate still unaffordable or impractical to most Malaysians.

There are four kinds of PV solar panels available in Malaysia: mono-crystalline silicon (Mc-Si), poly-crystalline silicon (Pc-Si), copper-indium-diselenide (CIS), and thin film amorphous silicon (A-Si). A study by UKM showed that none of these solar panel types had more than 10% efficiency in converting solar energy into electricity. The module efficiency for Mc-Si, Pc-Si, CIS, and A-Si were measured at 6.9, 5.1, 4.0, and 2.2%, respectively. In addition, Mc-Si and Pc-Si performed best under clear skies, whereas CIS and A-Si did better under cloudy skies.

The low efficiency of PV panels sold in Malaysia is bad news because a great deal (more than 90%) of solar energy is unused for electricity generation. The implication is serious: a very large area of solar panels, costs notwithstanding, would be required for utilizing solar energy for electricity. How much land area? Let’s calculate.

1 MW of electrical generation is equivalent to:

1,000,000 W x 365 days x 24 hours = 8.76 billion Wh

As stated earlier, Malaysia receives 4,000 to 5,000 Wh per sq. m per day, taking 4,500 Wh per sq. m per day on average. In a year, this daily average is equivalent to:

4,500 Wh per sq. m x 365 days = 1.642 million Wh per sq. m

However, since the highest solar panel efficiency is nearly 7% (for Mc-Si), this means the total amount of solar radiation energy used for electricity generation is only:

1.642 million Wh per sq. m x 0.07 = 114,975 Wh per sq. m

Thus, the total land area needed for solar panels is:

8.76 billion Wh / 114,975 Wh per sq. m = 76,190.48 sq. m

This means for every 1 MW of electricity required, about 76,000 sq. m of land area in Malaysia is required for harvesting solar energy. To meet even 1% of Malaysia’s electricity demand will require a land area of 12 square kilometers for PV panels and at a cost of about RM20 trillion!

Consequently, solar energy, as well as other renewable energy, cannot be a major contributor for electricity generation in Malaysia. This would be true until solar technologies become affordable enough and the technologies become much more efficient in electricity generation from solar energy. At the moment, solar energy, at best, could supplement Malaysia’s energy supply.

Solar technology research at Uni. Putra Malaysia (photo from upm.edu.my)

References

 




Environmental statistics 2010 for Malaysia

The Little Green Data Book series is an annual publication by World Bank on the environmental statistics for each country in the world. The latest is The Little Green Data Book 2010 and it is available for free for download.

Anyway, I have downloaded the data specifically for Malaysia and place them here as a table for easier reference.

Environmental Statistics 2010 for Malaysia
(data from World Bank, http://go.worldbank.org/MDXNK51HB0)
StatisticsMalaysia
Population, total (millions)27.0
Urban population (% of total)70.4
GDP (current US$) (billions)221.8
GNI per capita, Atlas method (current US$)7,250
Land area (sq. km) (thousands)329
Agricultural land (% of land area)24.0
Forest area (% of land area)62.7
Bird species, threatened42
GEF benefits index for biodiversity (0 = no biodiversity potential to 100 = maximum)14
GDP per unit of energy use (constant 2005 PPP $ per kg of oil equivalent)4.7
Energy use (kg of oil equivalent per capita)2,733
Combustible renewables and waste (% of total energy)4.0
Energy imports, net (% of energy use)-30.0
Electric power consumption (kWh per capita)3,667
Electricity production from coal sources (% of total)29.5
CO2 emissions (kt)187,729
CO2 emissions annual growth rate2
CO2 emissions (kg per 2005 PPP $ of GDP)0.6
CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita)7.2
PM10, country level (micrograms per cubic meter)23
Passenger cars (per 1,000 people)225
Renewable internal freshwater resources per capita (cubic meters)21,470
Annual freshwater withdrawals, total (% of internal resources)2
Annual freshwater withdrawals, agriculture (% of total freshwater withdrawal)62
Improved water source (% of population with access)99
Improved water source, rural (% of rural population with access)96
Improved water source, urban (% of urban population with access)100
Improved sanitation facilities (% of population with access)94
Improved sanitation facilities, rural (% of rural population with access)93
Improved sanitation facilities, urban (% of urban population with access)95
Mortality rate, under-5 (per 1,000)6
Adjusted savings: gross savings (% of GNI)38.4
Adjusted savings: consumption of fixed capital (% of GNI)11.9
Adjusted savings: net national savings (% of GNI)26.9
Adjusted savings: education expenditure (% of GNI)4.0
Adjusted savings: energy depletion (% of GNI)13.1
Adjusted savings: mineral depletion (% of GNI)0.1
Adjusted savings: net forest depletion (% of GNI)0.0
Adjusted savings: carbon dioxide damage (% of GNI)0.7
Adjusted savings: particulate emission damage (% of GNI)0.0
Adjusted net savings, including particulate emission damage (% of GNI)19.2

Also available is Malaysia’s fact sheet for 2008 (click image below to expand to full size).

Malaysia at a glance, 2008 (http://go.worldbank.org/MDXNK51HB0)




Electricity demand, economic growth, and sustainable energy resources in Malaysia

In my previous blog entry, I wrote about the consequences of large dams, such as Malaysia’s Bakun Dam, on social and environment aspects. Essentially, I remarked that Bakun Dam, as a hydroelectric dam, is not a sustainable energy choice because it causes serious, long term, and irreversible destruction to many social and environmental aspects. Moreover, the expected lifespan of the gargantuan Bakun Dam could be shorten from 50 to 30 years if serious buildup of silt (sediments) occurs.

Malaysia: Where to, electricity? (photo from mypalmoil.wordpress.com)

The Malaysian government’s perseverance with the construction of Bakun Dam contradicts the country’s Green Technology policy, launched in mid 2009, which seeks for more sustainable sources and technology development for energy.

That said, however, the construction of Bakun Dam is justified strictly from an economic point of view. Malaysia’s aspirations for higher economic growth to break Malaysia from the so-called “middle-income trap” and to become a developed nation mean much more energy is required.

Malaysia’s consumption of energy increases every year. In 2008, the total energy demand in Malaysia was 522,199 GWh, of which the industrial and transport sectors were the two largest users of energy, accounting more than three-fourths of this total demand. The residential and commercial sector was the third largest user (14%) of energy in Malaysia, and only 1% of the total energy was consumed by the agriculture sector.

The consumption of electricity in Malaysia rises rapidly every year, with an average of 2,533 GWh per year. The electricity consumption, for instance, in 1971 was 3,464 GWh and 94,278 GWh in 2008. By 2020, Malaysia’s electricity consumption is expected to increase by about 30% from its present value to 124,677 GWh.

Malaysia’s electricity consumption (1971-2008)

Moreover, there is a strong relationship between Malaysia’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and Malaysia’s electricity consumption. To put it succinctly: high GDP = high economic growth = high production = high energy. For every 1 USD increase in GDP (at year 2000 rate), electricity consumption would increase by 13 Wh.

Strong linear relationship between Malaysia’s electricity consumption and GDP (1971-2008)

At full operation, Bakun Dam would most probably generate 10,512 GWh (50% of its potential capacity, the world average for hydroelectric dams), which means that Bakun Dam could contribute nearly 8.5% of the expected electricity demand by 2020.

Thus, from these projections, Bakun Dam is needed to support Malaysia’s desire for high economic growth. But looking solely from an economic perspective is myopic because Bakun Dam, as stated earlier, is socially and environmentally destructive. But what are the sources of green energy in Malaysia?

Traditionally, Malaysia’s energy sources for electricity are based on a “four-fuel mix” strategy: gas, oil, hydro, and coal. From 1970 to 1980s, oil was relied heavily for electricity generation, but this over-reliance led to rapid depletion oil in Malaysia. But since the mid 1980s, gas and coal are increasingly being relied on for electricity generation. By 2010, for instance, it is estimated that gas and coal would contribute 92% of the sources for electricity generation. Hydro and oil would contribute the rest (7 and 1%, respectively).

Four-fuel mix: sources of electricity in Malaysia (1971-2008) (International Energy Agency. 2010. Energy balances in non-OECD countries. 2010 edition. IEA, Paris)

Recently, the government has started to introduce a “five-fuel mix” strategy with renewable energy as the fifth source for electricity generation. The most promising potential for renewable energy in Malaysia is the biomass and biogas from the oil palm industry. This is not surprising considering that 15% of the total land area of Malaysia is covered by this single crop alone.

Palm oil mill in Malaysia (photo from gopdc-ltd.com)

There are 417 palm oil mills in Malaysia, of which 246 are in Peninsular Malaysia and 117 in Sabah. These mills discard about 30 million tonnes of biomass, including empty fruit bunches (EFB) and other residues (shells and fibers), every year. Every tonne of EFB could potentially produce about 40W of electricity, whereas every tonne of biomass residues (shells and fibers) an average of 148 W.

In addition to these oil palm biomass wastes, palm oil mills also produce about 43 million tonnes of palm oil mill effluent (POME) per year. These effluents, due to anaerobic (oxygen poor) conditions, emit greenhouse gases such as methane (65%) and carbon dioxide (35%). These biogases could be captured for electrical generation, rather than polluting the air and contributing to global warming. The biogases emitted from every tonne of POME could be captured to potentially generate 8 W of electricity.

Empty fruit bunches (EFB) (photo from hishambioproc.blogspot.com)

At Copenhagen Climate Change Conference 2009, Malaysia pledged to reduce the country’s carbon emission by 40% by 2050. Part of this would be achieved by boosting renewables’ contribution to energy from the current 50 MW to 2,000 MW by 2020. This is certainly achievable considering that biomass and biogas from the palm oil mills could potentially contribute over 3,200 MW of electricity per year. This also means that, potentially, Malaysia’s oil palm could contribute about 28,000 GWh or meeting more than one-fifth of Malaysia’s electricity demand by 2020.

However, problems of irregular EFB supply and technology limitations currently hamper full exploitation of oil palm biomass for electrical generation.

Another major contender for renewable energy source is solar radiation. Being near the equator means Malaysia enjoys 12 hours of daylight per day all year round. On average, Malaysia receives 3 kWh per square meter per day from solar radiation.

The Suria 1000 programme is a government-initiated scheme to use photovoltaic solar cells to capture solar radiation for use in residential and commercial sectors. Photovoltaics, unfortunately, suffer from low solar-to-electricity efficiency. On average, photovoltaics have 10% efficiency.

This means photovoltaics would convert captured solar radiation into electricity at a rate of 3 x 0.1 = 0.3 kWh per square meter per day. As stated earlier, Malaysia’s demand in electricity by 2020 would reach 124,677 GWh. So, if we want solar power to contribute 10% of this expected electricity demand, the total land area needed for photovoltaics is: (124,677 x 1000 x 1000 x 0.1) kWh  / (0.3 kWh per square meter x 365 days) = 114 square kilometers.

Malaysia’s total land area is nearly 330,000 square kilometers, so the fraction of land area needed for photovoltaics (114 square kilometers) is only 0.03%. We can further work out that to completely contribute to Malaysia’s electricity demand in 2020 by solar power (100% contribution), the total land area needed for photovoltaics is only 1,140 square kilometers or 0.3% of Malaysia’s total land area.

So, even though solar photovoltaics suffer from low conversion efficiency, the land area needed to capture solar radiation for electricity generation is no more than one-third of 1% of Malaysia’s land area. Moreover, solar photovoltaic cells can be placed on roofs of houses and buildings, so these cells can occupy the same land area as houses and buildings (no additional land area required for photovoltaic cells if they are placed on roofs).

However, photovoltaics are prohibitively expensive at present. It costs about RM22.50 for every 1 kWh of electricity generated per year. This means for photovoltaics to contribute to even 10% of expected electricity demand by Malaysia in 2020, the total cost for photovoltaics would be over RM280 billion!

If Malaysia is willing to spend RM7 billion on Bakun Dam for electricity generation, the cost of photovoltaics must fall to about RM0.50 per 1 kWh of electricity. Possible? This is a fall in cost by a whooping 45 times than the present rate. Although the technology in solar power is progressing fast and cost falling, it is unlikely that solar power can be a major contributor to electricity generation in Malaysia in the short term.

World geothermal regions (from depletedcranium.com/geothermal-power-generation-potential-and-limits)

Geothermal power is another source of renewable energy in Malaysia, but its source is currently untapped. This is unfortunate because Malaysia lies in a geothermal region. Countries like Indonesia and Philippines are already utilizing geothermal as a source of electricity, producing about 1,196 and 1,930 MW, respectively. Recently, a geothermal reservoir was found in Tawau, Sabah, which has the potential to provide up to 67 MW of electricity.

Nuclear energy. Right for Malaysia? (photo from keetsa.com)

And there is of course nuclear energy. Although nuclear is a non-renewable energy, its use to meet Malaysia’s energy demand must be considered. Nuclear energy suffers from a poor reputation, but its safety record is improving. Countries that derives their electricity from nuclear energy such as France, South Korea, Germany, and Japan shows that nuclear energy is a practical and safe solution as well as having very low carbon emission. Nonetheless, building nuclear power stations are very costly (nearly RM10 billion a station) and require lengthy period before these stations could go on-line (about a 10-year preparation).

Other than finding sustainable sources of energy, the Malaysian government is planning to improve energy efficiency and to promote awareness among the public on the importance of energy conservation.

In conclusion, Malaysia faces big challenges ahead to meet the country’s growing demand for energy using sustainable practices. Malaysia can succeed provided there is a concerted effort for increasing the: 1) implementation and management of sustainable energy sources, 2) energy efficiency, and 3) awareness by the Malaysian public on energy issues and a change of lifestyle that has a lower carbon footprint.




Bakun Dam: Hydroelectric, irrigation, and flood control, but at what price?

As defined by the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), a “large dam” is at least 15 m tall or must carry at least 3 million cubic meters of water. The controversial Bakun Dam, located at Balui River, about 200 km from Bintulu town in Sarawak, easily meets these criteria of a large dam.

Bakun Dam nears completion (photo from www.thestar.com.my)

Once completed, Bakun Dam would be 205 m tall, making it the second tallest dam in the world outside China. After nearly 15 years (which included several delays), the Bakun dam is expected to be completed by the end of 2010 with a cost overrun of nearly RM2 billion (about one-quarter more than the initial expected cost).

The Bakun Dam would generate 2,400 MW of electricity. Initially, it was planned that 70% of that generated electricity would be delivered to Peninsular (West) Malaysia and the rest to East Malaysia. However, according to the blog by Dato’ Sri Peter Chin Kah Fui, the Minister of Energy, Green Technology and Water, all of Bakun’s generated electricity would remain in Sarawak for the development of the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) to make Sarawak a developed state by 2020.

Large dams are a reflection of human vanity. They are icons of a country’s technological advancement, aspirations, and economic and scientific progress. For instance, India’s first Prime Mister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru viewed massive dams like Bhakra Dam in India as a symbol of “the nation’s will to march forward with strength, determination and courage”. Similarly, Egypt’s second President, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, saw the Aswan Dam as Egypt’s modern-day pyramid and a symbol of the nation’s defiance of Western powers.

Silenced rivers: The ecology and politics of large dams

The book “Silenced rivers: The ecology and politics of large dams” by Patrick McCully exposes the myths on the usefulness of large dams. River damming is done primarily for two purposes: 1) to increase the storage of water, such as for irrigation, and 2) to increase the hydraulic head; that is, to raise the difference in height between the reservoir surface and the river downstream. It is this hydraulic head that drives the water turbines to generate electricity. The higher the hydraulic head (or the higher one builds a dam), the more power or electricity one could potentially obtain.

Patrick McCully discusses at length the consequences of river dams, in particular of large dams. Among them are as follows:

  • Dams alter the biodiversity of the river and its surrounding habitat because of changes in the river flow volume and pattern, and water quality (such as water temperature, nutrient content, turbidity, dissolved gases, and concentration of minerals and heavy metals).
  • Dams are often built without a long term study on the impact of river damming on the environment. Additionally, those who carry out the environmental impacts are also not from independent bodies (with nothing to lose or gain if their assessment points to severe detrimental damage to the environment). Instead, those who carry out such environmental assessments are often only engineers with very little training in environmental studies. Consequently, large dams are typically built based on biased and excessively optimistic projections.
  • Cost overruns and long delays often occur in building large dams. Moreover, large dams often fail to deliver the promised amount of power in electricity, even years after dam completion. On average, as estimated by the World Bank, hydroelectric dams only provide about half their potential capability. The High Aswan Dam, for instance, could potentially provide about 18,500 GWh per year, but actual electricity generated was about 40% or 7,200 GWh per year. The Bakun Dam is projected to generate as much as 16,785 GWh per year or 80% of its potential, a figure considered to be unrealistically optimistic.
  • Large dams can cause earthquakes most possibly by the stored water exerting excessive pressure on the micro cracks and fissures in the ground under or near the reservoir. Reservoir operations from more than 70 dams in the world have been linked to earth tremors. In India, for example, five out of nine earthquakes in the 1980s were believed to have been induced by reservoirs. Recently, the Zipingpu Dam in China is believed to have caused the May 12, 2008 earthquake which killed about 80,000 people. Stored water as high as 100 m is sufficient to trigger earthquakes.
  • Large dams cause displacement of a large number of people, often indigenous people with little voice in the political arena. It is estimated that 30 to 60 million people (mostly those in China) have been displaced due to river dams. The Bakun Dam has resulted in the displacement of 15,000 people, mostly from the Kayan and Kenyah ethnic groups. Moreover, human resettlement often cause hardship after resettlement, with many of those displaced unable to find good or permanent jobs or them being unable to continue their agriculture or hunting activities as prior to their resettlement. The Bakun Dam population in the Sungai Asap Resettlement, for example, has dwindled rapidly because the displaced natives are unable to secure jobs after resettlement.

    Bakun Dam resettlers have difficulty obtaining jobs (photo from zulhaidah.com)

    Obviously unhappy over Bakun Dam (photo from borneonization.blogspot.com)

  • In contrast to popular belief, hydroelectric is not a green technology or a source of renewable energy. Although hydroelectric does not involve the burning of fossil fuel (source of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas), hydroelectric is instead a source of other greenhouses gases, primarily methane. Methane is about 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing global warming. When huge areas of forest are flooded, this water-logged condition increases the emission of methane gas from decaying vegetation. The warm, nutrient-rich, and severely oxygen-depleted water at the bottom of tropical river dams can create conditions for methane-producing bacteria which feed on decaying vegetations. Furthermore, studies from Brazil and Canada estimated that their hydroelectric dams can have an equal or even a larger impact on global warming than electricity generated from conventional coal-powered plants. However, depending on the conditions such as local climate and vegetation as well as the amount of area flooded and amount of water stored, hydroelectric dams may instead contribute to a lesser impact on global warming than coal- or gas-powered plants.

It is a myth that dams are an effective flood control. Although dams can help to minimize the risk of the periodic, normal floods, they can instead become the source for severe and extreme flooding damages. By confining the river to a straighter course, embankments increase the volume and speed of the river, which in turn increase its potential to cause larger damage downstream. Containing the river’s sediment load within its banks raises the river bed, which means embankments must be raised further to compensate for the higher river bed. Eventually, the river level will rise above the height of the surrounding plain, a recipe for a devastating damage of a flash-flood should the huge embankments break. The problem is hydroelectric dams suffer from two conflicting purposes: to generate electricity and to reduce flooding. The water level in hydroelectric dams are intentionally kept high to increase the power for electricity, but by keeping the water level high, this creates a greater risk of flood damage. To reduce flooding events, the water level in reservoir must be kept low, but this act reduces the power for electricity. So if you are a river dam operator, what would you do? The country needs electricity, so you keep the water level high.

Patrick McCully’s book is an excellent book about the myths, science, and consequences of large dams. Though this book was published in 1998 and updated in 2001, its message remains relevant even today.

Patrick McCully, author of Silenced Rivers

The Bakun Dam is a socially and environmentally destructive way to meet Malaysia’s growing energy needs. Greater economic growth and greater push for wealth require increasingly more energy to drive these aspirations. Presently, Malaysia is self-sufficient in energy, but this is expected to end by 2015 (only five years away). After that, Malaysia must import energy and scour her land and seas for further sources of energy. But traditional sources of energy (that is, fossil-based energy) are detrimental to our climate. At the moment, hydroeletric dams contribute 18% of Malaysia’s electricity needs.

Malaysia’s falling self-sufficiency levels in energy (International Energy Agency. 2010. Energy balances in non-OECD countries. 2010 edition. IEA, Paris.)

So if hydroelectric is a dirty word and if we want to divorce ourselves from it, with what could we replace hydroelectric for our electricity? More gas- and coal-powered plants? But those energies are dirty too. Furthermore, natural gas and oil are both running out in Malaysia. What about nuclear energy? Oh, that would be another contentious and much more heated issue than the Bakun Dam controversy. Biofuel? Even if Malaysia’s palm oil biofuel is shown, without a shadow of doubt, to be net carbon zero, there’s not enough of palm oil to be a major supplier of energy for the country. Wind energy? No, Malaysia experiences only low wind speeds. Our best bet for renewable energies are solar and geothermal power, with some contribution from biogas and biofuel (provided they are shown to environmentally friendly). And nuclear power should also not be ruled out.

Issues like Bakun Dam only highlight the energy challenges faced by Malaysia and the world today. Malaysia needs to find alternative and less destructive ways to meet the nation’s energy demands, and we must do our part too by understanding that we need to change our lifestyles to one with a lower carbon footprint.