Liberia Converting Old Rubber Trees to Electricity

Work begins this month on a new, environmentally-friendly power plant in Liberia that will use old rubber trees to generate electricity. It is part of a plan to make Liberia the world’s first sustainable biomass-driven economy.

Natural rubber has anchored the Liberian economy for more than 75 years. The huge Firestone plantation east of the capital, Monrovia, remains the world’s largest single natural rubber operation and was one of the first businesses to reopen after Liberia’s long civil war.

Its continued success is crucial to Liberia’s economic recovery. Now, the plantation’s eight million rubber trees may help fuel that recovery by producing low-cost electricity.

The firm Buchanan Renewable Energies is building a carbon-neutral power plant using woodchips from older rubber trees to generate 35 megawatts of electricity.

The Liberian Electric Company (LEC) will then sell that power to people in Monrovia for about half what they are paying now.

Buchanan Renewables President Joel Strickland says it is a low-cost, intermediate solution to Liberia’s energy needs, while repairs to the Mt. Coffee hydroelectric facility are at least five years away.

Workers break ground on the new power plant this month. Strickland says it will have the capacity to double the initial 35 megawatts of electricity, once the nation’s power grid is improved.

“The rubber chips are available. The biomass is here. The difficulty is the distribution is not there,” said Strickland. “So LEC, once they receive the power have to be able to deliver it to the consumer. So all the wires stringing the distribution needs to be done on a more rapid basis and faster so we can get out to the consumer.”

Using non-performing rubber trees as a source of power also helps rejuvenate rubber production by making room for new planting. If properly managed, clearing and replanting trees in a 30-year cycle creates both a renewable source of energy and maximum rubber production.

Liberia is also gaining from the export of woodchips to Europe, where they are used as either biomass for energy production or in the manufacture of fiber board.

Strickland says Liberia has shipped 30,000 tons of woodchips this year and will export another 30,000 tons before the end of the year. He expects to top that in 2010 with more than 200,000 tons of woodchip exports.

National Investment Commission Chairman Richard Tolbert says Buchanan Renewable’s $150-million investment demonstrates the strength of both Liberia’s commitment to renewable energy and its investment climate.

“So despite all of what is going on in the world — the global financial crisis — instead of investors pulling back, investors are continuing to come to us here in Liberia,” said Tolbert. “That is very tangible proof that we are doing the right thing.”

Strickland says the project will create more than 400 new jobs by the end of the year.

“As we expand, we will be creating jobs in Margibi. We will be creating jobs in Bong County where we are starting to operate, certainly Montserado with the power plant and the distribution,” added Strickland. “So our goal really as we go about is to have close relations with both the political authorities as well as civil society because that is where we are drawing our employees from.”

Beyond the hiring of its own employees, Buchanan Renewable’s generation of lower-cost electricity should lead to further job growth as small businesses will spend less on utilities.

Tolbert says employment is the key in a nation still recovering from conflict where the United Nations estimates formal sector unemployment at 80 percent.

“Business is coming. Investment is coming. And what does this mean? This means jobs, my friend. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. That is the key to the economic and security, long-term stability of this country,” said Tolbert. “That is all we are about, as far as I am concerned. Jobs even over revenue. We are trying to create jobs so everybody can make their own living as opposed to depending on the government for a hand-out.”

The Buchanan Renewable investment has already improved roads, bridges, and ports in Liberia. It says a portion of profits from the project will be given as grants to social program.

The company says its goal is to generate electricity from natural, non-edible, renewable and sustainable resources indigenous to West Africa with projects that focus on reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.  

Reprinted from Voice of America, a multimedia international broadcasting service funded by the U.S. government through the Broadcasting Board of Governors. VOA broadcasts more than 1,000 hours of news, information, educational, and cultural programming every week to an estimated worldwide audience of more than 115 million people.

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