Turning Beechnuts into Diesel

Rural villagers fuel the future

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The lowly beechnut may be the key to sustainable development in southern India—and beyond. As Rodney Palmer reports in Shift (Dec. 1999), villagers in the town of Suggenahalli are replacing expensive diesel fuel with beech and other homegrown tree nut oils to transform their local agricultural economy from impoverished to profitable.

A team of researchers from nearby Bangalore selected Suggenahalli as the first site for a government-sponsored program called Sustainable Transformation of Rural Areas (SUTRA), an effort to develop cheap, renewable energy sources for rural villages. Farmers in small towns like Suggenahalli rely on diesel generators to power the water pumps that help irrigate their fields, but many cannot afford diesel fuel and their crops suffer as a result. In Suggenahalli, residents had no access to water except during the one-month monsoon season. But one year after researchers pointed out the energy-producing qualities of the abundant beech tree nuts and helped design a refining process, the village fields prospered. “The fields are abloom with watermelon, the wells are full of water, and the debts are cleared,” Palmer writes.

Indeed, the biofuels experiment has been such a success in India that it may be replicated elsewhere.

“The tropical belt all the way around the planet will provide seeds to make oil that will run diesel engines,” says SUTRA senior consultant Narayana Rao Viswanath. “This is a much more reliable way to guarantee electricity than any government can provide.”