Powering the World, One Tofu Block at a Time

Tofu wastewater emerges as a viable source of renewable energy in Kalisari. Will it alleviate Indonesia's environmental problem?

Indonesia Makes an Environmental Commitment

Consisting of over 17,000 islands[1] and ranked as the fourth most populous country in the world[2], Indonesia is highly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change. As part of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, the Indonesian government pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 29% from 2030 projected levels[3] and wants to derive a quarter of the country’s energy from renewables by 2025[4].

The Potential of Tofu

A driver of greenhouse gas emissions and wastewater, Indonesia’s tofu industry has the potential to shake things up. The industry consists of 84,000 small and medium-sized enterprises, many of which are family-run businesses, clustered around the country[5]. To produce tofu, soybeans are soaked, grinded, filtered, and then added to a chemical coagulant[6]. Producing 80 kilograms of tofu requires 60 kilograms of soybeans and 2.7 liters of water[7]. In addition to using significant amounts of water, the tofu production process creates wastewater, a serious environmental pollutant[8] that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions in addition to water and soil pollution[9]. In the case of the 80 kilograms of tofu, 2.6 liters of wastewater are produced[10]. Luckily, scientists have found that tofu wastewater can be fermented to produce biohydrogen[11], leading to two environmental benefits: creating an effective source of renewable fuel and reducing wastewater.

Tofu Lovers Unite

This recent discovery has revolutionized Kalisari village, home to around 150 small tofu businesses[12]. In a collaboration between the tofu businesses and Indonesia’s Agency for the Assessment of Application of Technology, tofu wastewater from the businesses has been diverted to installed biodigesters, which then supply energy to household collectives to power stoves and cookers for a fixed fee[13]. Kalisari I, the first biodigester, took wastewater from 13 businesses and supplied cooking energy to 27 households[14]. Kalisari II took wastewater from seven businesses and supplied energy to 18 households[15].

Prior to the project, households relied on liquefied petroleum gas, and consumed around three tanks a week[16].  These tanks were often in short supply because of delayed deliveries due to poor logistics and road infrastructure, and three times more expensive then unlimited biogas[17]. Kalisari’s tofu-powered solution has garnered the nation’s attention.

Biodigesters in Kalisari. Photo credit: Adek Berry (AFP)
Biodigesters in Kalisari

What’s Next?

Should tofu-produced biogas gain popularity across Indonesia, the government estimates that fossil fuel consumption could be reduced by more than 56,000 tons[18]. To do so, the tofu industry and other stakeholders have more work to do:

Standardize the process: The innovation of tofu wastewater as clean fuel is promising, but as tofu businesses work with biogas cooperatives and provide fuel for households, there are risks of inefficient implementation. There should be more planning to determine how the biodigesters are geographically distributed, how much capacity each can handle, how many tofu businesses provide wastewater to each one, what the demand is for each area, how many households are in the collective, and who oversees the management of the biodigester network. In addition, decisions regarding how the distribution is run and how costs—including management and repair costs, as well as any additional costs to tofu businesses—will be distributed should be uniform to prevent exploitation.

Popularize the process: The success of Kalisari has gained the attention of local government officials across Indonesia, many of whom are looking to implement similar programs in their villages. Because biogas is significantly more efficient than liquefied petroleum gas, the tofu industry and government should focus on converting households. In addition, new customers should be brought in—such as businesses, commercial enterprises, and developers—all of whom could benefit from reduced energy costs and contribute to the Indonesian government’s greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. Additional research should be conducted to further the potential of tofu-generated biogas by having it power electricity and other household and business needs.

Find international stakeholders: International non-profits such as the Dutch organization Hivos have noted the success of Kalisari’s program[19]. Hivos, the Indonesian Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, and the SNV Netherlands Development Organization have already been collaborating in the biogas space and have created dairy cooperatives that convert animal dung into biogas and organic fertilizer[20]. Hivos has also been effective in finding private sector sponsors. For example, Nestlé provides dairy farmers with interest-free revolving funds for biogas digesters and construction companies have provided biogas appliances[21]. International organizations such as the World Bank have financed biogas projects in many countries including Kenya, the Philippines, and Nepal[22]. Having international donors would ensure that biodigesters are made available in impoverished areas and not run by purely profit-driven private investors seeking to benefit from Indonesia’s energy need.

(797 words)

[1] National Geographic, “Indonesia Facts,” http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/countries/indonesia-facts/, accessed November 2016.

[2] Worldometers, “Indonesia Population,” http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/indonesia-population/, accessed November 2016.

[3] Republic of Indonesia, “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution,” September 24, 2015, http://www4.unfccc.int/submissions/INDC/Published%20Documents/Indonesia/1/INDC_REPUBLIC%20OF%20INDONESIA.pdf, accessed November 2016.

[4] Perry, Nick. “Humble Tofu Powering Indonesian Homes with Clean Energy,” Phys.org, May 13, 2016. http://phys.org/news/2016-05-humble-tofu-powering-indonesian-homes.html, accessed November 2016.

[5] “Tofu Production: A Massive Opportunity for RE Biogas in Indonesia,” REEEP, May 18, 2012, http://www.reeep.org/news/tofu-production-massive-opportunity-re-biogas-indonesia, accessed November 2016.

[6] Hrala, Josh. “Tofu is Providing Clean Energy to Residents in Indonesia.” Science Alert, May 14, 2016.   http://www.sciencealert.com/tofu-is-providing-clean-energy-to-residents-in-indonesia, accessed November 2016.

[7] Lay, Chyi-How et. al. “Sustainable Bioenergy Production from Tofu-Processing Wastewater by Anaerobic Hydrogen Fermentation for Onsite Energy Recovery,” Renewable Energy 58 (2013): 60, SciVerse ScienceDirect via Elsevier, accessed November 2016.

[8] Ibid., p. 60.

[9] REEEP, “Tofu Production: A Massive Opportunity for RE Biogas in Indonesia.”

[10] Lay, Chyi-How, Renewable Energy, p. 60

[11] Ibid., p. 60.

[12] “Indonesian Village Powered by Clean Energy through Tofu,” May 13, 2016, Agence France-Presse,  http://www.rappler.com/world/regions/asia-pacific/indonesia/english/132944-clean-energy-tofu-kalisari, accessed November 2016.

[13] “Indonesian Tofu Industry: Generating Biogas and Building Community,” REEEP, February 1, 2013, http://www.reeep.org/news/indonesian-tofu-industry-generating-biogas-and-building-community, accessed November 2016.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Humble Tofu Powering Indonesian Homes with Clean Energy,” Channel NewsAsia, May 13, 2016, http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/humble-tofu-powering/2781898.html, accessed November 2016.

[17] Ibid.

[18] REEEP, “Tofu Production: A Massive Opportunity for RE Biogas in Indonesia.”

[19] Channel NewsAsia, “Humble Tofu Powering Indonesian Homes with Clean Energy.”

[20] Hivos People Unlimited, “Indonesia Domestic Biogas Programme,” https://www.hivos.org/activity/indonesia-domestic-biogas-programme, accessed November 2016.

[21] Ibid.

[22] The World Bank, “Projects & Operations,” http://www.projects.worldbank.org/search?lang=en&searchTerm=biogas, accessed November 2016.

Photo credits: Adek Berry (AFP)

6 thoughts on “Powering the World, One Tofu Block at a Time

  1. Joanna – great post! It seems that, given the highly disaggregated nature of tofu manufacturing (84K producers), a major fuel producer can step in to provide the nation-wide infrastructure required to take this to the next step. I agree that it looks highly promising in terms of providing an alternative fuel source with the bonus of being produced from an existing waste product. It will be great to track this and see where the movement goes in the next couple years!

  2. Joanna,

    Really interesting post. Who would have known that tofu waste-water could be used an alternative source of energy? Thanks for writing about something which most of us probably weren’t aware of!

    A couple questions the post left me contemplating:

    1) How much energy can this waste-water provide relative to the actual energy demand in Indonesia. In other words, how does the possible reduction of 56K tons of fossil fuel consumption compare to the demand in Indonesia? Is this more likely to be a niche solution or a mass-market alternative energy source?

    2) Your standardization suggestions make a lot of sense. Just curious what the current process is now for implementation? Is it entirely haphazard, or is there some process already in place?

    3) Are there other parts of the world where this could be a viable solution, beyond just Indonesia? What are some other countries that are large tofu producers and that might also benefit from this alternative source of energy?

    Overall, nicely done, and thanks for bringing this issue to everyone’s attention!

  3. Thank you for the introduction to this topic, Joanna! I had no idea that the tofu production process created such a serious environmental pollutant as a byproduct. It is great to hear that scientists have made lemonade from tofu’s lemons: creating renewable fuel and reducing the pollutant byproduct that contributes to greenhouse gas emissions as well as pollution.

    I would be interested to understand whether the scientific process that the scientists who discovered the alternative fuel that could be derived from tofu wastewater can also be applied to other products/industries. Do you think that an additional benefit of popularizing the process and/or finding international stakeholders could also move scientists to seek out applicability in other products/industries?

  4. As an individual who consumes relatively large volumes of tofu, I’d be curious to hear about whether American tofu producers are utilizing the same techniques. While it’s heartening to hear that regional producers are implementing these changes, I’d be curious to know if large-scale tofu production facilities have adopted the same best practices. I’m also interested in understanding more about why international organizations like Nestle are investing – are these strategies Nestle is already implementing in their own plants, or techniques that are considered limited to “emerging markets”?

  5. Your blog title totally drew me in! I found this post very refreshing because it’s something I just never would have imagined. I know that sometimes, people use the wastewater from foods while cooking, but I had never considered this to be a possible solution to the climate change crisis. Now I’m wondering how these scientists even came up with this revolutionary idea. Your post seems to center around Indonesia and its tofu industry, and I’d be interested to know if other geographic regions or countries have followed Indonesia’s footsteps.

  6. This is so interesting! And something I would have perhaps never otherwise discover. I wonder where you see the biggest challenge for the use of tofu waste water in this way.

    You write that we must standardize the process: You mention that there could be inefficient implementation – which is natural in the start of any shift such as this. I agree with you that there should be more planning to determine how the biodigesters are geographically distributed and further thought ought to be given to their capacity, and the demand – my concern is largely with exploitation and how to ensure that the tofu industry as it stands does not suffer as a result of this.

    In terms of making the process more popular, it is great it has caught in Indonesia – and your point that the focus should be on converting households is spot on. But this might be a slower way to growth than if you focus on converting restaurants/businesses who heavily use tofu and have much more waste as a result.

    You want to find international stakeholders – but I think we could also focus on driving international consumers of tofu in the same direction that Indonesia has taken along with getting stakeholders.

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