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Rethinking China’s bioenergy future

Gan Lin

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China is increasingly looking to bioenergy to meet the needs of its growing economy. But its energy strategy should not overlook the poor, says Gan Lin, who argues that small-scale biomass projects can bring great benefits to rural communities.

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China is currently in a phase of rapid industrialisation and integration into the world economy. But this has come at a high price, putting great strain on the environment through extensive use of fossil fuels and other natural resources. The difference in living standards between urban and rural areas – and between the east and west of the country – has also widened, and unemployment is rising fast. Many are concerned that China’s long-term prosperity could be harmed by increasing social inequality and conflicts resulting from environmental pressures and eco-system degradation. Unemployment is projected tohit 100 million by 2010, and most of these people will be in the poor western regions, where farmers are desperately trying to survive and seek better lives for their families. It is clear that China needs alternative solutions for its ailing agricultural sector, which some 900 million farmers depend on.

Agriculture in China has developed at a much slower pace than industry over the past two decades, which has led to increasing inequality between rural and urban residents. The majority of migrant workers in China’s cities come from rural areas for economic reasons:  low income from farming and land loss due to urban expansion and increased mechanisation of agricultural production. Sustainable rural development in China’s west is faced with major challenges: farmers still lag behind in income compared to residents of coastal regions; ecosystems are vulnerable; poverty is persistent; and the majority of farmers rely on agriculture residues, forest biomass or coal-burning for cooking and space heating, which can have severe health effects as a result of indoor air pollution. Above all, current reliance on the exploration of industrial raw materials and burning fossil fuels cannot make farmers rich, but instead pollutes their living environment, as well as damaging their land and their means of making a living.

The Chinese government has realised how urgently it needs an alternative solution. Under the banner of creating a “harmonious society”, the government is looking into new options for sustainable rural development, utilising resources more efficiently, prioritising new and renewable energy technologies with wider market applications. With its vast territory and diverse geographical regions, China has a large stock of biomass resources from agricultural and forest residues, as well as vast areas of wasteland that can be used for bioenergy development, such as small and decentralised electricity and heat generation, household applications and biofuels cultivation.

Bioenergy development has become a top government priority, and China’s law on renewable energy was implemented in January 2006. The current focus is on electricity generation from surplus agricultural residues, which are estimated at 200 million tonnes yearly. The government has set up a long-term target of 30 gigawatts of electricity generated from biomass by 2020, which will require billions of dollars in investment. There is also a growing interest in the development of biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol, intended to reduce oil imports, which currently account for more than 46% of China’s total oil supply – a major energy security concern for the government. This explains the Chinese government’s surprise announcement that it will import one million tonnes of ethanol each year from Brazil, a development that no doubt paves the way for new business opportunities in China and the rest of the world.

However, this strategy is being defined too narrowly, and poor and disadvantaged social groups are still being overlooked. While biomass-burning power plantscould help improve the quality of life for poor people living in remote areas without access to electricity, the current plan is to build dozens of demonstration biomass power plants in economically-developed regions, such as in eastern China’s Jiangsu province and Shandong province. Rural residents will only benefit from bioenergy development if it comes to where they live and takes their daily needs into account.

In some regions, farmers suffer from the severe health impacts of coal burning at home. Fluoride poisoning is a common health problem in Guizhou province, where some 19 million poor farmers are affected, mostly women, children and the elderly – often from minority ethnic groups. Most farmers also still use biomass for cooking and heating in the traditional way, especially in poor and remote regions, while farmers in richer coastal regions are shifting towards the use of commercial energies such as coal and natural gas. Traditional biomass burning wastes a lot of energy, since the efficiency rate of a typical family stove is around 5% to 8%. One rural family I spoke to in the Northwestern Yunnan Province use an average of 14 to 16 tonnes of firewood every year, causing real damage to natural forests. By contrast, modern biomass stoves can achieve 30% to 40% efficiency rates. The use of these stoves can therefore benefit the global environment, save on resources and increase revenues for rural enterprises.   

China needs to make a massive transition from traditional to modern uses of biomass as part of its strategy for sustainable rural development. This act of leapfrogging requires innovative policy support from the government. It can benefit farmers by improving their health and living conditions, reduce fossil fuel use, create jobs and generate income. Today, most of the country’s agricultural residues are burnt in the fields, causing air pollution and wasting resources. In addition to other environmental and social benefits, the same amount of investment in household biomass utilisation as in biomass power plants could generate five to 10 times more local jobs for rural residents and five to nine times more income for small companies.  

The Chinese government has so far paid scant attention to these issues, particularly on how to use biomass resources more efficiently. Strong policy incentives should be established to provide favourable conditions for investments from innovators and small enterprises involved in the social and technological transition towards sustainable rural development. These energy policies could also play a large role in mitigating climate change and moving China away from burning dirty coal.

Supporting household biomass use could ease the pressure on rapid urban development as rural communities start to improve in their living conditions. At the international level, bioenergy has become a dynamic force, with governments, industry, aid agencies and private investors all seeing China as a “land of opportunity” for investment. By integrating greenhouse-gas emissions reduction with the sustainable development of rural energy systems, China can set an example for other biomass-rich developing countries as they strive for the combined benefits of social development and environmental protection.


Dr. Gan Lin is a senior research fellow at CICERO (Center for International Climate and Environmental Research – Oslo).

Homepage photo by Shoebox

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Can small projects provide?

Although small-scale biomass projects are very valuable, and I'm sure very environmentally-friendly, can they really provide the kind of energy China needs for development?

Should they not, perhaps, be balanced with a number of larger biofuel projects which can help China maintain its economic growth?





Yes to biomass, probably no to biofuels

I agree with more efficient use of biomass in poorer areas as a way to save resources and increase income. It is also healthier for the farmers.

There is a 25MW power plant in Shandong Province that is now online and it runs on agricultural waste. That is a huge plant! A lot of power! I wonder how they can organize that much waste being delivered. Trucks must be coming in to deliver it 24 hours a day! In that case, is the amount of fuel and energy they're wasting getting the fuel to the power plant worth it? Biomass is better at a local scale. It has always been done at a local scale, the government should simply make it more efficient.

As for biofuels, I think we can go so much further with electric and hybrid cars, that will not rely on any fuel. How can we start this change now? Biofuels are simply just not that efficient in the grand scheme of things, I don't care whether its corn or sugar or cellulosic!



Is bioenergy really pollution free?

We only notice that the application of ecoenergy is environmental friendly, but its production is not really the same case.

It is unavoidable to use fertilizer and pesticide. The use of farm machinery will cause emissions.

When we take the whole process into consideration, the use of ethanol fuel is not so helpful as expected in emission cut.

Thus, when we try to promote biofuel, we need to have a long-term view to consider the development of the fuel.

We should be cautious when considering any related measures and avoid making any irrational decisions
under current high energy-demand situation.



One case

I went to visit a plant in Yueyang which is supposed to use waste from paper making to generate electricty. But actually, the plant is not yet in operation. Those in charge said the facilities were undergoing maintainance.

Everyday, tons of waste is transported to the plant. It was raining as well, so the waste gets wet.

Subsidies from the central government is expected to arrive soon to help the plant upgrade its facilities.

This plant used to use grain bran to generate power, but due to decreasing grain output, it now uses paper-making waste for power generation.

I hope the facilities could be fixed and also financial support from the central government could be delivered soon. Otherwise, the plant will be buried by piles of waste.





Biogas is the way forward

The article neglects to mention the possibilities of Biogas systems which are becoming more common in rural China, especially as many NGOs promote them, provide technical support and some subsidies (in fact the local governments also subsidise biogas).

Biogas is simple and cheap: just a tank to collect human and animal waste (need at least 2 or 3 animals though to generate enough waste) and then a pipe collects the methane given off and feeds it through to a gas stove in the kitchen, saving on buying and burning coal/wood.

Biogas also is a good way to burn off methane, turning it into less dangerous gases (dangerous in the sense of climate change); it is renewable, sustainable and cost efficient with a pay back time of 1-3 years for the inital investment.


中国地域辽阔、地理构成丰富多样,农林废弃物中蕴藏着大量的生物质资源储备。政府正在寻找能使农村可持续发展的新方案;可用于发展生物能源,例如小型和分散型热电联产、生物质家用化和生物燃料开发。更有效地利用资源,并优先考虑拥有广泛市场应用前景的新能源和可再生能源技术。目前我们正在努力实施,也就在不久一种小型热电联产装置涉及农村生物质能源进行发电制热的带动当地农民致富的项目即告成功。它利用当前农村已有的生物质(秸秆、棉杆等)气化设备产出的燃气输入到小型热电联产装置内使其燃烧加热,该装置就可以发出380伏15千瓦的交流电,可自用和集中发电并网,并利用排出的余热可制热及取暖,以及用于农村的塑料蔬菜大棚保温。是一种农村生物质再生资源高效利用的高技术项目,它不但使农民用户得到实惠,而且与发展农业项目相联系,适合当前中国新农村建设的需要,并迎合当前中国能源产业政策的需要。询问项目进度请联系我们[email protected]

Distributed rural biomass gas dedicated small cogeneration system

China is vast country with great geographical diversity, while agricultural and forestry waste is full of bio fuel possibilities. The government is seeking for new sustainable-developing plans for the rural areas: one of them is to develop biomass-derived resources, like small and distributed cogeneration of heat and electricity, domestic use of biomass, research on biofuels, giving priority to technologies dealing with new energy or renewable energy which also have a broad market prospects. Right now we are putting the plan into action and happy to tell that a project promoting a distributed rural biomass-gas-dedicated small cogeneration system, which also benefits the farmers, is close to success. The system uses materials that are already available such as straw, cotton stalks,etc-gasification equipment imports gas into a small thermal-electricity congenration equipment; burning of the gas generates alternating currents as much as of 380 volts 15,000 watts; The electricity could be used by farmers themselves or combined to a grid, while the rest of heat emission can be used for households or vegetable greenhouses. Technologies utilizing biomass-rich rural waste as such, not only benefit farmers, also help with construction of China's new rural and fitting in with China's current energy policies. To contact us for any further information on recent progress, please email to [email protected]


中国地域辽阔、地理构成丰富多样,农林废弃物中蕴藏着大量的生物质资源储备。政府正在寻找能使农村可持续发展的新方案;可用于发展生物能源,例如小型和分散型热电联产、生物质家用化和生物燃料开发。更有效地利用资源,并优先考虑拥有广泛市场应用前景的新能源和可再生能源技术。目前我们正在努力实施,也就在不久一种小型热电联产装置涉及农村生物质能源进行发电制热的带动当地农民致富的项目即告成功。它利用当前农村已有的生物质(秸秆、棉杆等)气化设备产出的燃气输入到小型热电联产装置内使其燃烧加热,该装置就可以发出380伏15千瓦的交流电,可自用和集中发电并网,并利用排出的余热可制热及取暖,以及用于农村的塑料蔬菜大棚保温。是一种农村生物质再生资源高效利用的高技术项目,它不但使农民用户得到实惠,而且与发展农业项目相联系,适合当前中国新农村建设的需要,并迎合当前中国能源产业政策的需要。询问项目进度请联系我们[email protected]

bio resources in the countryside

China has vast land area and geographical diversity, rural waste is full of bio fuel possibilities.

The government is seeking new plans for the rural areas; to develop bio resources, like small and fragmented production of heat and electricity, domestic use of bio materials, biofuels development. This makes more effective use of resources and technologies already available and that which enjoys excellent prospects. Right now we are putting into use a type of small thermal-electricity producer. This uses materials already available such as wheat stalks, cotton stalks--the gas is then fed into a small thermal-electricity contraption to heat it,out comes alternating currents electricity of 380 volts 15,000 watts,that farmers could use themselves or put onto a grid, the resulting heat can be used for households or vegetable greenhouses. This sort of technology makes excellent use of rural waste,it's not just practical and useful for farmer users, it meets the needs of building China's new countryside and fits in with China's energy policies. Email us to enquire about progress -- [email protected]


请与我联系:[email protected] 我姓张

Bats in the belfry

This comment is quite crazy. Will China’s government really allow farmers to go online by using the balance of electricity? Moreover, it is a question of distribution style. Besides, farmers are poor, could they afford generators? Please contact me:[email protected] My surname is Chang



Electricity and heat generation with biogas

The actual electricity generation does not require tall production room, expensive equipment, complicated maintenances.




Generating electricity must be different to internal combustion engine, steam turbines or gas turbines: a revolutionary way to produce electricity that is more sophisticated than any other technology in the world.

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