Setting fire to outdated thinking on biomass energy

Energy shortages and rising fuel costs are nothing new to the poor in developing countries where 1.6 billion people lack access to electricity and 2.4 billion use biomass as their primary cooking and heating fuels. What is new, is the idea that renewable biomass energy itself could enable developing countries to fight poverty and climate change, create jobs and gain energy independence.

Duncan Macqueen's picture
Blog by
11 April 2011

Energy shortages and rising fuel costs are nothing new to the poor in developing countries where 1.6 billion people lack access to electricity and 2.4 billion use biomass as their primary cooking and heating fuels. What is new, is the idea that renewable biomass energy itself could enable developing countries to fight poverty and climate change, create jobs and gain energy independence.

The need to adopt a more sophisticated approach to biomass energy is the central argument of a new IIED report ‘Bundles of energy’. The report highlights International Energy Agency predictions that the percentage of biomass energy in the total global energy mix is likely to rise from 10 to 30% by 2050.

Developed nations are already investing hand over fist in new wood pellet domestic heating systems (which are, for example, installed in 80% of all new homes in Austria). They are also investing in biomass gasification systems that drive turbines to make electricity (with 7Gw of new biomass-to-electricity power stations receiving preliminary planning permission in the United Kingdom alone).

And developing countries are disproportionately dependent on biomass energy: about a quarter of all their energy comes from wood, charcoal, agricultural and forest residues and domestic or municipal waste – and the figure is much higher in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Once viewed as a problem, in this UN International Year of Forests we celebrate it as an opportunity. Biomass resources can be managed sustainably or established anew in locally controlled agro-ecological landscapes that not only balance supply with demand (so as to make an indefinitely renewable energy system), but which are also sensitive to local needs for food and fibre production, and maybe even enhance such production.

Getting serious about the sustainability of existing biomass supply chains such as charcoal and fuel wood is a crucial first step because only when supply is sustainable will it be possible to attract investment into more advanced options such as biomass-to-electricity.

Why go the sophisticated biomass route?

1. Energy security: with global energy in short supply, energy that is locally accessible in even the poorest nations and communities makes a lot of sense.

2. Carbon emissions: with growing concerns about — and funds to tackle — climate change, why not foster locally produced biomass energy that is low carbon over its full life cycle? Provided, of course that supplies come from sustainable sources with minimal upfront emissions from harvesting and transport; and biomass is burnt efficiently to reduce products of incomplete combustion (PICs) that add to the greenhouse effect and local health problems.

3. Flexible production: the advantages of using efficient wood stoves for cooking and heat are well known, but in future investment can also pave the way to more advanced options such as liquid and gaseous fuels and electricity.

4. Reduced poverty: biomass energy creates more jobs per unit energy produced than other energy types, and the production processes are particularly amenable to incluing the poor.

5. Integrated landscapes: biomass energy can, but does not need to be produced in food-displacing monocultures — it can be integrated into existing farming systems in ways that enhance a balanced production of food, fibre and fuel.

What might a sophisticated approach to biomass look like?

It would start by collecting accurate data on existing biomass supply and demand — and building biomass energy projections into strategies for national energy security and climate change mitigation and adaptation.

It would develop clear institutional oversight with policy mandates and incentives for biomass supply and for research and development of new biomass energy technologies.

And it would emphasise locally controlled forestry and agriculture that balances needs for food, fibre and fuel within biodiverse, and therefore climate-resilient, agro-ecologies.
 

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