Tag Archives: biomass

Why Isn’t There Greater Adoption of Biogas Technologies in Sub-Saharan Africa?

There are issues surrounding the lack of willingness to finance biodigester projects at all scales in many SSA countries particularly at the household level, lack of financial arrangements for poorer households where technology is most viable, prevailing climatic conditions beneficial but socio-economic conditions (particularly availability of feedstock and financial capacity of rural users) can be problematic.

Household-scale biodigesters can be an effective solution to providing thermal energy services to rural poor communities in the developing world. However, successful examples of biodigester programs in the past at a government or development-agency scale have mostly been confined to China, India and South-East Asia more widely. Notably, there has been a distinct lack of experience of successful biogas projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. The STEPs research project aims to address some of the reasons behind this, and propose potential solutions.

In theory, the prevailing conditions in Sub-Saharan African countries are mostly beneficial for the introduction of biogas digesters. Climatic conditions, on the whole, are suitably warm, with minimal cold periods to impact digester efficiency. In addition, target users are in abundance in rural areas, if considering the local feedstock regime. Small cattle farming is prevalent in a number of SSA countries, and subsistence farmers in rural areas often keep a small head of cattle. Given also the distributed nature of rural populations in a number of SSA countries (particularly, for example, in Eastern South Africa), household-scale biodigesters are an excellent solution for providing thermal energy services to households.

Sovacool Kryman & Smith 2015

Potential uses for biogas and waste products. Sovacool, Kryman & Smith (2015) Scaling and commercializing mobile biogas systems in Kenya: A qualitative pilot study. Renewable Energy, Vol. 75, pp 115-125, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.renene.2014.10.070

However, the lack of successful experience of biogas dissemination programs or businesses can be attributed to a number of factors, first and foremost of which is the cost of biodigesters (ranging from US$30 for a rudimentary drum-type system to over US$700 for a larger household system) [1] [2], and the lack of credit facilities/service regimes to enable access to the technology for the poorest consumers. Biodigester technology still represents a significant upfront cost to a typical rural household, and micro-credit services for clean energy technologies are still in their infancy in SSA countries, with some successful experiences in countries like Kenya or South Africa for solar home lighting or electricity systems in Kenya for example, but little widespread knowledge.

This lack of end-user credit is mirrored in a general lack of energy service companies or institutions offering biodigester services, with the cost issue again a driving factor behind this. Given how critical the maintenance factor is in biodigester installations (an issue which will be explored in the next blog), this lack of service companies, integrating credit or fee-for-service business models with a maintenance and servicing regime, has hampered uptake significantly in the region. The final negative factor is in fact the converse of an advantage: whilst some households will have suitable feedstock availability, compared to average heads of livestock or agricultural waste availability in South-East Asia, SSA has a much lower proportion of households with viable feedstock availabilities. Targeting consumers and areas where feedstock regimes are good is a critical step in ensuring the success of programs or business around biogas digesters in SSA.[2]

The next post in this series will investigate maintenance of biodigesters, and the necessity of maintenance and service arrangements with end-users to ensure efficient and successful operation of biodigesters.

– Xavier Lemaire & Daniel Kerr, UCL Energy Institute

[1] Hojnacki et al, MIT (2011) Biodigester Global Case Studies. Available at: https://colab.mit.edu/sites/default/files/D_Lab_Waste_Biodigester_Case_Studies_Report.pdf

[2] Raha, Mahanta and Clarke (2014) The implementation of decentralised biogas plants in Assam, NE India: The impact and effectiveness of the National Biogas and Manure Management Programme. Energy Policy, Vol. 68, pp. 80-91


The Woman and Child in Bondo and Modern Thermal Energy Access

She was weak and frail, with her baby on her back and a large and unusually long log of wood on her head. You could sense that she was struggling to move under the weight of the log on her head and the baby on her back, but perhaps the promise of the large firewood and promise of less trips to gather wood egged her on. The water channel on her path was shallow but the fall was very steep, probably 40 m or more, she would have crossed the channel quite easily without the load. She jumped across, didn’t make it, slipped but fortunately held on to the brickwork and then pulled herself and her baby out and moved on. I had my heart in my mouth for a few seconds and was greatly relieved that she and her baby was safe. The women with her baby (see picture) could have easily slipped and dropped 40 m down with grave consequences.

This is a scene I witnessed two weeks ago at Bondo in Southern Malawi –one of African countries where over 90% of the population lack energy access. Several millions of women in Sub-saharan Africa and South Asia make such risky trips every day to gather firewood, twigs and shrubs for household thermal energy use, often putting themselves at physical risk. Such trips often expose these women to rough terrain, natural elements and attacks from animals and sometimes fellow humans.  Most of these women then cook food or boil water using inefficient traditional stoves or keep the fire burning through the night to keep themselves warm or wild animals away. These traditional thermal energy use results in major indoor air pollution which slowly kills them and their children through lower respiratory diseases. So women are exposed to health risks during the collection and use of traditional biomass for thermal energy.

Against this backdrop, last week, I was pleased to learn from the launch of the decade of SE4All from New York that the first two years of the decade will be dedicated to ‘Energy-Women-Children-Health’ nexus. This is a very welcome development and I applaud the SE4All leadership and partners for the attention to this space. However to be able to effectively address health related challenges of women and children in areas without energy access, electrification alone is not sufficient and providing modern and thermal energy to rural women is central to this issue. Providing modern thermal energy needs to go beyond a product delivery approach which often focuses only on efficient cook-stoves. While energy for cooking is important, hot water for sanitation and space heating are also quite important. While biomass – solid and liquid fuels, electricity and solar thermal could all play a role, Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) can also play a supplementary role. The business of providing thermal energy as a service is likely to a low-return, long-term business and may need to be combined with electricity or agro businesses to increase viability. There are also important roles that public sector, private sector, Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) and the international community should play. Solutions will need to go beyond technology to address, financing, supply chain, institutional arrangements as well as policy and regulations. So all of us need to chip at this problem from all possible angles and the attention and support in this space in the next two years due to SE4All is very welcome.

As for the anonymous woman and her child, Peter Killick of Mulanje Energy Generation Agency, the micro-grid electricity service provider for Bondo who witnessed the scene with me, kindly offered to put a footbridge across the channel. While I am relieved that her future journeys to gather fuel will be safer, I hope to be back in Bondo in the future to see that she has access to cleaner energy technologies and fuel supply at her doorstep.

Dr. Binu Parthan, SEA

The Woman and the Child at Bondo

The Woman and Child in Bondo. Credit: Sustainable Energy Associates

Side-Stepping the Energy Ladder

For decades now there has been talk of a hierarchy of energy use or ‘ladder’ which defined levels of development as well personal aspirations. Occupying the bottom of this ladder were primary fuels such as biomass, dung, etc. Moving towards the middle we had kerosene and LPG which were considered ‘modern fuels’ because of their comparative convenience as well as fairly sophisticated refining process associated with hydro-carbon fuels. And of course, at the top of the ladder was electricity, the most versatile and modern energy source of them all.

There have been many articles published about the energy ladder, some supportive of its clear albeit simplistic representation of how households progress in terms of fuel use while others have been more critical altogether of its rigidity and inability to accommodate variables such as culture,  differing socio-economic and geographic contexts. How this is playing out in South Africa today is quite interesting. Looking at South Africa’s energy policy, it is highly orientated towards developing the ‘top of the ladder’ options. Policy and regulations abound when it comes to nuclear, coal, large scale renewable, LPG gas, etc. But there is little regulatory interest when it comes to wood. Perhaps its posturing (Africa’s largest and most sophisticated economy requires nuclear not biomass regulations) or perhaps that’s the reality (the energy service activities are at the top of the ladder).

Despite this there are a number of inconsistencies emerging;

  • Electricity is becoming increasingly expensive (above inflation increases for over 5 years already with about the same to come) so many poorer households are having to ‘back-switch’ to LPG and paraffin.
  • Many middle class households that have been electrified for decades are opting to cook on LPG gas (on stainless steel hobs for sure) and heat their houses in winter using wood (up-market fireplaces).
  • Millions of households still cook with wood although they have access to electricity. The energy source is simply uneconomic to support the full range of thermal services households require.
  • High oil prices (think kerosene and LPG) and increasing electricity prices are putting strain on the ability of people to use fuels which they have access to. Access and utilisation have become two different issues
  • Political promises which have for decades reinforced the energy ladder now cannot be met as lower-income households cannot afford to utilise these fuels for all services required.
  • Department of Rural Development and Land Affairs has put out a tender for improved cookstoves, a technology that has never appealed to the Department of Energy because of the ‘poverty’ stigma associated with wood. Or, “people did not struggle [against Apartheid] to use wood” the former Minister of Energy [Dipuo Peters] once said to this blogger [African Minister’s Meeting, Sandton Convention Centre, Johannesburg, 17th September 2011].

Without significant subsidies, the lower-income households will find ascending the so called energy ladder increasingly difficult to achieve. The progressive notion of the ladder had much to do with the assumption that it was simply a matter of time before households, given broader economic growth, would progress up the ladder. However such economic growth hasn’t quite materialised and the associated costs of using these fuels has become increasingly exorbitant. Perhaps the middle-class should be used to assist in de-stigmatising the use of biomass fuels and the like which will at least assist in addressing some of the indignity associated with being trapped at the ‘bottom of the ladder’. Third generation improved cookstoves instead of open fires should go a long way in terms of doing just that.

– Robert Aitken, Restio Energy

Clean Cookstoves and Entrepreneurship in Kenya

Daniel Kerr from UCL reports on recent partnerships for clean cookstoves in Kenya.

A number of international organisations are realising the benefits of cleaner methods of cooking in developing countries. In particular, the Global Village Energy Partnership (GVEP) are continuing to make progress in providing clean cookstoves and cleaner cooking fuels in Africa, through an ongoing partnership with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC). A recent conference in Nairobi, the National Stoves and Fuel Conference, was co-hosted by the GACC and the Clean Cooking Association of Kenya, where GVEP was able to highlight the progress made under the Spark Fund Program, an initiative from the GACC under which GVEP was awarded US$375,000 in July 2013.

Under the Spark Fund Program, GVEP is working with local producers of clean cookstoves in the Central and Kisumu areas of Kenya to develop new stove designs with improved performance, particularly in terms of thermal efficiency and emissions reduction. Partnerships with local testing centres and universities are also in place to quantify these reductions and efficiency gains, with the aim of optimising designs whilst maintaining local manufacturing ability.

The Spark Fund Program is an effort to address the research and development gap often seen in micro-enterprise, due to the lack of funding and expertise. Engaging micro-enterprises in the development of new cookstove products is seen as a key step to further developing the clean cooking market in Kenya. As explained by Laura Clough, a technical specialist at GVEP: “As the sector looks towards developing new standards for improved cookstoves and making them cleaner and more efficient, it is important that local enterprises are able to participate fully in this process”.

Entrepreneurship and market development are both relevant to the STEPs project. Through the establishment of public-private partnerships with private organisations and entrepreneurs, and the development of market mechanisms and a market-oriented approach to program development, a faster pace of model penetration and a more sustainable, cross-applicable model will be developed.

– Daniel Kerr, UCL Energy Institute

More information on the National Stoves and Fuel Conference and GVEP’s participation can be found here: http://www.gvepinternational.org/en/business/news/gvep-called-showcased-its-work-cookstoves-international-conference-kenya

Global Village Energy Partnership on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/gvepintl?fref=ts

GVEP Home: http://www.gvepinternational.org/

Is LPG Part of the Problem or Solution?

Dr. Binu Parthan of SEA discusses the role LPG can play in household energy provision in developing countries:

When I discuss the use of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) as one of the technology options for cooking and heating at the household level in developing countries, it is often met with resistance. I have been challenged on the increased greenhouse gas emissions from introducing LPG into a biomass baseline, on introducing dependency on fuel supplies to areas which are self-sufficient and also introducing the dangers of market and price fluctuations to households with limited incomes.  All of these are valid concerns and should be addressed through the approaches.

I would like to view the indoor-air pollution in the developing country households as a health problem as well as an energy problem. Indoor air pollution from inefficient biomass burning results in pre-mature deaths of 2 million people in developing countries every year. Most of the rural areas I have been to, availability of biomass resources are decreasing and increasingly households have to purchase biomass at fluctuating market prices. In countries with space heating needs in winter such as Lesotho, the expenditure on solid fuels is significantly higher than what is spent by households on kerosene for lighting. So developing country households are already spending considerable share of their incomes on biomass purchases at market prices.

Now regarding increased emissions, if your baseline is biomass which is sourced from non-sustainable forests or woodland (as is often the case) the decrease in carbon stocks as a result of deforestation may offset most or part of the increased emissions from LPG use. Over the years I have seen a number of cookstoves and space heaters from solar cookers to, electric induction cookers efficient biomass stoves which should be all be promoted strongly But I believe LPG should also be part of the menu of options primarily However we should also work on regulatory frameworks for LPG to regulate pricing, have safety standards for stoves and require gas companies to retail small canisters to increase access by poorer households.

So I would encourage a healthier and cleaner thermal energy alternative for developing country households which are technology-neutral. The choice of which technology and fuel to use should be left to the households and users to decide.

– Binu Parthan, SEA

CIMG0262A traditional cook stove in Lesotho. Image: Sustainable Energy Associates

Thermal Energy Challenges in Rural Lesotho and an Opportunity to Leap to Modern Energy

Dr. Binu Parthan of SEA offers his thoughts on the thermal energy situation in rural Lesotho:

Lesotho is a land-locked country of over 30,000 km2 land area located in in southern Africa. The country with a population of over 2 million is one of the least developed countries with a low Human Development Index of 0.45 placing the country at 160 out of 185. Lesotho consists of highlands with altitudes ranging from 1400 m to 3400 m above sea level and is often called as the Roof of Africa. The country remains cooler than the surrounding region with average temperatures of 20⁰C in summer and -2⁰C in winter. Sesotho people live in traditional Rondavels and need energy for cooking and heating with 61% of the population however depends on solid fuels – firewood, shrubs, animal dung-cakes and crop residues for their thermal energy needs. In rural areas where 83% of households are located the dependence on solid fuels is significantly higher at 80%.  The modern sources available for cooking and space heating are LPG, Kerosene and Electricity the use of which is mainly confined to urban areas. The traditional and inefficient use of solid biomass fuels and the resultant indoor air pollution is also affecting the health of more than 1.6 million of the Sesotho with 200 annual deaths due to indoor-air pollution.

I had been working over the past year supporting UNDP and the Ministry of Energy Meteorology and Water Affaires (MEMWA) to scope and develop a new programme Lesotho Energy Alternatives Programme (LEAP) which will address electrical and thermal energy needs of the village in the country. The LEAP programme when implemented will establish Public-Private-Partnerships (PPP) managed by private operators in rural areas providing electrical and thermal energy to households. The village energy service providers will use a range of technologies -LPG cookstoves, efficient biomass cookstoves, LPG room heaters, efficient biomass heaters etc. through an energy service arrangement.  While the energy service arrangement for electricity is clearer, possible arrangements for thermal energy needs to be developed further. The LEAP upcoming programme in Lesotho provides a good opportunity for the STEPs project team to collaborate and support the piloting of models for thermal energy services delivery.

– Binu Parthan, SEA

CIMG0624A Sesotho woman, next to her Rondavel, her new LPG canister and old biomass stove. Image: Sustainable Energy Associates.