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Blog Post
28 June 2014

Bioenergy and Climate-compatible Rural Development

Photo by CSRIO via Wikimedia.

Sugarcane plantation.

Photo by CSRIO via Wikimedia.

The workshop“How can Bioenergy benefit Rural Development in Tropical Countries?” took place during the recent World Bioenergy Conference (WBC) on 3-5 June in Jönköping, Sweden.

The speakers addressed existing projects at both pilot and commercial scale in three different regions of Africa (East, West and Southern) and covered both agricultural and woody biomass sources. The workshop was timely in that there has been a flurry of interest in bioenergy investment in Africa in recent years that has galvanized responses from both proponents and critics. The session was chaired by Benard Muok (ACTS, Kenya) and Pär Oscarsson (African Opportunities, Sweden). The speakers also included Luca Soppelsa (Everest Energy, Netherlands), Harry Stokes (Project Gaia, USA) and Jörgen Sandström (Addax Bioenergy, Sierra Leone).

Mr. Stokes was last year’s recipient of the World Bioenergy Award and Mr. Sandström was this year’s recipient, thus underlining the development focus that has characterized the WBC in recent years. Both work in developing countries and by some coincidence, both their organizations have had some particular focus on bioethanol. Project Gaia has promoted bioethanol for household cooking while Addax Bioenergy is now producing ethanol at commercial scale in Sierra Leone for export, a unique initiative in a number of ways. Everest Energy is working to promote sustainable charcoal production in Mozambique. The African Centre for Technology (ACTS) promotes science, technology and innovation in support of development. African Opportunities provides analysis and advice on agricultural and forest management and bioenergy investments in Africa. The organizations have a common interest in climate-friendly development pathways through modern bioenergy.

In theory, modern bioenergy offers a quadruple win in rural areas – it reduces the health impacts of traditional biomass, reduces GHG emissions through sustainable harvesting, creates new markets and livelihoods and offers a domestic resource that can expand energy access and improve energy security. In practice, the site-specific nature of bioenergy systems must be recognised as well as the general principles for coordinating supply and demand side during development of new markets. One would like to have some general rules to go by when considering modern bioenergy investments but such rules are elusive since biomass is a highly heterogeneous source of energy unlike many of the other classes of energy resources. Since this session focused especially on the rural context in Africa, a few general points can be made that relate to the projects and ideas in the workshop.

First, experimentation with new conversion technologies and new implementation platforms is difficult in the African context due to infrastructure constraints, human capacity and weak institutional structures. An ambitious project with fantastic social and environmental benefits is worth nothing if it proves to be economically unsustainable in the local context where it is implemented, and in fact can bring negative results due to the expectations created and sunk investments that may be lost. A proven model, such as is the case with Addax sugarcane project, therefore has many advantages. There is long experience in many African countries with sugarcane from which technical expertise has been drawn, while the technological platforms for ethanol and cogeneration are quite mature by global standards. New platforms such as the production of torrefied biomass, pose risks in terms of operation and spare parts, as well as the difficulties of establishing an entirely new supply chain, since it differs from charcoal and its value as an energy commodity will take time to establish. Of course the environmental benefits are quite significant and charcoal production is a serious issue to which relatively little attention is paid in the global energy/climate community; it is just a question of whether and how the approach can reach economic and financial sustainability.

A second issue is the question of finding the right scale to match local demand but also to be economically viable on the supply side. Although bioenergy systems are characterised by a wide variety of economies of scale, some commodities such as ethanol do benefit from significant scale economies as demonstrated in Brazil. Micro-distilleries such as those promoted by Gaia will have a high unit cost and thus the economic sustainability depends on end-users being willing to switch from their current fuels, which are normally fuelwood and charcoal. Yet it has proven quite difficult to convince the poorest of the poor to change both their fuel and their stove without significant subsidy; once the subsidy disappears, the market disappears. Alternatively, if only the stove is subsidised and not the fuel, households will tend not use the stove. In either case, it can set the whole development back to Square One. There is no question that there are many net benefits if it can in fact be made economically sustainable; the question is how to implement a financing and regulatory framework that can establish value for those benefits in local terms (for health reasons) and global terms (for carbon).

A third and final point relates to the big picture of rural development. The world has witnessed a great migration to cities in recent decades and there is little sign that this trend is being reversed. At the same time, poverty as well as energy and food insecurity are concentrated in rural areas in Africa, and so there is clearly a role for modern bioenergy where there is willingness to invest in local capacity and local resources. A shift away from slash and burn agriculture and unsustainable woodfuel harvesting in combination with more effective use of the biomass resources thereby liberated would add up to some valuable development-climate synergies: this should be a major object of attention for those interested in promoting low carbon development pathways. In this respect, the opposition to modern bioenergy that has become popular among some NGOs is hard to fathom, since the business-as-usual case consists of wasting biomass resources, digging deeper into poverty and entrenching food and energy insecurity. Rather than promoting only conservation of forests or grasslands, it is much more valuable to complement selective conservation with sustainable forest harvesting and agro-industrial development in more populated areas, so as to provide livelihoods, new biomass value chains and energy services that are sorely needed.

Francis Johnson is a Senior Research Fellow at the SEI and he conducts interdisciplinary energy/climate analyses focusing especially on biomass energy in developing countries and including techno-economic feasibility, environmental impacts, socio-technical innovation, international market development and the policy linkages across different scales and end-use sectors.

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