| Boiling Point No. 01 - Special Edition 1989 |
by Keith Bennett, Energy Systems Analysis (Consultants Croup)
Recent years have seen an upsurge of interest in fuel briquetting. To some extent this interest has been spawned by the donor funded demonstration units (mainly of European origin) that are to be found in varying degrees of use particularly in Africa. The sponsors of these factories have been quite reasonably concerned with the serious environmental damage caused by the cutting of trees for fuel. African economies depend on woodfuels for up to 90% of their energy requirements and in many areas this is having a quite devastating effect on forests.
The emphasis to date has been almost exclusively on the technical problems of briquetting as is inevitable with a relatively new technology. This technical development does however need to be closely related to the identification of markets. These two issues must he tackled together since the target market will define the price of the briquettes and hence the optimum level of investment in the process.
The domestic commercial and industrial consumers that are potential briquette customers demand a fuel that is directly interchangeable with the wood and charcoal products on which they currently depend. Woodfuels have reached a point in many economies where they are actually more expensive than the more reliable and modern petroleum derived alternatives. The problem is investment. Many industries can no more afford to invest in modern oil fired or electrical equipment than householders can afford the gas bottle, regulator valve and piping that is required for a switch to LPG. Briquetting technologies will have to address this same problem and also bear in mind that much of the currently available equipment will require substantial foreign exchange resources.
In many of the African countries currently dependent on woodfuels, briquettes have a promising future in the short term, especialy where woodfuel prices are increasing rapidly over and above the general rate of inflation and where briquettes can be marketed as a direct substitute for woodfuels. It seems clear that demand for briquettes will arise in these countries; the problem appears to be in developing a supply. Poorer countries suffer from a serious scarcity of the foreign exchange capital that is required to establish a briquetting industry based on imported equipment. Also, it would be unrealistic to expect donors or governments to capitalize a new industry, and therefore the cost of briquetting will have to be reduced if local businesses are to invest. Reputable, well established press manufacturers are to be found in Europe, India, Brazil, Taiwan and Japan. Competitive tendering, importation of basic press units, local fabrication of associated equipment and spare parts where this is practicable and the assistance of government through the waiving of certain duties and import controls would all help in reducing the capital Cost of briquetting.
A great advantage, however, of fuel briquettes it that they can be tailored to specific end uses. For charcoal burning urban populations a charcoal briquette can be produced; for industries which depend on hardwood fuel, dense uncarbonised briquettes will find a market and so on. Basic briquetting presses are well developed, but what is needed in the future is development work to produce briquettes that can succeed in particular markets.
Poorer countries, with their economies ravaged by the demands of debt repayment and other pressures, can only be looking for the most cost-effective way of developing the energy sector. Short term demand will, through necessity, affect the longer term objective of conserving the environment and energy planners will need considerable support if the environment is not to become a secondary consideration.
This issue of the different perceptions of donors and recipients was highlighted at the international briquetting workshop held in October 1988 in Khartoum, hosted by the Government of Sudan and sponsored by DANIDA and UNSO. Many participants were distressed by the sight of groundnut shells lying around in heaps of several hundred thousand tonnes, spontaneously igniting and blowing in everyone's hair. This was particularly true for the European equipment manufacturers who were fairly well represented and may have imagined this situation remedied by lines of shiny new presses.
It so happens that the owner of the very factory that was the cause of such distress during the Khartoum workshop, is now planning to install a sizeable, integrated, briquetting factory. This change of attitude has resulted from a practical demonstration that briquettes can be produced and sold profitably. They operated a 0.5 tonne per hour demonstration press for a month and easily sold 3000 sacks of briquettes in Khartoum. With industrial wood presently costing anything up to US$80 per tonne they can make some healthy profits, especially as they envisage demand arising as far north as Atbara, some 500 km distant.
Companies with residues available for briquetting need to take a very close look at the market and choose equipment according to their consumers' requirements. Where information on the availability, cost, specification and performance of machinery is not available for assessment, technical assistance should be made available. Many companies at present incurring the costs of dumping or burning their unwanted residue may not become seriously interested unless the equipment can be effectively demonstrated as in the above case.
However, no matter how accessible the manufacturing technologies may become, to succeed as a fuelwood substitute briquettes must be able to compete in the market. Penetrating the domestic fuel market with briquette fuels is particularly problematic for a number of reasons and this area should receive more attention in the future. ITDG's work on the partially pyrolysed briquette- stove combination is an example of the approach needed when the domestic consumer is targeted. Ian McChesney's articles stress the importance of this issue and show how it can be included in project design. Indeed, as domestic markets for woodfuels are so much larger than the commercial or industrial sectors, addressing the needs of this group is most important.
Ironically, the two best examples of countries where briquetting has succeeded commercially, Brazil and India, are also examples of developing countries which now depend to a lesser extent on woodfuels. Even more ironically, in Brazil, the most important raw material for the process is sawdust from the mills which are reducing the rain forest to timber products. It is no coincidence, however, that these countries which now depend less on woodfuels are also those with more advanced briquetting industries. Brazil and India have industrial capacity far in advance of most African countries, and industrial nations throughout the world have long passed the stage of being dependent on woodfuel for energy. Brazil and India manufacture and export briquetting presses in addition to producing briquetted fuels predominantly for industrial use.
The developed industrial countries with briquette press manufacturing industries do have an important role to play and even the justifiably criticised tied equipment contributions have not been altogether a bad thing. They may eventually provide the impetus for development of local briquetting industries. The effectiveness of this type of equipment depends however, on careful selection and siting of the equipment and a commitment by both the donor and recipient government to support the operation until it can operate independently.
Arguably the most interesting presentation at the Khartoum workshop was from Mr Hunde Kekeba, the proprietor of the Ethio Fuel Briquette Company, who delighted the audience with the story of his company's development. Mr Kekeba is one of only a handful of commercial fuel briquette manufacturers in Africa and has been forced to develop the manufacture of spare parts for his imported machinery. Possibly not all factory owners have the same tenacity and will to succeed and it is clear that if commercial briquetting is to become more widespread, then considerably more support to the private sector will be called for in the future.
In the same way that improved stove programmes have initially succeeded with waged urban consumers who can afford the investment, briquetting presses will be attractive to profit seeking, larger companies with the means to invest. Smaller companies without the means will find investment capital more readily available when a number of presses have already been installed and the development banks can see that briquetting is commercially successful.
Some impressive figures have been quoted in relation to the potential impact of agricultural residues on the national energy balance. Much of this residue is generated post-harvest in the field and may not actually be available at all. In the future, planners must clearly differentiate between these field residues and process residues such as bagasse and groundnut shells that can pile up behind factories. For example, in the Sudan it may only be possible to utilize a relatively small proportion of the existing residue of up to 20 million tonnes per annum. Vast amounts are required to be burned in the field to avoid the spread of plant disease. (See the papers by Abasaeed and Siemons.)Much is too remote from markets to be of use, and a considerable proportion is used for fodder or construction or lies across nomadic grazing paths or is not viable from an economic and technical point of view. After all, the briquetting of field residues has not proven to be commercially attractive in Europe where the physical conditions for equipment are much less harsh.
In conclusion, relatively simple, small scale technologies such as that described by Samarakoon are successful in certain situations; in others a higher level of sophistication may be required. Thus, while generalised technical descriptions of what makes for a good briquette are possible as in the paper by Brandt, it is inappropriate to attempt to specify the ideal technology.