| Diffusion of Biomass Energy Technologies in Developing Countries |
This report is concerned with the factors that influence the introduction and diffusion of selected biomass-based renewable energy technologies in developing countries. It is based on discussions with those involved in planning and implementing energy projects in developed and developing nations, and on published information. It is also based on visits by panelists, consultants, and National Research Council (NRC) staff to seventeen developing countries in the course of this study to observe renewable energy projects first hand. These countries are: Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Fiji, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Mauritania, Papua New Guinea, People's Republic of China, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, and Upper Volta. Selected observations based on these visits are incorporated into this report.
Rapidly rising oil prices have resulted in rapid adjustment of consumption practices in the industrialized nations and in the affluent sectors of developing countries. Conservation and substitution have been accomplished on a scale that many thought impossible five years ago, and as a result, oil prices are temporarily stabilizing. For developing countries, the effect of rising oil prices was catastrophic in two ways: (1) their precarious economies were overwhelmed by the costs of their modest oil needs to the extent that most are deep in debt to the oil suppliers, and investment in industrialization and agricultural development has virtually disappeared, and (2) substitution of biomass for petroleum fuels in cooking and small industry has increased firewood and charcoal consumption in the urban areas to the point where meeting this demand is causing serious deforestation and erosion in the countryside.
At the same time, renewable energy technologies are not being adequately diffused among the people most dependent on them--the rural and urban poor. Governments seldom recognize the importance of these technologies, and investment to support them is not attracted because the benefits are delayed. The poor are understandably reluctant to adopt technologies that do not meet their perceived needs, and they are seldom consulted when projects are being designed. Unless this situation is remedied, they will continue to be faced with serious shortfalls in food production and indefinite dependence on outside assistance. On the other hand, renewable technologies can be successfully adopted by poor people when they are involved in the planning and management of the project, and when, moreover, these projects can be profitable.
The technologies discussed include the generation of biomass through fuelwood plantations and agroforestry and the use of biomass in improved cooking stoves, charcoal manufacture, thermal gasification, and the production of biogas and fuel alcohol. These were selected because of their relevance to agricultural productivity and the dependence of the poor on biomass as an energy source.
For each of these technologies, the technical, economic, social, and cultural factors affecting their introduction and diffusion are considered.
The report also covers the nature of the diffusion process, energy and development, needs of the rural and urban poor, the characteristics of the technologies, and their feasibility and acceptability by the poor. Further, developing country experience with these technologies is briefly described, followed by conclusions and recommendations. A summary of these topics follows.
DIFFUSION OF INNOVATIONS
Diffusion is the process by which innovations spread to the members of social systems. In the diffusion of technologies, both centralized and decentralized models have been identified and characterized. In practice, most diffusion efforts combine elements of both.
In this report, the term diffusion applies both to dissemination of information about a new technology and dissemination of the technology itself; for instance, new cooking stoves.
ENERGY AND DEVELOPMENT
For the rural and urban poor, properly designed biomass conversion technologies could reduce the economic and environmental costs of cooking and heating and, in some cases, provide opportunities for economic growth and employment. Biomass production technologies can slow the devastating process of deforestation and soil erosion that threatens traditional subsistence agriculture and is an obstacle to long-term economic growth.
NEEDS OF THE POOR
Meeting the energy needs of the poor through biomass-based technologies will not in itself significantly reduce a nation's petroleum use. Most of the poor already rely heavily on biomass sources-firewood, charcoal, agricultural residues, and dung--and will probably continue to do so. The value of the various technologies described here lies in increasing the availability of the materials currently in use, ensuring that they are used effectively, and providing alternative employment opportunities.
Certain characteristics of the technologies appear to make some more acceptable than others. While many technologies are feasible, only a few may be practical. Characteristics that encourage acceptance include structural simplicity, use of familiar materials and techniques, functional discreteness, and obvious, short-term benefits.
CULTURAL AND ECONOMIC ACCEPTABILITY
In any society, existing social structures, economic organization, political institutions, and beliefs influence acceptance of change of any sort. New technologies that mesh with indigenous systems of resource allocation, work organization, goods distribution, social and authority structures, and prevailing values and religious beliefs clearly have the best chance for success.
DIFFUSION OF THE TECHNOLOGIES
Attempts have been made to introduce the technologies described to many developing countries. In almost every case, factors external to the technology seem to have a greater influence on acceptability than the technology itself.
Moreover, there are circumstances in many developing countries that prevent even initial consideration of biomass-based energy technologies; for instance, policymakers may focus entirely on large-scale hydroelectric, geothermal, or fossil fuel development schemes.
All kinds of energy sources should be considered. However, biomass production for energy has the additional potential, if properly managed, of stabilizing the environment and providing employment opportunities in rural areas.
OTHER FACTORS AFFECTING ENERGY TECHNOLOGY DIFFUSION
The diffusion of biomass energy technologies, or lack of it, is only one element of the total energy sector in developing countries-which, in turn, is only one, albeit critical, sector of national resources that must compete for attention. Developing countries generally have limited capacity to gather complete and accurate resource information, to analyze this information, and to plan allocation and use. Yet planning capacity is fundamental to rational policymaking; inability to identify clearly the nature and scope of problems, particularly where resources are limited, restricts development. Given these circumstances, it is difficult to establish priorities. Short-term, urgent problems tend to absorb a disproportionate amount of effort, although long-term problems may be even more critical.
There is another complication: many officials in developing country governments and regional organizations maintain that the attention given to renewable energy technologies by technical assistance agencies reflects an underlying policy to deprive developing countries of their fair share of oil supplies at reasonable prices and to make them dependent on "second-class" technologies. Yet even if oil prices decline further, the problems of deforestation and erosion in the countryside will continue.
Further, there are many reasons why biomass energy technologies are not considered as serious alternatives to other energy technologies. For example:
· Coal, peat, hydroelectric and geothermal sources, and oil exploration are more attractive for reasons that include abundant data on development costs, equipment, and uses, and because of offers from multinational entrepreneurs who are often on the doorstep promoting cooperative endeavors in conventional energy technology. Conversely, renewable energy technologies have no visible constituency; they are frequently associated with women's activities--firewood gathering, food processing, and cooking--and tend to receive less official attention than if they were in the male province. They are perceived as being small-scale and diffuse, and therefore ineffective or socially complex and expensive alternatives.
· There is a tendency to center on one alternative energy source rather than a multiplicity of sources, or to equate a past failure of one technique with the unsuitability of all of them.
· Solar technologies and related high technology energy systems are developed by industrial enterprises to supply energy needs in industrialized countries, and it appears unlikely that these technologies will make much of a contribution to developing countries in the foreseeable future. Their application, other than in relatively simple crop-drying systems and water heaters, is unlikely to reduce the amount of biomass required to continue to provide the main fuel source.
· There is a perceived lack of infrastructure for diffusing energy technologies. Almost everywhere, extension capabilities are felt to be inadequate, even for simple reforestation; and even though nongovernment organizations (NGOs) are frequently successful in working with traditional social agencies, few governments acknowledge that this route offers serious possibilities for easing national energy problems. Many governments fear that apolitical NGOs will not remain so.
· Biomass-based technologies are seen only as long-range solutions, since growing biomass or organizing its production on any useful scale is believed to take too long. Hence, the technologies are often given little attention either by planners or by farmers with a serious immediate problem.
· The low rate of internal return on investment that is felt to characterize these technologies pushes scarce capital or loan funds into conventional development projects in agriculture and industry that carry high short-term returns. Long-range societal gains such as environmental benefits are almost never considered in economic evaluation.
These problems appear to be almost universal, occurring at individual, community or village, and government planning levels and applying equally to arid and humid conditions. In arid regions, the energy problem and its environmental consequences are stark and visible, and to many, hopeless; in humid areas, the problem is less obvious because forest resources mask the rate of deforestation. The problem in these areas is as serious, however, because of the potential impact on watersheds, the high rate at which environmental degradation can take place, and the enormous numbers of people affected. Because environmental degradation has no direct impact on the area being deforested, there is little incentive for the woodcutters to change their practices.
Biomass production for fuel has been practiced for thousands of years. It is only recently that population increases have made substantial, potentially disastrous inroads on the regenerative capacity of woody plants in agricultural areas.
Reforestation schemes have been a feature of land use for some time, but often for watershed management or timber production rather than fuel. An important feature of these projects has been the protection of the trees from use by neighboring communities. In many countries, the forestry authorities are mainly concerned with policing forest reserves, rather than with assisting the community in growing trees for fuel use. Because forestry is perceived as having little value to the community (as opposed to logging interests), most forest services are poorly staffed and equipped, separated from agricultural programs, and generally ill-prepared to meet the needs of a national biomass program. Further, the species about which these forest services are knowledgeable may not be the most suitable for fuelwood.
The exploitation of forest resources is a common source of corruption, because large profits are to be made from timber concessions. Even where there is a national policy for the conservation or generation of biomass, there is often a countervailing local interest in its exploitation.
Land tenure is a particularly thorny aspect of reforestation. Land use often implies ownership; outside efforts at reforestation are thwarted by local concern over 1088 of rights. In this context, fuelwood reforestation projects, which in recent years have been launched in many countries, have seldom reached their goals. Where communities become involved in planning and implementing projects and where the potential benefits are clear, fuelwood programs have worked. Recent World Bank studies have shown that under favorable conditions large-scale reforestation programs have been successful.
Improved Cooking Stoves
Much effort has been concentrated on designing improved cooking stoves, for the most part using firewood. Success has been mixed: some communities and governments have adopted the technology with enthusiasm, while others have encountered design, cultural, or cost factors that hinder widespread adoption. As yet, there is no demonstrable connection between the introduction of "improved" cooking stoves and a lowered rate of firewood consumption, though in most cases this is the justification for the effort. There is considerable variation in the way that stove efficiency is measured and reported. Indeed, in some cases the improvement in efficiency and reduction in fuel consumption attributed to the devices is intuitively assumed, not tested or measured.
While stoves clearly have other benefits for the user, there is no guarantee that they will reduce fuel consumption by the amounts predicted in laboratory efficiency tests. Much of the field information about them is derived from the relatively affluent, who can acquire the technology and for whom access to firewood is not a critical limitation. Thus, even where stoves are constructed and used as the designers intended, they may merely be used for additional purposes rather than for reducing consumption. Little information is available about the desperately poor and the actual or potential impact of improved stove technology on, for example, reducing the amount of animal dung burned. Also, scientists have demonstrated that when traditional (three-stone) cooking is done carefully, efficiencies are equal to those of well-designed chula or Lorena stoves. There is little doubt that the poor who suffer firewood shortages use their supplies with care.
Charcoal Kilns, Stoves, and Gasifiers
Charcoal kilos of many types and sizes--metal drum, retort, brick beehives, dome--have been tested in a variety of circumstances. Few have been adopted, and charcoal production in many developing countries is mostly carried on by itinerant entrepreneurs using traditional pit or mound methods. Where the wood is gathered from the commons free for the cost of labor, there is little incentive to acquire a relatively expensive device, that is difficult to transport to new production sites, to improve the efficiency of charcoal recovery.
In many countries, particularly arid ones where trees are scarce, there is a remarkably sophisticated and efficient system of contractual relationships among charcoal makers, transporters, and consumers, providing employment and income to many people at the expense of the countries' dwindling forest resources. This system has proved difficult to alter, even in extreme situations in which charcoal must be transported hundreds of kilometers. The capital investment and political impetus required to balance use with regeneration of the trees, in a way that would involve existing charcoal producers rather than displacing them, has not yet been evident in most countries. Yet, as petroleum fuels and electricity become ever more expensive, charcoal consumption in urban areas for home use is increasing dramatically. This holds true in restaurants and industry as well. The environmental consequences are potentially catastrophic; many societies are mortgaging the resources of future generations, not only placing at risk many forest species (which may become extinct along with their wildlife) but also causing erosion--all of which threaten the entire ecological base on which agricultural production depends.
Successful charcoal fuelwood plantations have been operated in a few locations, notably Brazil and Argentina; more serious attention from governments, communities, and technical assistance donors is needed for this aspect of national energy supply. Charcoal use is likely to increase even further as other technologies, such as gasifiers to generate electricity, pump irrigation water, or power fishing boats or trucks, are adopted. These technologies can provide a useful incentive for environmentally sensible planning of renewable fuelwood supplies. Charcoal conservation, through improved production techniques, briquetting, and use of more efficient stoves, is an important priority.
Perhaps none of the renewable energy technologies has been promoted as enthusiastically as biogas generation. Yet, experience indicates that the conditions under which the technology is successful on a sustained basis are rather restricted. Biogas generation requires capital investment, a plentiful and reliable source of substrate (preferably animal dung), and a fair level of technical competence to obtain enough gas to justify the effort. Community biogas projects have foundered over problems with the cost of the system, responsibility for operation and allocation of gas, collection of substrate, disposal or equitable distribution of the residue, and, in arid regions, adequate water supply. Few poor families have the capital or the necessary animals to support a home generator. The amount of gas produced, particularly in cooler regions, is relatively small compared with the capital and running costs, even discounting labor (which is often neglected in biogas economics).
Thus, with notable exceptions, successfully operating biogas generators are typically associated with fairly sophisticated, integrated systems of waste management based on cattle, swine, or poultry production, in which the gas generated is a valuable by-product rather than the main objective. The extensive Chinese experience, with some seven million digesters constructed, appears similarly linked to environmental and health improvement and nutrient recycling (including human waste), with gas a by-product of nutrient conservation and waste treatment rather than the principal objective. In other countries, diffusion is subsidized and, in general, adoption is limited to the relatively wealthy animal owner.
It appears unlikely that biogas will provide much fuel for the poor until they acquire other resources--such as livestock--and are in fact no longer poor.
Only in Brazil is fuel alcohol used on any scale. However, many countries are now undertaking pilot projects to produce ethanol as a substitute for gasoline, and a few are examining wood gasification as a route to methanol. Methanol production is inherently a large-scale, expensive technology, which is unlikely to supply fuel to the rural or urban poor. Ethanol, on the other hand, is produced almost everywhere as potable spirits, and may offer an attractive and economical source of fuel for some developing countries. It requires a cheap and plentiful supply of substrate, however, and increased demand for ethanol is likely to increase the price of substrates such as sugarcane, cassava, and cereal grains.
If used wisely, ethanol can provide farm power and, where land permits, can raise incomes in rural areas through local production of fermentation substrates as cash crops. Practical biological systems to convert lignocellulose to sugars for ethanol, which may be achieved in the near future, should markedly increase the economic and environmental attractiveness of this fuel, with profound consequences for tropical countries.
All biomass-based energy technologies have inherent limitations in supplying national energy needs, and it is difficult for planners to make informed judgments about appropriate mixes of these technologies for different situations. However, the production of biomass is of critical importance, both for meeting energy requirements through whichever technologies are suitable and for countering massive deforestation as people increasingly meet their energy needs from unreplenished biomass. The consequences of deforestation reach far beyond availability of firewood and are already having a devastating effect on watersheds, land contour, soil fertility, and, potentially, the entire ecological basis of sustained food production.
Maintenance of the environment, revegetation, protection of forest resources, and diffusion of suitable biomass technologies are problems that are too large and complex to be tackled only by individuals and small communities. They must be the responsibility of society as a whole.
Poor people will not change their practices unless they can afford to; that is, unless they are convinced it is to their advantage, and advantage is almost always perceived in economic terms. Of course in certain cases, especially in less monetarized societies, it may be a social or cultural advantage. The overwhelming problem with the adoption and diffusion of biomass-based renewable energy technologies is that the advantages may occur so far in the future or may be so diffused throughout society--for example, as with reforestation--that they often cannot outweigh the immediate loss in the form of effort or investment (whether to plant and nourish trees, obtain the materials to construct a better stove or biogas generator, or build a kiln to make charcoal more efficiently).
The converse is also true: demonstrate the advantage, the stove, the gasifier, and the guaranteed access to land and the rights to their own trees, and the poor will grasp the opportunity without hesitation. The packaging of policies and procedures to assure that the advantages accrue in a constructive manner is a key issue in development.
There is need to allocate a much larger share of national development efforts to reforestation, social or agroforestry, and community or commercial woodlots with whatever kind of organization local conditions require. This should include providing economic incentives, such as temporary subsidies, training, and research to support the increased level of activity. There is a particular need to examine the legislative, legal, and customary aspects of land use that affect the right to use forest resources, and to take steps to ensure that these resources are protected and renewed, rather than indiscriminately exploited. In some countries, examination of land use practices has identified necessary legal changes that have already proved highly successful in encouraging biomass production.
Many aspects of biomass-based energy technologies are highly location-specific. A great deal of local experience with these technologies is required to make informed judgments about their potential to contribute to national energy budgets. Fortunately, increased attention is being given by governments and technical assistance agencies to this need for experience. However, there are still many countries, particularly the most needy, which have yet to establish such programs. Plans for the production and use of biomass-based fuels should include, with full community participation, the following elements:
· determination of the target population's needs and resources, with policies based on this data;
· identification, evaluation, and selection of strategies for biomass development, with designation of timetables;
· experimentation with, and pilot-level production of, energy through biomass technologies under actual field conditions;
· commercialization of the technologies, with environmental safeguards;
· enhancement of education and extension services;
· support for non-government organizations promoting renewable energy projects; and
· cooperation and communication with other countries and international organizations to capitalize on relevant experience.
Although the use of renewable energy technologies remains very limited compared with the needs, there are some striking examples of success, with clear indications of the factors responsible. These factors that promote success include:
· Awareness of national and community energy needs and of the importance, in the local situation, of developing biomass-based alternatives. Because of the long-term nature of some biomass-based systems, and the implications for policy and land-use planning and capital requirements, there must be a national policy commitment. This commitment must be reflected in the attitudes of local officials; enthusiasm on the part of nongovernment organizations and individuals or communities by itself is not sufficient.
· Community involvement in the planning, implementation, and management of local biomass energy projects, and clear understanding of the benefits and how they are to be divided. In this context, the role of the organizer-entrepreneur (whether a government official or community leader) in motivating communities to solve their energy problems has been critical.
· Access by the community to reliable and unbiased information about renewable energy technologies used elsewhere, to capital or credit, and to technical assistance for troubleshooting.
· Incorporation of benefits other than energy in the plan; for example, improved environment and health, or development of marketable skills or products. Energy is not a discrete problem for the rural poor; rather, it is one strand in the web of poverty.
· Inclusion of opportunities for adaptation, improvement, and feedback to enhance acceptance and diffusion.
These factors appear to be equally important in organizing reforestation or building biogas generators or improved cooking stoves. The organization and management of the effort appear to be more critical than the precise nature of the technology.