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close this bookEnergy as an Instrument for Socio-economic Development (UNDP, 1995, 114 p.)
View the document5. From Energy Efficiency to Social Utility: Lessons from Cookstove Design, Dissemination, and Use
View the document6. PV, Wind, and Other Dispersed Energy Sources
View the document7. Renewable Energy Benefits Rural Women in China
View the document8. Community Biogas Plants Supply Rural Energy and Water: The Pura Village Case Study

7. Renewable Energy Benefits Rural Women in China


The availability of energy is an important pre-condition for developing the national economy and improving people's living standards. Despite its large population, China has a weak industrial, scientific, and technological base. In rural areas, the level of commercial energy consumption per capita is only about 0.12 tons of coal equivalent (TCE), and the quality of existing energy resources is often poor. In short, both the quantity and the quality of existing energy resources are inadequate to meet the industrial and agricultural needs of the country.

Improving both the availability and utilization rates of energy resources is an important strategic task that will have significant impact on China's ability to promote sustainable human development, that is, development that simultaneously promotes economic growth, improves people's living standards, and protects the natural resource base essential to the country's long-term future.

Eighty per cent of China's people live in rural areas, where the shortage of fuel is most acute. The unavailability of energy in vast rural areas is the key factor hindering the development of the rural economy and preventing improvement in people's living standards. The extent to which China can meet the growing demand for energy in these areas in ways that are sustainable will significantly affect its economic growth and the health and well-being of its people.

Fuel Shortages and Deforestation

Before 1979, more than 70 per cent of the fuel used by farmers came from biomass - crop stalks, straws, grasses, and animal dung, which were burned directly. The efficiency of utilization rate of this form of energy is only 10 per cent, thus, resulting in significant waste of natural resources. At the same time, nearly half of farm households suffered shortages of available fuel for three to six months of the year. They resorted to collecting every conceivable kind of burnable material, creating serious environmental and human consequences.

First, because of the loss of large amounts of forest, vegetation was damaged, the soil became sandy, and grasslands deteriorated. The loss of crop stalks and other materials that could be used as feed for animals, as fertilizer for farmland, or as industrial raw material directly affected the production of agriculture, forestry, livestock, and industry.

Second, inefficient direct burning of fuelwood in traditional stoves increased emissions of carbon dioxide and flue gas into the atmosphere, damaging the balance between carbon and nitrogen in the agro-ecological system. This, in turn, also contributed to bringing about long-term climate change.

Third, because women always performed the household chores, such as fuelwood collecting and cooking, they were particularly affected. They shouldered the burden of collecting wood from ever greater distances and suffered from indoor air pollution, a condition aggravated during the early summer rains when wet wood did not easily bum. Eye disease was common. The fuelwood shortage meant that people often could only eat one or two hot meals per day, and gastric and intestinal disease seriously affected health.

Solving the fuelwood shortage and changing the structure of fuel are top priority development tasks in China, both to increase agricultural production and to improve farmers' livelihoods. Since the very founding of the People's Republic of China, but particularly since the introduction of more open policies, the government has made rural energy construction a high priority. The interests of both the state and the people dictate attention to exploitation of new and renewable energy sources as well as to conservation and rational utilization. China's government describes its policy as "suiting measures to local conditions, making different sources mutually complementary, utilizing in a comprehensive way and seeking for benefits" and "putting equal stress on exploitation and conservation."

China's rural energy development has achieved great progress and received worldwide attention. It is based on seven basic points:

1) popularizing coal- and fuelwood-saving stoves,
2) developing high-grade biogas,
3) developing small hydropower,
4) exploiting and utilizing solar energy,
5) developing fuelwood forests,
6) developing and utilizing wind energy, and
7) developing and utilizing geothermal energy.

These measures have significantly improved the quality of life in rural areas, particularly for women, who are disproportionately impacted by energy shortages.

Coal- and Fuelwood-Saving Stoves

One of the first measures taken was to promote widespread use of coal- and fuelwood-saving stoves in rural areas. The improved stoves require relatively little investment, are more convenient to use, use less fuel, and emit little smoke. The heat efficiency of these stoves is more than 25 per cent - one and a half times as much as the old stoves.

Women were particularly enthusiastic, quickly recognizing the stoves' greater convenience and efficiency Women often wanted to be among the first in their communities to have the improved stoves in order to have better conditions for their families.

By the end of 1993, some 158 million farm households, accounting for 69 per cent of total farm households, had the improved coal- and fuelwood-saving stoves (see Figure 7.1). This has had significant health and environmental benefits. Women no longer suffer from the extreme smoke created by the old stoves. In areas where coal had high fluoride content, fluoride poisoning from smoke has been eliminated. Farmers can now eat hot meals throughout the day. Because less fuel is needed, the amount of time women spend gathering fuelwood has been reduced, lightening their burden, giving them more time for other economic activities, and reducing pressures on the environment. The total amount of biomass consumed has declined and forest resources are better protected.

The Extension of Biogas

Biogas was first introduced in China in the 1930s, and has been seriously developed since the 1980s. By the end of 1993, 5.25 million farm households had biogas digesters (see Figure 7.2), with an annual production of 1.18 million cubic metres. Biogas has a heat value of 5,500 kilocalories per cubic metre, higher than that of coal gas in urban areas.

Figure 7.1 - Coal- and Fuelwood Saving Stoves

Biogas digesters provide time and labour savings. In some areas, they have become a necessary prerequisite for marriage. Girls want them as part of their dowries, or they may ask their future husband's families to build them as part of the marriage agreement. Biogas digesters are considered "priceless assets."

In the northern part of China, where the weather is quite cold, "four-in-one" systems have become popular. The "four-in-one" model provides multiple functions; for example, a plastic-roofed greenhouse may be built within a courtyard, with a pigsty or hen house at one end of the greenhouse, a toilet at the other, and a biogas digester beneath the pigsty. The unit, thus, combines biogas production, poultry or pig breeding, vegetable and fruit production, and fertilizer collection in a single plot. All the activities rely on and promote each other, to form a cycle. Meat, eggs, and vegetables can be produced and supplied to the market even in cold seasons. Women are able to develop productive agricultural businesses that earn them additional income, and the rural economy benefits from additional activity. Thus, biogas provides a means of integrating agricultural resources; its many functions and efficiencies help in creating an ecological agricultural system.

Figure 7.2 - Household Biogas Digesters

Ecological agriculture has contributed to total agricultural production, helped to protect the environment, and provided women with income-earning opportunities in the form of silkworm production, mushroom culturing, pig and poultry production, fish farming, weaving, sewing, and embroidery. When they are freed from their traditional heavy chores, women become actively involved in crop planting, industry, and other income-generating activities. A number of rural women have been awarded the title "woman expert" at "double study, double competition" (study culture, study technology, competition for progress, competition for contribution). Women's work in afforestation and other areas is recognized by these and other awards given by provincial, municipal, and district governments.

China also has built over 600 large and medium-sized biogas plants that use organic waste from animal and poultry farms, wineries, and food factories. Their combined capacity is 220,000 cubic metres, which can process about 20 million tons of organic waste annually. The biogas produced services 84,000 households, replacing traditional coal and fuel.

In accordance with its commitment to environmental improvement, China has also built 24,000 biogas purification digesters to process daily waste water in urban areas. Their total capacity is 940,000 cubic metres, which can treat daily waste water for 2 million people.

Biogas development has significantly improved living standards in China's rural areas, where biogas has been popularized and farm households can now live in a clean and sanitary environment. Human, animal, and poultry waste, as well as daily waste water, are treated by the biogas digesters. Fermentation eliminates 99.9 per cent of the colon bacillus and over 99 per cent of the parasites and their eggs. The widespread use of biogas digesters has reduced the number of breeding places for flies and mosquitoes, thus, drastically reducing the incidence of snail fever, gastric and intestinal disease, and parasitic and other diseases transmitted through mosquitoes and flies. Biogas sludge and slurry are quality fertilizers and feeds. In villages lacking electricity, biogas lamps provide light in which children can study and women have longer hours during which to pursue such economic activities as sewing and embroidering.

In some communities, when biogas construction is completed, a great celebration ensues. Although it costs several hundred yuan to build a digester, farm households are delighted to be able to cook without fuelwood, to have light without oil, and to have bumper harvests by applying biogas fertilizer.

Small Hydropower

Electricity is essential to further economic development in China. With plentiful water resources and high mountains, the theoretical reserve is 680 gigawatts (GW), of which only 300 GW can be exploited. Of this, 75 GW represent small hydropower (that is, having a capacity of less than 25,000 kW).

At the end of 1993, the installed capacity of small hydropower generators was 15 GW, producing approximately 47 terawatt hours (TWh) annually (see Figure 7.3). In over 700 counties in China, electricity supply is based on small-hydropower stations; over 300 counties have realized at least initial electrification through small hydropower (i.e., average per capita electricity consumption is over 200 kWh and domestic electricity consumption is over 200 kWh per farm household).

The construction of preliminary electrification using water resources had additional benefits: it promoted rural development, raised living standards in local communities, improved material and cultural life, developed small-scale industries in the towns, saved fuelwood, and protected the ecological environment.

Figure 7.3 - Small Hydropower, 1985-93

In recent years, micro-hydropower generators have also become popular in China's rural areas. Micro-hydropower stations have an installed capacity of 100 to 10,000 watts. They use small rivers in the high mountains and gorges, and are able to generate electricity with only one to three metres' drop. They can supply electricity to one or several families. At this time, more than 60,000 such generators supply 120 million kWh annually.

Over 10 million households in rural areas across the country use electricity for cooking, thus, reducing the burden on women.

Solar Energy

Solar energy is an important source of "clean energy." China, with its vast expanse of territory, has excellent potential for developing and utilizing solar energy In recent years, the amount of heat and light derived from solar energy has increased rapidly. Solar energy is used in solar cookers, solar water heaters, passive solar houses, middle and primary school buildings, plastic sheet mulch planting, plastic sheet vegetable sheds, and solar animal and poultry pens (see Figure 7.4).

Solar stoves, which were developed in the early 1980s, now number 140,000, primarily in Gansu, Tibet, and Hebei. These areas are rich in solar energy and lack other energy resources. In Tibet, for example, herdsmen who once cooked with fuelwood had to turn to cattle dung when forest growth proved too slow to keep up with demand. In areas with dense population, however, even dung became difficult to obtain. When the State Council implemented the "Sunlight Plan" promoting solar stoves in Tibet, it was well received. In 1992, solar stoves were used by 17,000 Tibetan households in Lhasa and two other areas. By end 1994, after implementation of the Sunlight Plan, these same areas had more than 40,000 solar cookers, with more than 10 per cent of the total households owning them. The dissemination 2.29 million m2 of solar water heaters across the country has helped to alleviate shortages of household energy for bathing and other purposes.

Passive solar houses and buildings for residents and primary and middle schools have spread rapidly in recent years. In the northern part of China, which is rich in solar energy, farmers planning to build new homes prefer solar houses, even though the cost is 20 to 30 per cent higher. Solar houses are clean, hygienic, and warm, and farmers can choose from a selection of standard designs. Solar school buildings provide an excellent study environment. In Liaoning province, where the outside temperature can reach 20 degrees below 0 degrees Centigrade, the temperature in solar school buildings stays at a comfortable 10 to 15 degrees Centigrade. Even on holidays, teachers and students are happy to work and study in the buildings.

Figure 7.4 - Solar Energy Utilization, 1985-93

Large-Scale Development of Fuelwood Forests

China is poor in forest resources. It has only 0.13 hectares of forested area per capita and only 9.3 m3 of forest stock per capita, less than one tenth those of the United States. In the extensive mountain and semi-mountainous areas, the Chinese government has undertaken a policy of promoting reforestation, assigning hillside to farm households that could harvest fuelwood if they plant and take care of trees on those plots. The government describes it as a policy of promoting fuelwood forests by letting "those who plant the trees have them." The forestry departments select high-quality domestic and foreign fuelwood tree seed suitable for growing in different areas; it promotes close planting and rotation cutting, thus, increasing yields two to three times.

Some tree varieties provide additional high-value by-products such as aromatic oil, feeds, protein, and tannin extract. Establishing forests not only alleviates the shortage of fuel-wood, but also increases farmers' incomes. By end 1993, 6 million hectares of fuelwood had been planted (see Figure 7.5).

Figure 7.5 - Fuelwood Forests, 1980-93

Wind Energy

China has a long history of developing and utilizing wind energy. The famous Huanghe windmill in Lanzhou, Gansu, was first built over a thousand years ago. China has a relatively low level of potential wind energy resources.

Large and medium-sized windpower plants can be built in a few places. Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and the islands along the southeast coast are suitable for large windpower generators. In these areas, 15 large-sized windpower generators have a total installed capacity of 15,000 kW. But in most areas of the country, small-sized windpower generators are more appropriate. In 1993, China had 119,000 small-sized windpower generators, with a total installed capacity of 17,000 kW. (see Figure 7.6). Together, these generators produce approximately 37 million kWh annually. In Hebei and along the coastal areas of Jiangsu, for example, 1,500 windpowered water lifters irrigate and desalinate farmland.

Figure 7.6 - Extension of Small-Sized Windpower Generators, 1985-93

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy refers to heat energy produced from the interior of the earth. Usually the temperature of the water in geothermal wells and springs is about 20 to 60 degrees centigrade. It is suitable for use in aquaculture, crop breeding, hatcheries, and greenhouses. Geothermal energy is used in 860 places around the country, providing energy to 1,400 hectares of cropland and 930 hectares of aquaculture.


China has pursued an integrated rural energy development strategy, focusing on renewable sources of energy, and following a careful approach of scientific experimentation, trial demonstrations, and continuing evaluation. It has taken the county as the basic unit, and simultaneously achieved coordinated development and widespread improvements in the rural economy and in environmental quality.

As the market economy evolves in China, the shortage of energy involves not only shortages in fuelwood for household use, but shortages in commercial energy as well. Energy is needed for development of the rural economy, for industrial development in towns, and to meet the growing energy demands of 900 million farmers increasing their standard of living. Toward this end, a comprehensive programme of rural development has been pursued, involving coordination among various departments and scientific and research units. Emphasis is given to developing local energy sources, improving efficiency of commercial energy, and making energy sources mutually complementary and coordinated.

To date, more than a hundred counties have carried out programmes of integrated rural development; they have succeeded in increasing energy capacity and in providing improved economic, environmental, and social benefits. This, in turn, has helped to reduce women's heavy household burden, improve the living environment, expand employment opportunities, increase incomes, raise living standards, protect the environment, and promote health. It is widely praised by women as "the second liberation of women."


1 Deng Keyun is Deputy Director, Department of Environmental Protection and Energy, Beijing, China.