Energy & Resources

Critical mass

Why China has high hopes for biomass energy

Critical mass

Biomass power would be cleaner

Straw tends to be regarded as insubstantial matter; a straw poll is usually a highly provisional one and men ‘made of straw’ are said to be easy to dislodge.

But for Jiang Dalong, president of Dragon Power, straw is more a strength than a weakness. In fact, it is driving the growth of his biomass energy business.

Biomass is a broad term that refers to living or recently dead biological matter that can be used to generate electricity (it includes crops, trees, stalks, wood and organic waste).

China wants to generate 15% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and expects biomass to be the second largest contributor (15 times the size of solar power, but a tenth of hydropower) with 30 gigawatts.

Jiang, who founded Dragon Power only five years ago, is well known within the sector and features this month in an expansive article in the China Daily. Dragon Power already has 13 biomass energy plants in operation with another six under construction. Hay and corn stalk feedstock is collected from farmers, dried and oxidised, and then burned in pressurised boilers to produce super-heated steam for electricity generation.

The approach fits well in the rural context. The Chinese Academy of Agricultural Engineering suggests that 600-700 million tonnes of hay is produced annually in China, of which about half supports domestic heating, animal feed, fertiliser and paper production. Most of the rest could be made available for energy generation – a biomass substitute for something like 250 million tonnes of coal.

It also contributes to wider governmental goals in the countryside. Most biomass plants (which are concentrated in grain producing areas like Shandong, Henan and Anhui) generate a thousand jobs each. Farmers also receive an average of Rmb242 per tonne of hay provided, and Dragon Power pays out more than Rmb600 million ($87.6 million) annually.

So Jiang champions biomass energy as a path to future profit for all concerned; certainly for the farmers and for the biomass energy producers, but also for the wider community in terms of more sustainable energy generation.

Not everyone is quite as convinced. A general criticism of biomass is that there is little new in burning straw or wood for energy. The poorest rural households continue to rely on traditional stoves to do just that.

But this seems unfair, as Jiang and others are trying to build businesses of a different scale, which are also hoping to take on more of the national burden for electricity generation.

Another drawback is that the burning of biomass material generates a carbon footprint of its own. Supporters of biomass techniques counter that, as the material being burned is only “recently dead”, the outcome is carbon neutral. The straw or hay has absorbed an equal amount of carbon dioxide from the air when growing, distinguishing it from fossil fuels, which have been buried deep underground for thousands of years. Anyway, biomass’ adherents argue that analysis must take a relative perspective and that their approach has less than 10% of the contaminant material of coal.

Aside from the theory, Jiang points to more practical considerations. Much of the straw feedstock in China is being burned anyway, as farmers try to clear their fields of crop residues at the end of each growing season. Beijing loses 13 days of clear skies annually as a result of the stubble-burning season.

A more valid criticism of biomass energy is of its economics. Few of the plants built so far have made money, and those that do rely on revenues from carbon credits. Biomass generation costs four times as much as coal powered energy to set up, so further government subsidies may be necessary to encourage wider take up.

An average plant also requires a huge infrastructure of collection centres, middlemen dealers and up to 60,000 hay farmer clients. Some argue that this means that large, centralised facilities will always struggle to generate adequate financial returns. Instead, the government should choose to subsidise family-size biomass boilers for use in rural households.

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