People's Republic of China: From Waste to Clean Energy

Feature | 15 August 2012

Technology that can turn animal waste into gas is changing daily life for the better in rural PRC.

The project aims to increase usage of biomass-based renewable energy systems that will improve the environment and promote local economic growth.

The life of Zhang Jianfen has improved dramatically since 2004. That was when the 38-year-old from Xiying village in Shanxi Province, People's Republic of China (PRC), switched from using a coal-burning stove to a biogas-fueled oven to cook for her family of seven. Her cough disappeared, her eyes no longer burnt and, she says, the efficient new oven meant she spent 10 fewer hours a week in the kitchen. That time is now spent on more relaxing pursuits: a conversation with a neighbor, watching TV, or even an afternoon nap.

Ms. Zhang is one of thousands of villagers in the PRC who have benefited from the Efficient Utilization of Agricultural Wastes Project, supported by a $33.1 million loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

"Our project has made a tremendous difference to women. It is a custom in many of these areas for women to do all the cooking," says Yue-Lang Feng, ADB's lead natural resources specialist. "Switching from coal to biogas reduces the household drudgery of women."

The project, which covers the rural areas of Henan, Hubei, Jiangxi, and Shanxi provinces, aims to increase the use of biomass-based renewable energy systems. This is expected to improve the environment and promote local economic growth.

In the PRC, large quantities of agricultural waste are disposed inappropriately. Crop waste is often burnt, while animal waste is left to rot. These practices can be harmful to the environment, and also constitute a loss of potential energy and nutrient resources, which could add value to an integrated farming system, reduce costs, provide opportunities for an integrated pest management approach, and help implement organic farming techniques.

Generating biogas

The Xinxing Pig Breeding Co., Ltd. is a private enterprise that operates an intensive pig farming business. In 2007, with the support of an ADB-financed project, the company built a large-scale biomass gasification plant with an annual capacity of 210,000 cubic meters and constructed distribution pipelines to the nearby Xiying village.

Experts and associations are invited to teach farmers new techniques for growing organic vegetables, fruit, as well as household plants and flowers.

The company began supplying free biogas to 100 households as part of a trial run in 2008. Soon it will build a new biomass plant able to process waste from 9,000 pigs, allowing the company to supply biogas to about 500 households.

Liu Koumei, 50, is looking forward to the day when her house is connected to the gas supply. She also lives in Xiying village - on the opposite side of town from Zhang - but missed out on the initial trial. Coal sits in a pile of one corner of her yard. Her stove is outside too, which keeps the coal dust out of the house, but makes cooking a challenge when it rains or the wind blows.

"It takes me more than an hour to cook a meal for six people," said Liu, who lives with her husband, two children, and two grandchildren.

"Cooking for me is definitely not a joy."

Best practice

Liu Wenyong, deputy director of the project management office, says the government has adopted some of the best practices gained from this project. The Ministry of Agriculture is now implementing the promotion of biogas in rural areas nationwide.

Zhang Weimin needed little convincing. When he heard of biogas plants in other villages he quit his "iron rice-bowl" job as director of Daying village and started a private pig-farming company, Weimin Husbandry Cooperative, to supply biogas to his own village of about 500 households.

Meanwhile, 56-year-old farmer Fan Sanshu from Shanxi Province is reaping the benefits of growing organic tomatoes in a greenhouse heated by methane gas in winter and early spring, and fertilized with the sludge and effluent deposits from a biogas digester.

The digester, built between a pigsty and the greenhouse, is fueled by the manure of six pigs.

The biogas generated from this on-farm digester is sufficient for the Fan family to cook three meals a day and light the 200-square-meter greenhouse with gas lamps.

The tomatoes are in demand in urban areas, and fetch a higher price than conventionally grown tomatoes. Fan estimates that his income has increased 50% since the project began in 2006.

Training programs

The project attracted a $6.4 million grant from the Global Environment Facility to finance training programs and technical services for farmers and households. Under the project, experts and associations are invited to teach farmers new techniques for growing organic vegetables, fruit, as well as household plants and flowers. The project also helps the farmers develop markets by promoting organic food to urban dwellers nearby.

Maintaining the project's financial sustainability is important to ADB. "We give the farmers the seed money for their business to grow and provide training and help so that the farmers have access to the market. We always believe that our job is to help the poor help themselves," says ADB's Feng.

From 2002 to mid-2009, the local project management office has conducted 83 training courses for more than 350 skilled workers and technicians on biogas operations, more than 8,000 farmers on household financing and cultivating and breeding, and over 400 promoters for biomass utilization.

"If you just build facilities for them and don't teach them how to use them, they will soon lose interest and the intention to use them. Then the project will die. This is what we've learned from this project," says Liu Wenyong.

"Only if you provide training and update the farmers with new farming knowledge, and show them the benefits they can get from it, will they keep going with you. Farmers are very practical."