The Challenges and Promises of Bio-Gas Digesters in Rural China

This past week, I went to a village outside of Lijiang, Yunnan, to further research how biogas projects are being implemented in rural China. Biogas is a type of gas produced by the biological breakdown of organic matter, such as manure, in the absence of oxygen. The anaerobic digester is fed with biodegradable wastes and the air-tight tank transforms waste into renewable energy that can be used for cooking and electricity.  Through conversations with Mr. Chen at Yunnan Econetwork and with farmers, I began to get a more in-depth understanding of the barriers and possible solutions to the uptake of biogas digesters.

Currently, the Energy Bureau provides subsidies for families to construct biogas digesters. According to Mr. Chen, the Foresty Bureau mandated the installation of biogas digesters to prevent farmers from logging and causing deforestation.  When the biogas digesters are installed and a problem arises, farmers have to either fix the digester by themselves or call the Rural Energy Bureau to come and fix it. Most farmers don’t understand how the digester works and are unable to fix it, and the Rural Energy bureau lacks the physical and financial resources to help farmers repair their digester. While initially farmers may use the biogas digester for cooking, over a period of time when problems arise, the biogas digester is abandoned. One farmer I spoke to, who was previously the village chief three years ago, said that he estimates only about 20% of farmers in his village still use biogas. The government had installed biogas digesters in their village about six years ago, and his family had been maintaining their biogas for five years, up until last September, when he stopped maintaining the digester. This farmer is knowledgeable about environmental issues through his work in water resource management for the village, yet even he became too busy to maintain the digester.

This past week, farmers have been busy preparing the land for planting season, and in order to better understand their workload and life, I went out to the field with them. Farmers in China do not have advanced farming technology, and thus rely on their physical strength to tend the land. Through working alongside the farmers, I was acutely aware of how severe the drought is, and how it is a focal concern of farmers. The day of a typical farmer is long and physically exhausting. They are out on the field early in the morning and return home late in the evening. Most farmers raise around 10-40 livestock, and have to gather feed for their animals. With worries of the drought, physically taxing labor nearly 365 days a year, feeding their livestock, and combined with many other factors, it is no surprise that many bio-gas digesters are left abandoned.

In order to maintain a properly functioning bio-gas digester, the farmer has to add mashed up manure into the digester daily or every other day, depending on the family’s energy needs. If the farmer stops adding manure into the biogas digester for a period of time, then the material in the digester will no longer be active and fresh, and all the fermented material in the biogas digester must be cleaned out. Every year or two, the biogas digester needs to be cleaned out and the plastic tubing connecting the biogas digester to the stove and rice cooker must be replaced. Unlike solar water heaters that have been enormously popular in China, bio-gas still hasn’t been successfully implemented, because it requires maintenance work, while solar water heaters do not. Yet the benefits of bio-gas far outweigh the single benefit of hot water that solar water heaters provide. Some of the benefits of biogas include reducing emission of greenhouse gases, diverting waste from entering the water system, producing slurry to use as an organic fertilizer, and reducing indoor air pollution.

While some farmers still use biogas and are educated about the many benefits associated with it, there needs to be more education on the larger environmental and social benefits of biogas through workshops and the media to promote biogas as a technology farmers should invest in.  If bio-gas is to succeed, the government needs to create fiscal policies to attract more private companies to enter into the market. Market forces ensure that users can receive the technical help they need to repair their biogas digester in a timely manner. Currently, in all of Yunnan Province, there are 2.1 million rural biogas units installed, but besides the Rural Energy Bureau, there is only one company, Zhen He Neng Yuan (振和能源) that provides biogas maintenance services. According to Mrs. Au, a representative of the Yunnan biogas company Zhen He Neng Yuan (振和能源) based in Kunming, the Energy Bureau still controls the dissemination of biogas projects because it is easier for them to control the flow of subsidy to each household.  However, she is optimistic that with the Chinese government’s focus on renewable energy, the government will shift towards market-based commercialization.  For factory farms, a private market exists to build large scale biogas digesters to manage the substantial amount of waste produced.

In order to raise money for biogas projects not covered by the Rural Energy Bureau, some environmental non-profit organizations have looked into applying for Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) status for biogas projects to offset greenhouse gas emissions, but many of these efforts are unsuccessful because the application cost is expensive and many of these biogas projects are too small in scale. Currently China has 652 CDM registered projects in wind power, hydropower, biomass, and landfill, but in the agricultural sector, only three are successfully registered CDM projects.

There is enormous potential for biogas digesters to be a technology farmers would want to adopt, and numerous benefits associated with its use. Through social marketing, market mechanisms, and sound government policy, biogas digesters can become a successful technology.

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