Challenges to Rural Biogas- Maintenance, Lack of Technicians, and Fragmented Authority

Last week, I met with Mr. Zhang Mu, the Yunnan Provincial Director of Agriculture, Department of the Energy Office, to chat about Yunnan’s biogas development.

According to 2008 government statistics, 2.17 million households in Yunnan have installed biogas. Yunnan Province’s plan is to construct a total of 2.7 million biogas digesters, which is equivalent to 70% of farmers having biogas digesters.  Each year, the Department of Agriculture plans to build 200,000 digesters.   The government has invested a significant amount of money in the household biogas program to protect the environment and provide an alternative energy source for farmers.  In the 12th Five Year Plan (2010-2015), the government provides a subsidy of 1,500 RMB, or half of the total cost, for construction of biogas.

While the government has invested heavily in construction, there is still insufficient funding and attention for the maintenance of household biogas digesters.  Each village has a service station that typically is in charge of 300-500 households, but since many of the farmers may live far away from the service station, few are willing to go to the service station to purchase a new biogas stove or broken appliance.  However, Ms. Li, a government official in the energy department of Yunnan’s An Ning City, recognizes this problem and told me their department is working on increasing the number of biogas service stations.

Each station is staffed with biogas technicians to teach farmers how to properly manage the biogas digester to prevent injuries, but according to Ms. Li, an energy government official of Yunnan’s An Ning City, most of the biogas technicians are not paid a very high salary, and so turnover is high.  She is working to introduce policy to increase the salary of biogas technicians to attract and retain skilled staff to ensure the proper operation of biogas digesters.   One major potential safety hazard is the yearly cleaning of the digester, which includes digging up the accumulated fermented material and adding a new batch of feedstock.  Since the biogas digester is fairly deep, proper techniques must be used to ensure safety.

Mr. Zhang Mu frankly stated that fragmented authority is a big problem in the Chinese political system.  There are five bureaus in charge of biogas: the agricultural bureau, forestry bureau, the poverty alleviation bureau, and the women’s federation.  While all the bureaus are involved in some aspect of biogas, there is no information sharing/communication between the different bureaus.  The fragmented authority and lack of oversight prevents biogas from being well managed.

While there are challenges to rural household biogas in China, the outlook for large-scale biogas digesters is more promising.  In Yunnan, there are 13 large scale biogas digesters (300 cubic meters and above). As China demands more and more meat, the shift to factory farming will be likely.  Factory farms are required to have a proper waste management system in place, and building a biogas digester is part of the prerequisite for a factory farm to operate.  Since building a large scale biogas digester diverts waste from the water and surrounding environment, the government heavily subsidizes the cost of constructing a biogas digester.   The central government pays 45% of the total cost, the local government pays 5% of the total cost, and the company pays the remaining balance.

The large-scale biogas digesters can provide sufficient energy to power their facilities, but for these biogas digesters to reach its full potential, it needs to be mandated to connect to the grid. Currently, the Chinese government does not provide any support for electricity generated from biogas to be connected to the grid.  According to Mr. Zhang Mu, the government is concerned that biogas digesters do not produce enough electricity and insufficient energy is produced at a high cost.  However, as more and more large-scale biogas digesters are built and with supportive policies, large-scale biogas digesters can be fully utilized.


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