Introduction to the Commercialized Household Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic Digester

During the International Training Workshop on Biogas Technology for Developing Countries, I joined the 17 other international participants to visit a company in Kunming, Yunnan that produces fiberglass reinforced plastic digesters.

Kunming Blue Flame Science and Technology of Biogas Ltd.Co. has installed over 100,000 fiberglass reinforced plastic digesters in Yunnan Province including Kunming City, Yuxi City, Hong He Prefecture, Chuxiong Prefecture, Bao Shan City and fourteen prefectures, He Bei Province, Jiang Xi Province, Zhe Jiang Province, Sichuan Province, Vietnam, and Myanmar. Yunnan Normal University and Yunnan Provincial Rural Energy Engineering Bureau provided technical support for the project.

There are three different volume capacities: 4 cubic meters, 6 cubic meters, and 8 cubic meters. The weight of the digesters are 95 kg, 120 kg, and 145 kg respectively. For a 4 cubic meter digester, the manure from 3-4 pigs or 1 cow is sufficient for gas production. For a 6 cubic meter digester, the manure from 4-6 pigs or 1-2 cows is sufficient for gas production. For a 8 cubic meter digester, the manure from 6-8 pigs or 2-3 cows is sufficient. The product life for each digester is 20 years.

In most parts of the developing world where biogas digesters are used, digesters are constructed out of cement, stone, and sand. Compared to fiberglass digesters, cement biogas digesters are resource and labor intensive, and can be 50% more expensive than fiberglass digesters. For example, constructing a 6 cubic meter cement biogas digester would range from $1,000-$1,800 (including material and labor cost) in Africa, whereas constructing a 6 cubic meter fiberglass biogas digester in China would only cost $400. If the Chinese fiberglass digester were to be shipped to Africa (shipping cost would be $500, and the total cost would be $900), the final price would still be cheaper than constructing a cement biogas digester, depending on each country’s material and labor cost.

Moreover, the fiberglass biogas digester is less resource intensive, lighter (enabling convenient transportation), and requires less construction time. The fiberglass digester is composed of four parts, inlet chamber, upper dome, lower dome, and outlet chamber. These four parts can be separated during the transportation process and then easily put together during construction. The product is already manufactured in a standardized process, from production to installation, so the construction time is only 3-5 hours, whereas the construction time for a cement biogas digester is 7-10 days. Additionally, fiberglass biogas digesters are well sealed and airproof, while cement biogas digesters are prone to methane leakage due to the molecular spacing of cement and the molecular diameter of methane.

The fiberglass digesters have been fairly successful due to the superior design and material. During one of our field visits to a villager’s home using a fiberglass biogas digester, the villager told us there is sufficient gas supply to cook three meals a day and that a service personnel is readily available in the village should a problem arise. However, it is unclear if maintenance staff is available at each location site where the company’s biogas digesters are constructed. For biogas to be successful, farmers should learn the many benefits of using biogas, be properly trained on how to use and maintain a biogas system, and have a designated person in the village to be responsible for repairing biogas digester.

One of the workshop participant commented that families in his home country are larger than Chinese families, and an 8 cubic meter digester would be too small. Professor Zhang Wu Di, the head professor of the Bioenergy Department at Yunnan Normal University, said two 8 cubic meter digesters can be connected together to achieve a larger digester size. The fiberglass digester is only suitable for household use, and not for large scale industrial sized biogas digesters.

There is no one perfect biogas digester, but different environments and conditions must be considered before designing the appropriate digester.


International Training Workshop on Biogas Technology for Developing Countries

From July 19th-August 6th, the Biomass Energy Department at Yunnan Normal University, my research affiliation, is leading a three week intensive class on biogas technology for scholars and scientists from the developing world, sponsored by the Ministry of Science and Technology of the People’s Republic of China. The three week course includes lectures on biogas technology, hands-on lab experiments, and various field visits including a biomass gasification company, fiberglass digester company (producing biogas digesters made from fiberglass), wastewater treatment plant, rural cooking stove company, and biodiesel plant.

The participants are from seven different countries: Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Burma, Uganda, and, Thailand. The participants come from various organizations such as Grameen Shakti, a company that provides energy to rural villagers in Bangladesh and is a sub-division program from the founder of the Grameen Bank. From Indonesia, the Program Coordinator of the UNDP Tsunami Recovery Waste Management, an urban planning official, and biogas technical officer from Hivos Foundation, a European NGO is represented. The participants from Egypt and Iran are researchers in microbiology and agricultural engineering, respectively. From Uganda, a senior energy officer is represented, and from Thailand, we have a professor, researcher, and translator from a renewable energy company.

This opportunity to co-lead the training and interact with the 16 participants has provided me with the opportunity to learn about the state of renewable energy in different countries. I plan on writing more during and after the biogas conference- so stay tuned! So far, we’ve visited a biomass gasification facility and a rural household that uses a fiberglass biogas digester. I’ll write more on the details in the next post.

3rd Annual JUCCCE Energy Forum

The Joint-US China Cooperation on Clean Energy (JUCCCE) sponsored its 3rd annual Energy Forum on June 30, 2010 in Beijing. JUCCCE is an environmental NGO working to accelerate the use of clean, efficient energy in China through international cooperation. While this NGO is only three years old, it has accomplished a lot through its three key programs: energy smart cities initiative, smart grid, and consumer awareness. From June 24, 2010 until July 2,2010, JUCCCE cooperated with the National Academy of Mayors to put on a ten day training program for 20 mayors and 30 state owned enterprise leaders (in industries that consume a significant amount of energy, including petroleum, steel, aluminum, and aviation) on energy efficiency and building environmentally friendly cities.

The JUCCCE energy conference on June 30th afforded 4 mayors and 2 state owned enterprise (SOE) leadesr to share with the general public how second and third-tier Chinese cities and SOEs are meeting energy efficiency challenges. The speeches showed that major energy efficiency strides (contrary to the mainstream Western media coverage) are being made and is a top priority for these officials. The speeches from the four mayors also showed the friendly competition between mayors to draw investment, tourism, and media coverage to their respective cities. In addition to speeches from the mayors, other environmental experts from corporations and academia spoke on a variety of issues related to energy efficiency.

A round-up of the speeches from the forum:

Mr. Long Ya Wei, Assistant Governor of Tianijin’s Xiong District, shared that Tianjin has received an award for being an ecological demonstration city, and in October of 2010, his district will likely be recognized as a national level ecological city. Mr. Long Ya Wei also emphasized the importance of managing rural municipal solid waste treatment, which is often overlooked, as mayors focus its energy and resources on developing the city. Currently, Mr. Long Ya Wei and his team are exploring different methods to manage solid waste from the countryside.

Ms. Zhao Shu Mei (the only female mayor in the 10 day mayoral training program) is the Deputy Mayor from Zhejiang Province’s Jiaxing City. The mayor’s goals for the city include: 50,000 mu (1 mu = 667 acres), afforestation to reach 42%, and drinking water to reach level 3 (water level is ranked from 1-5, with 5 being very polluted and 1 being very clean). As with 60% of China’s 661 cities that face seasonal water shortages and over 100 cities that have severe water constraints, Jiaxing fits in both categories. While water pollution is not a major problem, supplying water to its 1.8 million people is a perpetual challenge.
Additionally, Jiaxing is also a demo city for green buildings and 50% of its buildings qualify for green building certification.

Mr. van den Berg, the marketing director of Philips Lighting stated that 75% of energy use is from cities. In cooperation with JUCCCE, Philips has donated 100,000 energy efficient light bulbs, in exchange for incandescent light bulbs, to young people in 6 Chinese cities this year.

Martin Schoenbauer from the United States Department of Energy emphasized the importance of clean energy cooperation between the United States and China. He pointed to eletric vehicles as an example; China is a leader in battery production and the US is a leader in motor controllers. In order to promote cooperation between US-China in the clean energy field, the US DOE has established the US-China Clean Energy Research Center, and $150 million will be spent in the next five years to deploy clean technology- CCS, clean transportation, and energy efficiency. Mr. Schoenbauer later moved to discuss building energy efficiency and cost savings. For example, in New York’s Hospital, $1.7 million is saved through retrofits. Building energy efficiency is even more important for China, given the fact that half of all new floors space is built in China, according to Mr. Schoenbauer.

Dow Chemical’s James Yan continued the conversation on building energy efficiency. According to Mr. Yan, the heat loss ratio in most apartment buildings are 40-45% heat leak from walls, 30-45% from windows, and 20-25% from roofs. For homes in northern China, heating in the winter time is a major use of coal. If 1 kg of coal is reduced, 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide can be reduced.

David Hathaway, the managing director of ICF, discussed energy saving programs in the US and China as potential paths to reduce carbon emissions. According to Mr. Hathaway, 52% of emissions are from buildings. The US uses the Energy Star program as a model to reduce energy use, and China has the Top 1,000 Enterprise Program, which sets energy reduction tragets for the top 1,000 energy consuming companies in China.

Mark Levine, senior scientist from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab presented a lecture on cool roofs as a means to reduce carbon emissions. Cool roofs reflect large amounts of radiation and can cause temperature to decline, which reduces the need for air conditioning and reduces carbon dioxide emissions. Currently, cool roofs exist in Greece, India, University of California, Davis, and a Wal-Mart in California. According to Mr. Levine, if all roofs in the world were replaced with white roof, there would be a 25 Gigaton of reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, which is equivalent to a 50% reduction in current levels of carbon dioxide emissions.

Mr. Sun Yu, Deputy Mayor of Shandong province’s Rizhao City, gave an overview of his city. While Rizhao only has a twenty year history, it has been growing at a rate of 15% for the last twenty years! The city has two economic development zones, and is also home to Rizhao Steel Co. Ltd, which produces 12 million tons of steel; however, the government and company has also spent several hundred million RMB in retrofit to reduce water consumption and sulfur dioxide emissions.

The last mayor to speak was Mr. Ma Han Cheng, deputy mayor of Ningxia Autonomous Region’s Shizuisha. Shizuisha is known for coal; it produces 20 million tons of coal. In 2000, Ningxia was the most polluted city in China, but now it is slowly in the midst of transforming its economy by shifting to the high tech industry, photovoltaic industry, and logistics industry. In 2002, it invested 1 billion RMB to treat the waste water of 793 plants. The mayor is working hard to improve the livelihood of the people and attract foreign investment to his region. Mayor Ma suggested that energy reduction targets should take into account the different conditions of the various cities in China.

The two state owned enterprises, China National Offshore Oil Corporation and China Space and Building Engineering, also discussed energy reduction measures through water savings, kitchen waste management, and electricity use.

The speeches from the mayors and state owned enterprise leaders informed the audience of the challenges and successes of China’s cities and enterprises moving towards a sustainable future. Collaboration and mutual dialogue between leaders in different industries, disciplines, and countries will be needed to combat some of the most pressing challenges of the 21st century.

Asia’s Largest Photovoltaic Station Outside of Kunming, Yunnan

The construction of Asia’s largest solar energy photovoltaic power station located at Stone Forest, 70 kilometers southeast of Kunming, started at the end of 2008. On May 25, the first-stage construction of an installed capacity of 20 MW has been put into operation. However, during my visit to the PV Station in early May, only 7 MW was connected to the grid, due to the lack of subsidies from the government. Upon completion in 2015, the total installed capacity will be 166 MW and a total investment of 9 billion yuan, which is equivalent to about 1.3 billion dollars.

The 166 MW PV power station is divided into two sections. The 66 MW area will serve as a science education site for students and visitors of Stone Forest, which is known for its karst formations and being a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 100 MW area will serve as an experiment and demonstration area. The station is expected to be fully completed by 2015, and with an annual energy production of 188 million kWh, and annual reduction of 175,400 tons in carbon dioxide emissions.

The solar panels are designed with solar trackers to follow the movement of the sun to maximize the amount of solar radiation absorbed and thus the total amount of power produced. The single axis tracker tilts the solar panel north to south, and the double axis tracker has an additional function of angling the panel higher or lower. During the summer, the panel is angled higher in the sky and further northward, while in the winter, the panel is angled lower and further southward.

Due to its high altitude and sunshine, Yunnan is an ideal place to utilize solar energy. After Tibet and Xinjiang Province, Yunnan is ranked third for the highest amount of solar radiation. Yunnan is known for being the province having the largest number of enterprises producing solar hot water heaters, amounting to over 200 different companies. Kunming’s city government has introduced policies to show its increased emphasis on utilizing solar energy. In its 12th five year plan, the government aims to integrate solar water heating into at least 90% of buildings, and for solar thermal heating to reach at least 50% of residential buildings, and for solar photovoltaic to reach 5 MW. All these initiatives aim to attract the country’s attention to Yunnan as a solar energy research and investment destination.

While Yunnan is abundant in sunshine, many challenges still lie ahead for the promise of solar energy to be fully realized. Connecting to the grid through the PV power station is 4-8 times more costly than through using traditional sources such as thermal power. Without government subsidies, companies would not be able to keep this sector afloat. However, Professor Xie at Yunnan Normal University’s Solar Energy Institute is optimistic that in the next 5-10 years, the price of solar energy and electricity will level out to be about the same. As the market for PV expands and technology improves, the cost of producing PV will drop, and as traditional resources become scarcer, the price of electricity will rise, which will lead to a leveling off of energy prices.

Hewlett Packard Considering to Use Manure to Power Data Centers

A recent article by the New York Times state that cow manure may power large data centers in the future. Since data centers have a huge need for cheap land and electricity, more and more centers are moving to rural locations. Dairy farmers also need an environmentally safe method to treat waste. Using biogas digesters to capture methane and turn it into energy is an innovative idea, and companies in China and India may consider this idea to power their data systems. According to HP’s calculations, 10,000 cows could power a 1 MW data center, which is comparable to a computing system used by a bank. The main challenge to turning this idea into reality is the high cost of purchasing and maintaining a biogas system. The equipment for a biogas system would cost $5 million and $30,000 to run it each year. However, an advocate in India seems keen on pushing forth to build large biogas digesters to power India’s massive IT industry.

Biogas System Effective in Reducing Environmental Degradation

This week I went to visit Zhen He Neng Yuan (振和能原), one of two private biogas companies in Yunnan. Zhen He Neng Yuan was founded in June of 2009 at around the same time as the other private biogas factory farmscompany, Hong Biao. Zhen He Neng Yuan produces large scale cement bio-gas digesters for , specifically farms with other 3,000 livestock. Due to environmental protection regulations, factory farms must build a system to properly manage manure, and biogas is a perfect solution to effectively manage waste and create energy. The government provides significant subsidies to factories to build these biogas digesters, ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 RMB ($1,500-$4,200). Without government subsidies, these factory farms would be unable to purchase these biogas digesters. Currently, the company has sold biogas digesters to three factory farms, and will sell two more in the next few months. The company is also planning on building a large biogas digester for the community outside of Lijiang, Yunnan, in Lashi Wetland(拉市海), in order to effectively manage the waste created by the horse riding tourism industry. The biogas digester will divert waste from entering the nearby wetland, and the energy created from biogas can power the fuel needs for a restaurant.

Zhen He Neng Yuan is the only private company in Yunnan that repairs and maintains household biogas digesters. The company also plans to build three communal digesters in the surrounding community of their research center in Yi Liang County. Each village (servicing 150 families) would be provided with a digester, and one or two community members in the village would be trained to upkeep the biogas digester. While having a communal digester may be more promising in encouraging the uptake of this technology, farmers will need to be economically incentivized to collect and carry their animal waste into a central location. The communal digesters in Dali City, Er Yuan County, has been successful because the government gives farmers 40 RMB (approximately $5.50) for each ton of manure they bring to the biogas station. While environmental education is essential to encourage farmers to voluntarily use and maintain their biogas digesters, providing economic incentives in the short term is the best motivator to sustain biogas use.

While the current dialogue on climate change centers on greenhouse gas emissions from industrialized sectors, little media attention is given to the impact factory farms have on climate change and environmental degradation. According to Compassion In World Farming, 10% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock manure and bacterial fermentation, which is five times the proportion of global emissions due to air transport. On factory farms, manure is usually stored in slurry form (a mixture of urine and feces), and this slurry emits methane and nitrous oxide. When manure is spread on the field, it emits nitrous oxide and causes nitrogen pollution of land. Additionally, animal waste contaminates drinking water supplies because the nitrate stored in lagoons can easily seep into groundwater.

However, biogas systems can reduce odors caused by improperly managed manure storage tanks, because the organic acids, the odor causing compounds, are consumed by the bacteria during the fermentation process. The heated digester also reduces pathogen populations in a few days and the digester effluent (the by-product after fermentation) can serve as a high quality fertilizer. When the effluent is properly applied, it can reduce the likelihood of groundwater contamination.

In a 2008 report by the Swedish Trade Council on renewable energy in the United States, there are 100 operational biogas systems at livestock operations in the United States and 80 in the planning stages. Due to increased financial support from state and federal programs, the demand for anaerobic digesters has increased since 2005. Biogas technology is feasible at about 7,000 dairy and livestock operations. Additionally biogas digesters have the potential to generate 6 MWh/year of electricity at livestock operations.

In order to reduce the environmental degradation caused by factory farming, the government needs to implement policies that limit emission of greenhouse gases from large manure management facilities, provide subsidies to encourage farmers to purchase biogas digesters, and allow farmers to sell carbon credits. By instating this triple pronged measure, farmers will likely view biogas as an attractive technology to invest in.

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.