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Household Use of Biogas Systems in the Developing World

May 2nd, 2016 · 1 Comment · Energy, Waste

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By Shangrila Joshi Wynn
Faculty, Master of Environmental Studies

A few years ago I started a research project examining on-the-ground implementation of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), a market-based climate mitigation initiative focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously contributing to local sustainable development in developing countries. Research on CDM in Nepal led me to learn about the widespread – and growing – use of household biogas as an alternative energy source in rural households. What follows is an account of the institutional context for the successful diffusion of this ‘appropriate technology’ innovation in the Nepalese context.

Biogas is a methane-rich and flammable gas produced from the anaerobic digestion of organic biomass from the manure of domestic animals – and increasingly human excreta – that can be used as cooking fuel. While the introduction of biogas technology to Nepal reportedly dates back to 1955, its active promotion and diffusion gained momentum since the 1970s with the launching of the first biogas program by the Ministry of Agriculture in 1975/76, and the subsequent establishment of institutional infrastructure including the Gobargas Company in 1977, the Biogas Support Programme in 1992, the Nepal Biogas Promotion Association in 1994, and the Alternative Energy Promotion Center (AEPC) in 1996. Several international development organizations including the Netherlands Development Organization, USAID, and WWF have made contributions to sustain these national entities. A significant motivation for the introduction and early development of this technology was to enhance energy security and independence for the landlocked country that has typically relied on neighboring India for petroleum imports.

A woman standing in her kitchen next to her biogas cook-stove, demonstrating how the stove worked. Outside, her household had a functioning pit for storage of manure and biomass. At the time of this photo, a new outdoor toilet was being built to add to the existing biogas infrastructure.

A woman standing in her kitchen next to her biogas cook-stove, demonstrating how the stove worked. Outside, her household had a functioning pit for storage of manure and biomass. At the time of this photo, a new outdoor toilet was being built to add to the existing biogas infrastructure.

In recent years, an added motivator has been the incorporation of biogas projects in international carbon trading in the context of the Kyoto Protocol’s CDM as well as voluntary trading mechanisms. In Nepal, biogas projects constituted the first certified CDM projects, and they continue to be one of few approved projects within the CDM’s ‘small-scale projects’ category. The existence of baseline data related to the use of biogas – enabled by the institutional infrastructure created for its diffusion – allows biogas projects to meet additionality requirements of the CDM: the ability to show in a convincing way that the projects result in relatively fewer emissions than the fossil fuel counterparts they replace. Emission reductions are attributed to reduced consumption of firewood – the primary source of energy for cooking in Nepal (approximately 75%) – and other biomass and fossil fuels for cooking. A 2009/10 AEPC study found that the impact of biogas has been significant in reducing such consumption, particularly for firewood (by almost half), while consumption of fossil fuels was not significantly affected. An additional benefit is conservation of forests, a vital sink for carbon dioxide.

Biogas produced in an outdoor pit (not seen in the photo) is being transported to a second floor kitchen of this brick home via tubing. The premises include a kitchen garden (stalks of maize visible in the foreground) that is also fertilized with the slurry byproduct of the biogas plant.

Biogas produced in an outdoor pit (not seen in the photo) is being transported to a second floor kitchen of this brick home via tubing. The premises include a kitchen garden (stalks of maize visible in the foreground) that is also fertilized with the slurry byproduct of the biogas plant.

The AEPC has been the key institutional entity that has spearheaded the pursuit of CDM monies as a way of sustaining use of this technology in light of declining support from donor agencies. The first CDM-funded biogas project was registered by AEPC in Nepal in December 2005. Since then more than 60,000 biogas plants have been installed as CDM small-scale projects, with more in the process of registration. More than 300,000 household scale biogas plants have been installed to date. From the start, the adoption and installation of biogas plants by households in rural Nepal have been subsidized by the Nepalese government, with the support of donor agencies (and now increasingly with carbon financing), such that the individual household pays a reduced cost of approximately Rs. 7,000–10,000 (USD 65-95 at current exchange rate of 1 USD=Nepalese Rs. 106), which is typically more than one month’s salary for the average rural household. Where families cannot afford it, they might borrow credit from microcredit banks – where available – if they decide to install a plant.

A couple standing in their kitchen next to their biogas cook-stove. While the biogas infrastructure is partially installed, at the time of this photo, this household had not yet realized the benefits fully since insufficient funds prevented them from completing the construction of the outdoor pit for storage of biomass.

A couple standing in their kitchen next to their biogas cook-stove. While the biogas infrastructure is partially installed, at the time of this photo, this household had not yet realized the benefits fully since insufficient funds prevented them from completing the construction of the outdoor pit for storage of biomass.

The AEPC today engages in carbon trading on behalf of the households that choose to adopt this technology, acting as an intermediary between the households that enable emissions reductions and companies who are interested in buying these Certified Emission Reduction (CER) credits, brokered by the World Bank, with whom the AEPC has signed an Emission Reduction Purchase Agreement. The CERs produced by individual households are pooled together and sold by the AEPC to the Word Bank. The World Bank and the AEPC thus serve as brokers between the actual entities whose actions are enabling the carbon trade. While the households do not see a direct financial benefit other than the finances saved from the subsidized cost of the biogas plant, the AEPC claims to reinvest the CDM generated funds in creating subsidies for newer installations. This is seen as crucial to sustain the biogas program at a time when foreign aid is dwindling.

The author interviewing a couple about their biogas plant. Between the two women is the pit where biomass (including manure, agricultural residues, and human waste from adjoined outdoor toilet) is stored. The slurry from the pit is used as fertilizer in the kitchen garden seen in the photo.

The author interviewing a couple about their biogas plant. Between the two women is the pit where biomass (including manure, agricultural residues, and human waste from adjoined outdoor toilet) is stored. The slurry from the pit is used as fertilizer in the kitchen garden seen in the photo.

While the transition towards a neoliberal model of climate financing raises a number of questions for this new incarnation of biogas projects – including whether the seller of carbon credit is receiving a fair price in the market transaction, who determines the price of such commodified carbon, whether informed consent is received for such trade, and how effective these projects are in mitigating climate change – there appear to be tangible benefits from household adoption of biogas technology, including decreased reliance on firewood collection for cooking, and consequently less time and money expended to collect firewood, decreased pressure on forests, and importantly, reduced instances of mortality and smoke-induced illness for women and children that typically arise from indoor air pollution caused by traditional cook-stoves. These benefits form the basis of claims that under the CDM apparatus, biogas projects contribute to local sustainable development. While the questions outlined above are worthy of critical examination, the observed benefits from the biogas infrastructure could meanwhile be maximized by ensuring equitable access to the subsidies provided for biogas installation.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Terry Carroll

    Thanks for your work on this Shangrila! It tells the story very concisely, highlighting many of the CDM program’s benefits while pointing towards potential issues with it as well.

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