China Chases the Mirage of Biomass-to-Electricity


". . .some [biomass-to-electricity] plants can only operate at 30%–40% of capacity due to fuel shortages"

China's biomass-to-electricity (B-E) industry is booming. Thanks to favorable government tax policies, subsidized energy prices and fat giveaways from the UN Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), the Chinese government has approved over 70 (B-E) plants, more than 30 of which are now operating, with a total capacity of about 3,000 megawatts (0.37% of China's total power capacity).

China produces about 700 million tons of crop waste per year, equivalent to about 350 million tons of standard coal. Currently, most of it is burned in the fields; but if all of that waste were utilized as fuel, China could cut its Co2 emissions by about 850 million tons, according to a recent government estimate.

In 2007, the National Development and Reform Commission laid out plans to invest $220 billion in renewable energy, including options for ethanol and bio-diesel for motor fuel. And in 2008, the central government mandated that 80% of China's crop wastes be used for fuel by 2015.

But that ambitious goal will not likely to be met. Farming in China is dominated by small family-owned farms. Thus, the crop waste is scattered over a large area which makes collection and transportation expensive.

According to the NDRC, some of the biomass-fueled power plants estimated that the price for crop waste should be about $24/ton; but the reality was quite different. Crop waste cost $24/ton when farmers sold it to the collection stations, then the price rose to $40/ton after processing and transport to the power plants. After storage and further processing cost, it rose to about $50/ton.

According to China's Renewable Energy Association, some of the first (B-E) projects were profitable, thanks to favorable government policy and CDM subsidies. But today, some plants can only operate at 30%–40% of capacity due to fuel shortages.

Some power plant operators are now buying forest lands and planting trees to assure future supply—a move that exposed yet another weakness: water availability. China's water supplies—measured on a per-capita basis—are only one-third those of the world average; increased biomass use will likely make water shortages even more acute.

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