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China’s big plans for biomass

China, the world's top emitter, is only using about five per cent of its total biomass potential. Gosia Klimowicz reports on how the sector can supply more of the entire nation's annual energy consumption and solve its pollution woes.

China, the largest producer and consumer of electricity in the world, is also a significant contributor to global pollution. The Asian giant has been frequently making headlines due to its toxic air. Fossil fuels, particularly coal, comprise almost 90 per cent of the country’s current energy consumption.

On the other hand, China only obtains about eight per cent of its total primary energy from non-fossil fuel sources. Official targets released recently aim to increase this share to at least 11.4 per cent in 2015 and 15 per cent in 2020. These latest official targets are building on the Renewable Energy Law passed by the Chinese government in 2006. This law set the scene for the remarkable recent growth of renewables in China, through the systematic implementation of feed-in tariffs, subsidies and other incentives.

Dr Jackson Ewing, research fellow at the Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, says: “This can be seen as part of China’s efforts to reduce the dominance of coal in electricity generation because of supply and pollution-related reasons.”

Biomass, in particular, is a readily available source of fuel in China. However, currently only about five per cent of the total potential is being collected on a systematic basis. Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Engineering have estimated that if all the available biomass feedstock in China were utilised, it would create the energy equivalent of 1.2 billion tons of coal, more than the entire country’s total annual energy consumption.

Biomass will be a big part of the renewable agenda in China in not only providing base load power, but in creating employment in local communities, providing opportunities for wealth creation and reducing the environmental impact of agricultural burning…

Simon Parker, DP CleanTech CEO

Since introducing the renewables law, more than 260 new biomass projects have been completed providing a considerable 4,870 megawatts (MW) of additional grid-connected power. The country’s main biomass resources are agricultural wastes, scraps from the forestry and forest product industries, and municipal waste. Additionally, organic materials like poultry manure, fallen leaves and industrial waste, can be added to the supply mix and be converted to biomass energy.

According to Dr Ewing, some estimates have biomass demand increasing 40 per cent annually over the next three to five years, which will continue to grow significantly into the next decade.

“Biomass will be a big part of the renewable agenda in China in not only providing base load power, but in creating employment in local communities, providing opportunities for wealth creation through ownership of economic assets (that would otherwise have been considered as waste) and reducing the environmental impact of agricultural burning, such as excessive smoke and haze causing air pollution,” adds Simon Parker, chief executive officer of DP CleanTech, a worldwide biomass solutions pioneer.

DP CleanTech’s  model is based on local fuel sourcing and local power distribution, which comes from energy captured from annual crop residues – energy which would otherwise be lost to the environment through decomposition or field burn. While using a local fuel supply enables an optimisation for regional fuels, it also underlines the commitment to creating benefits and wider social engagement for the local community and the environment.

Parker predicts herbaceous crops with short carbon cycles, and perhaps even energy crops – plants grown as a low-cost harvest that is used to make biofuels (such as bioethanol) or combusted for its energy content to generate electricity or heat – will become more important sources of biomass fuel in China. In fact, the by-products from 2nd generation biofuel production are also becoming an important feedstock for biomass power plants. 

“Chief among such crops are rapeseed and other edible oil plants and some plants that grow in the wild, such as sumac, Chinese goldthread, and sweet broomcorn,” explains Dr Kejun Jiang from the Energy Research Institute in China.

“By 2020, such crops could potentially yield over 50 million tons of liquid fuel annually, including over 28 million tons of ethanol and 24 million tons of bio-diesel”, he says.   

Reducing NOx emissions

Aside from the Renewable Energy Law, the national government also passed another legislation that will impact the biomass sector. In 2012, China introduced stricter guidelines limiting the harmful emissions of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, or NOx.

This law, which is more stringent than those practised in developed countries like the United States, regulates emissions at a level of 100 mg/m3, and both old and new power plants will have to adhere to this policy by the middle of this year. Existing biomass power plants, especially those low-tech facilities, will have to quickly upgrade or be forced to shut down.

DP CleanTech, which designed and manufactured China’s first biomass power plant in 2006 and has since then installed 34 power plants across the country, has already developeda solution.

“We are launching a new boiler which has been designed to specifically address NOx emissions in a more effective and cost-efficient manner,” says Parker.

New modifications also tackle the combustion inefficiencies of poor quality fuel as well as the effect that such fuel has on product life. The boiler can be installed either in new plants, or in existing plants as a retrofit in order to  bring it up to regulatory standards.

The increasing influence of large scale farming and the interest of agribusiness in utilising waste resources more effectively may be a contributor to some of the changes that are required

Simon Parker, DP CleanTech CEO

“We expect that this iteration will be the new standard solution for our customers in China, and many other markets”, Parker adds.

Developing a stable, competitive market

Expansion of the biomass energy industry in China is limited by more challenges – chief among these are the rapidly rising fuel prices, fuel security, and the low overall level of industry development leading to logistical and organisational issues.

Dr Jorrit Gosens, researcher at the SP Technical Research Institute of Sweden, emphasises the government’s role in organising the supply for biomass fuels to reduce seasonal fuel scarcity and price fluctuations.

“Local energy agencies may have a key role in organising heat demand (which is the amount of energy needed to keep the temperature of a building or compound at a given value) from biomass power projects in local industrial parks or residential heating networks”, he says.

Heat networks, often referred to as district heating schemes, supply heat from a central source directly to homes and businesses through a network of pipes carrying hot water. This means that individual homes and business do not need to generate their own heat on site.

“This, too, may require a financial incentive, e.g., cancelling VAT for  heat from renewable resources”, points out Gosens.

On the organisational level, the inefficient structure of businesses specialising in biomass utilisation can be a serious obstacle, adds Parker.

The typical venture is not approached holistically nor integrated across the different stages of a project, leading to inconsistencies between the design, specification, production, and operation processes, he explains. This often results in an end product with poor quality and inefficiencies leading to low output and unacceptable financial returns.

However, biomass firms can avoid this mismanagement, he says. For example, DP CleanTech specialises in fuel analysis engineering at the outset, and follows through with design and project execution which ensures that plants are optimised for various situations.

“The increasing influence of large scale farming and the interest of agribusiness in utilising waste resources more effectively may be a contributor to some of the changes that are required,” adds Parker.

“Biomass is a long term trend with unrivalled benefits. Looking forward, stricter regulations, an increasingly competitive market and a growing awareness of the potential benefits and advantages of biomass, indicate that being at the forefront of technological innovation and invention is now more important than ever”, he notes. 

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