A recent analysis of an energy production plant in Romania found that biogas saves 114 thousand tonnes of direct CO2 emission per year that would have been generated by combustion of methane. Moreover, the plant generates energy with significantly less emission than CO2 in energy systems powered by fossil fuels. While the global consensus is to cut down on methane combustion, emissions savings would help decision-making in methane-heavy Kenya, for example. The country generated a staggering 28027 kiloton of methane (equivalent in CO2 emissions) in 2012 – more than double the 1970 level (12000 kt/methane).

Refined biogas has the potential to shift Africa’s reliance on polluting fuels. ASCENT developed the CEVA concept to supply a renewable energy to 100,000 people in four different countries over five years.
By Ashvin Ramasamy

From coast to coast, 730 million Africans rely on polluting fuels to meet daily needs. This alarming statistic reflects still high demand for less sophisticated energy sources: charcoal, crop waste and firewood and to a lesser extent kerosene — despite average income seeing increases. A 2014 report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) noted that bioenergy consumption has been showing steady increase in Sub-Saharan Africa in comparison to the whole energy mix (including electricity, liquid petroleum gas, among others). This is supported by demand growth that skyrocketed by 50% from 2000 to 2012. The goal is to shed light on how biogas can be mainstreamed into the energy transition and be beneficial for those most dependent on polluting biomass.

Why does unrefined biomass represent a concern to the environment?

Let’s first answer some basic questions. Biomass is energy obtained from burning organic matter. When plants and trees undergo photosynthesis with the sun, energy is produced. The stored chemical energy (i.e., glucose) is released as heat upon burning. Supply of traditional forms of biomass to households for cooking represents a big economic activity in urban areas, and a large proportion of rural residents collect and consume unrefined biomass as an essential fuel (i.e., it has no commercial value as a commodity and is not traded). In fact 60% energy requirements for families comes from woodlands and forests in Sub-Saharan Africa. Two interrelated consequences weigh on the heavy use of wood and charcoal for preparation of food and for heating homes. Through their burning, wood smoke creates carbon monoxide and particulate matter — harmful substances to humans and undesirable for the atmosphere — but the problem goes beyond that. At the current rate of deforestation, trees are not given the time to utilize their capacity to absorb carbon fully because over-harvesting is depleting forestry stock.

How can we utilize waste to generate energy?

Organic waste has the energy potential to not only meet private and commercial energy needs but help reduce greenhouse gas emission. Instead of dumping organic waste or letting it decompose unsustainably, technology exists to turn the waste into highly energetic fuel. Landfill refuse decomposes with the help of bacteria — in the absence of oxygen — to generate landfill gas, consisting of one part methane and one part carbon dioxide. Both are known deleterious greenhouse gases (GHGs), with high potential to influence global warming upward. Putting the organic waste to transformation stops the would-be emissions from entering the atmosphere and generates a renewable, clean energy source.

Cold Hard Facts on Methane and LFG

How ASCENT’s CEVA could make biogas “mainstream energy”

The CEVA project has the potential to address environmental and socio-economic concerns by introducing biogas production in African communities lacking clean energy. First, the project would forego the consumption of 0.5 to 1.0 hectares of trees. What does that mean in terms of carbon preservation? In Kenya, the most carbon-rich forested area only covers approximately 650,000 hectares, out a total of 3.5 Mha of forested area. In tropical forests, a hectare can absorb 250 metric tons of carbon. Just 100 hectares translates into savings of up to 25 kilotons of carbon. A pilot project will be implemented in a Least Developing Country (LDC), possibly Guineau Bassau, The Gambia or others. 500 medium size digesters will serve 10 households at first. Reduced reliance on firewood use translates into health benefits. Digesters do not pose any risk to indoor pollution, while exposure to wood smoke is linked to respiratory disorders in households that rely on firewood. Training programmes intended to make the community self-sufficient would enable residents to maintain and operate the technology themselves. With other benefits the project aims to deliver, this is just one of many biogas initiatives that have been made possible through positive government support. On the long term, CEVA seeks to develop clean biogas for 100,000 people, spread out over the territory of four LDCs.

In Zimbabwe, decision-makers are pushing forward with biogas production. Lower Gweru is seeing the first biogas facility getting the green light in its history. This comes on the heel of material donation from the environmental ministry. Moreover, Zimbabwe runs a national programme to furnish communities with biogas digesters. This responds to the energy shortage, provide clean energy options and increase livelihoods, among other benefits. As of early 2017, nearly 1400 households had adopted biogas technology for their daily energy needs — many in rural areas where utility infrastructure is lacking or non-existent. Support from the users and policy-makers is high, and a $1 million fund in government spending in 2014 would help kickstart a loan programme to implement biogas technology on larger scale. In a separate development, Chiredzi is the site of six model villages that has tapped into the advantages brought about by renewable energy. Funding from intergovernmental organizations are enabling villagers to use their own cow dung to power their biogas digesters. Beneficiaries noted that reduced walking time, the absence of black smoke and faster cooking were positive aspects of the technology. Costs associated with burning firewood was also reduced significantly. Overall, the four-year project (2014-2018) has been boosting household income while filling energy needs gaps and supporting sustainable development goals.

The evidence is clear: biogas holds a multitude of benefits both for society and the environment. It represents a unique tool for achieving cheap, efficient and clean energy goals — and can compete, or best, co-exist with other renewable energies. Governments facing difficulty in delivering infrastructure can implement policy alternatives to promote and draw market-based opportunities to their local authorities. SNV, like Hivos, worked in close partnership with Zimbabwe officials to realise their biogas requirements. A working model with successful results can be replicated. In part this is ASCENT’s aim with Hivos for Kenya, with long-term goals to spread the idea but also engage communities to take ownership in their biogas equipment. How can you help make better lives and generate higher income in Africa? Talk to your government representative. Take action by reaching out to your community leaders too and exchange ideas with your peers on biogas. You are the actors of the energy transition