29 Dec 2010 10:29

Biomass holds potential for China's struggling bio-energy industry - experts

By Victor Wang

Shanghai. December 29. INTERFAX-CHINA - China has been working for several years to promote its bio-energy sector in the hopes of balancing a coal-dominated energy mix. Yet with tight arable land resources, experts have suggested that biomass, rather than grain-based ethanol fuel, would to be the best option for resolving this issue.

"China does not have excessive grain supplies because of its relative lack of arable land. This has hindered the development of the bio-energy industry," Xiao Mingsong, Secretary General of the Chinese Association of Rural Energy Industry (CAREI), said at an industry workshop in Beijing this November.

According to central government statistics, China has around 130 million acres of arable land, or the equivalent of around 9.5 percent of the world's total. Yet the country's per-capita arable land area stands at just 0.106 acres, or 23 percent of the global average.

"Using grain supplies to feed a population of 1.3 billion remains a major long-term concern for China. As such, the central government has taken pains over the past decade to prevent the country's arable land area from falling below 120 million acres. Anything below that level and the country would have difficulty maintaining an annual grain output of above 450 million tons, the minimum needed to feed its ever-growing population," Xiao said at the workshop.

The dearth of arable land also means that China is not able to grow the kind of crops used as feedstuff for bio-energy production such as corn in the U.S. and sugarcane in Brazil, Xiao noted.

Throughout the 1990s, China had ambitious plans to expand its ethanol fuel sector by making use of its grain surplus at the time. Although the country drafted a number of renewable energy development blueprints for ethanol and bio-diesel fuel output, most have since fallen by the wayside in the face of unstable grain supplies, Xiao said.

One type of bio-energy that is less affected by the land issue is biomass. In this process, crop waste is burned after harvest then used as feedstock for thermal plants or compressed it into so-called block fuel.

According to industry statistics, of the 600 million to 700 million tons of biomass that China produces each year, around 30 percent goes to waste.

Xiao said that the efficient collection of biomass materials and advanced machinery to process it are the two main unresolved issues the industry faces.

"One roadblock preventing the advance of biomass-based thermal plants is the cost of collecting biomass itself. It is also fairly expensive to transport such a lightweight commodity over long distances," Xiao said. "These factors make coal-based thermal plants a much more desirable investment option than biomass."

"Additionally, the machinery currently being used to compresses biomass into block fuels is less than satisfactory. We have tested a number these machines and few of them are capable of operating over extended periods of time," Xiao said.

Li Lei, a renewable energy industry analyst based in Jiangsu Province's Lianyungang City, said that the development of China's bio-energy sector is lagging far behind wind, solar and nuclear power.

"In recent years, the debate among industry experts regarding the promotion of bio-energy has centered largely on the country's lack of natural resources. Some argue that China should instead focus on renewable energy sources that have greater room to expand like wind and solar power. That said, I believe that China should develop and invest in biomass technology in the event of breakthroughs that would fundamentally change the industry," Li said.

"Even in the face of these setbacks, developing the bio-energy industry has three benefits: reducing China's reliance on fossil fuel imports, curbing pollution and increasing farmers' income," Xiao said.

Xiao is optimistic that the country will find solutions to the high cost of collecting biomass and the poor quality of compression machinery.