April 23, 2007

Biomass Gasification at the "Chin-dia" price

Thomas Friedman talks about the need for new alternative energy systems to be affordable at the "China price" or, more broadly the "Chin-dia price" - cheap enough for China or India to deploy because with the demand for renewable energy so high in those countries, they may indeed be the first to develop and deploy them. He contends that the ultimate solution(s) will have to compete economically with the "Chin-dia price". Certainly, without near global deployment of a variety of technologies suited to each culture and eco-system, alternative energy will never effectively shift the energy paradigm to carbon-neutral renewable feedstock.

We typically think of "biomass gasification" as an elegant but expensive alternative to co-firing or fossil fuel combustion. A recent Biopact article titled Biomass gasification to power rural India out of energy povertydispells that myth:

Even though there is no magic solution to the age-old development problem of bringing electricity to the rural poor, some elements and factors have been identified as key: decentralisation, reliance on locally available energy resources (water, wind, the sun or biomass) and, crucially, the need for low-cost systems.

Experts from India think these principles and requirements converge in a technology known as biomass gasification, in an electrification concept that has become commercially feasible and reliable (in-depth discussion of the technology, here, or see the image showing a downdraft biomass gasifier, click to enlarge). The energy system may be applicable to rural areas in the developing world at large because it is the least costly of the common alternatives. Depending on local circumstances, it is estimated to be between 15 and 20 times less costly than photovoltaics.

Several community-operated experiments with decentralised biomass gasification and electrification are now underway in India, and it looks like the technology can literally turn marginalised communities into thriving and prosperous societies (see the case-study). Drawing on this success, an ambitious initiative by science institutes and the private sector has been launched aimed at mass-producing efficient small to medium-scale gasifiers

It turns out that Ludditism - the tendency of technology detractors to hold up deployment for any number of reasons - is the most expensive part of any alternative energy technology. If Americans persist in delaying implementation of even the most tested and reasonable solutions to our environmental/energy problems, we will cede leadership in the investment and development of emerging technologies.

technorati , , , , decentralization


Kody said...

I don't see any dollar values thrown around.

Out of curiosity, how much would a small-scale system cost for a village? In dollar-values or ROI...

Robert said...

I have been reading and learning about using biomass to make fuel for a while ( you can see some of my notes here: http://rgr.freeshell.org/woodgas/ ) and I don't think the problem is instinctual ludditism. Americans are generally willing to plunge headlong into all sorts of new technologies that have little benefit. The problems with using biomass are real problems.

However, I think it is probably economical in some situations. I think it is likely to be used more to alleviate the western world's energy dependencies rather than help poor people, unless devices can be designed that require very small upfront capital investment.

Robert said...

Gasification can play a significant role in delivering a sustainable energy economy and is therefore one of the most technically and economically convincing energy possibilities for a carbon neutral economy.