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Could bamboo be the bioenergy of the future?

With a single bamboo pole able to provide rudimentary power to a rural household for a month, could bamboo provide an answer to energy poverty in many parts of the developing world?

Source: Agroforestry World

An estimated 2.6 billion people rely on traditional biomass (such as fuelwood and charcoal) to fulfil their basic cooking and heating needs, and this is predicted to remain the situation at least over the next 20 years. Around 1.3 billion people are still without access to electricity.

While biomass fuels are generally portrayed for their negative impacts – linked to deforestation, land degradation and ill health effects – Oliver Frith, Acting Programme Director at the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR) believes biomass, particularly bamboo, can be a powerful tool for developing livelihoods as well as meeting biodiversity goals.

“Bamboo can have a transformative effect and turn farmers into energy producers,” said Frith.

He was speaking at a side event organized by the World Agroforestry Centre at the 12th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP12) during which he explained how bamboo can be used to generate electricity while restoring deforested and degraded lands.

There are wo ways to generate electricity from biomass: through gasification and conventional combustion. Gasification is most suited to small-scale power generation, such as in remote off-grid areas. This process produces a very clean gas with charcoal as a by-product, providing two fuels for the price of one.

For larger scale power generation, such as industries that require high levels of heating and cooling, conventional combustion is recommended. This process generates both heat and power, and is well suited to wood processing industries, such as sawmills or district heating systems.

“So why promote biomass not solar or wind energy?” Frith asked event participants, explaining that biomass has numerous livelihood benefits, including providing local employment and helping people to protect land. It can also be burnt on demand, removing the need for energy storage.

In the Indian State of Gujarat, INBAR has initiated a project where householders have become shareholders in a bamboo power plant. The plant is run throughout the day and generates electricity for household energy, water pumping and a local flour mill. It has 30 per cent ownership by women who have been encouraged through the project to grow bamboo.

“Whatever we do, we will have a huge demand for bioenergy,” outlined Frith. “The challenge is meet this demand sustainably.”

Frith provided an insight into work by INBAR on using value chains for bamboo to support landscape restoration and prevent land degradation.

“Bamboo can play a key role in restoring degraded lands,” said Frith, and restoration has been a key focus of COP12 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. In Allahabad, India, tens of thousands of hectares of degraded former brickfields have been rehabilitated using bamboo.

Bamboo takes around 4 years to mature, making it ideal for restoration efforts. It is also an Indigenous species throughout tropics and sub-tropics, native to Asia, Africa and the Americas. In terms of biomass for energy generation, in rain-fed systems, bamboo can yield from 5 to 40 tonnes per hectare per year. In irrigated plantations, this yield can increase to 100 tonnes.

In concluding the event, Phil Dobie, Senior Fellow at the World Agroforestry stressed that bioenergy can be used sustainably and cleanly without competing with other land uses.

“Bioenergy can help meet so many of the global targets the international community has been setting over recent years,” said Dobie. “As a research organization, we want to play our role in providing the evidence for agroforestry systems that can sustainably produce biomass.”

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