Biomass Power

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Biomass power is renewable energy produced from organic material. This can include plant or animal waste (i.e. rice husks, manure, or slaughterhouse waste), or plants grown specifically for the purpose of fuel.

Biomass can be turned into energy in the form of heat or electricity by burning it, converting it into gas (called gasifying), charring it into charcoal (called pyrolisis) or processing it into cooking fuel.

Organizations working in biomass fell into 5 areas:

  • Biodiesel
  • Biogas Digesters
  • Biomass Briquettes and Biochar
  • Biomass Gasification
  • Efficient Burning Stoves


Biodiesel is engine fuel made from plant oils. It is seen as a cheaper and greener alternative to fossil fuel diesel. Normal diesel engines can run on up to 20% plant oil unmodified, and 100% if retrofitted. While many plants can be used, the most well-known is jatropha curcas. Surveyed organizations using biodiesel are focused on either engines or fuel. Organizations focused on engines are developing or promoting biodiesel engines for farmers so that they can grow or collect their own fuel sources. Organizations focused on fuel promote how growing biodiesel fuels can increase the productivity of wasteland and farmland.

Use Cases

  • Africa Biofuel, in Kenya and Tanzania, is trying to create a market for a new oilseed plant, Croton Megalocarpus, which is indigenous to East Africa and therefore performs better there than jatropha.
  • CTx GreEn has developed a pedal powered reactor to turn local oilseeds into biodiesel. It combines this with an oilpress and biodiesel machines to deliver services to villages in Orissa, India, pumping water, powering electric generators, and running agricultural machinery like power tillers.
  • FREED is an Indian non-profit trying to make jatropha into an income-generating crop for landless poor farmers in Bengal, India. They are partnering with major fuel-users who own large tracts of unused land, such as the Indian Railways, to put plantations on the wasteland and grow the fuel seeds on a sales contract.
  • International Research and Development, Africa is a for-profit enterprise from Kenya that partners with sorghum growers to produce ethanol for cooking and heating purposes.  It also manufactures a cooker that is specially designed to run off of sorghum-derived ethanol.  Farmers can purchase fuel and the cookstove against their sales of sorghum feedstock to the enterprise.


Biogas Digesters

Biogas digesters use bacteria to process plant or animal waste (manure or slaughterhouse waste), which contains methane gas, into burnable fuel, which can be used for cooking or to power turbines and generate electricity. A solid residue is also left which can be used as a fertilizer. This can be processed into a more portable form through worm-composting.16 million households worldwide have small-scale biogas digesters processing manure or plant waste. If not processed into burnable form, methane is 23 times more potent than CO2 in releasing carbon into the atmosphere. Therefore methane biogas digestion also has major climate benefits.

Use Cases

  • Cows to Kilowatts is a Nigerian enterprise that has built a large scale biogas digester that processes the waste from slaughtered cows into biogas. It can handle the waste from a slaughterhouse that kills 1,000 cows/day to produce 1,800L of cooking fuel or .5 MW of electricity. Its model is to run the plants at slaughterhouses, providing a service by removing the waste, and profiting from the sale of fuel or electricity.
  • SKG Sangha is an Indian non-profit that implements large household level biogas digester projects, on the scale of 10,000 digesters at a time. Digesters are built in family compounds and turn manure into cooking fuel, and are financed with the sale of offsets from the carbon reductions created.
  • Grameen Shakti sells biogas digesters in Bangladesh to households and to farmers who can then turn their animals’ manure into sellable fuel.
  • Sistema Biobolsa produces and sells biogas digesters for small and medium-sized farms in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America.  The digesters convert human and animal waste into clean-burning biogas and highly potent organic biofertilizer.  They also sell a number of accessories such as biogas cookstoves and motor adaptors that are designed for use with the biogas.


Biomass Briquettes and Biochar

To make biomass briquette fuel, plant waste is heated and compressed in a machine or kiln into solid charcoal or fuel briquettes, which can then be burned as cooking fuel. The fuel is carbon neutral because the initial growth of the plants used as feedstock removed carbon from the atmosphere equivalent to that released by its burning. Briquettes can be a cheaper replacement for liquified petroleum gas (LPG/propane), but must be used in stoves designed for them. Biochar can replace charcoal in normal burners.

Biochar can also be used as carbon-negative fertilizer, and some organizations, such as re:char, promote this as their primary use.

Use Case

  • Nishant Bioenergy Pvt. Limited is India’s largest biomass pellet cookstove manufacturer, with its stoves currently serving over 50,000 people per day. Nishant sells large stoves to university kitchens and smaller stoves to roadside canteens and also has a network of biomass fuel pellet manufacturers. Stoves cost the same amount as LPG stoves but save users 30% on fuel.
  • re:char is a US company piloting biochar kilns in East Africa. The biochar is equivalent to cooking charcoal, but is made by farmers by heating their plant waste in the kiln. re:char also encourages farmers to bury the char as fertilizer, which improves soil quality and does not release the carbon in the briquettes into the atmosphere, so the process is carbon-negative.
  • CCF Bushblok processes brush into logs in its own plant in Namibia. Bushblok’s fuel logs are then sold in grocery stores internationally. When Bushblok removes brushwood to use to make their fuel logs, native Namibian cheetahs have more habitat space, and can stay farther away from humans.
  • Eco-Fuel Africa teaches farmers how to turn their agricultural waste into char and then convert it into green charcoal briquettes that can be used in cookstoves.  The char that is not turned into briquettes can be spread on the farmers’ fields as organic fertilizer.


Biomass Gasification

Biomass gasifiers turn biomass waste (rice husks, pine needles or other dry material) into a burnable carbon monoxide/hydrogen gas which can be used for cooking or generating electricity. Generally used to make productive use of waste material that was previously burned or left to rot. One of the lowest-cost per kW methods of generating off-grid electricity. Plants generating over 100kW can light 10,000 homes, and cost under US $100,000. Community level plants usually range between 35-120 kW and require staff to run and maintain them. Plants in rural areas without large populations sometimes face challenges finding enough demand for the power generated. Small-scale gasifiers can also be used at the household level to fuel inexpensive, clean cooking.

Use Cases

  • AVANI, a non-profit focused on rural community development in Uttarakhand, India, has developed a method for gasifying pine needles, which are invasive and harmful to the local environment. AVANI’s gasifier currently produces 9kW of power, is enough to power their office, but in the near future AVANI plans to implement a 120kW gasifier which will allow them to power the local community and sell excess power to the government-controlled grid. Sale of power will cover the cost of maintenance and power and generate revenue for community development. Pine needle gasification also produces cooking charcoal which is given to villagers as payment for collecting the feedstock needles.
  • DESI Power, a private company in Bangalore, India, has developed a 50-100 kW gasifier plant. DESI’s plant runs on multiple feedstocks, which guards it against price fluctuations. It also runs 24 hours a day, which allows DESI to seek income sources such as powering mobile phone towers. DESI’s plants cost an average of US $200,000 to install, but this includes the cost of developing local enterprises generating income from the newly available power source.
  • Husk Power Systems is a private company providing mini-grid power to over 75 villages across Bihar, India with 35-100kW biomass gasification plants which run primarily off of rice husks. Plants are run by community members trained and employed by Husk. Husk Power has managed to keep its costs below US$.10/kW hour and is scaling at a rate of 2 plants per week and planning to reach 2,000 plants by 2014.
  • Limyè Pa w is an enteprise in Haiti that uses biomass gasification to convert agricultural waste into electricity, which is used to recharge batteries that are leased out to customers.  Limyè Pa w also sets up microgrids in communities and is working on a new model that would allow them to provide electricity to businesses.

Use Cases: Cooking


  • The Center for Rice Husk Energy Technology, located in the Philippines, has developed several types of rice husk gasifier stoves for household cooking and small industry. These stoves save users fuel costs and reduce carbon emissions, while allowing households to make use of rice husks which would generally otherwise go to waste. The Center freely distributes the stove designs, which have been adopted by over 100 organizations. They are currently being produced by 9 manufacturers across East Asia.


Efficient Burning Stoves

Efficient Burning Stoves improve the efficiency of traditional fuel sources by reducing smoke, cooking time, and fuel use. They are sold as a replacement for traditional stoves that many people across the developing world use to cook every day. Efficient Burning Stoves are relatively inexpensive and save users time and money spent collecting fuel. They also produce 40-50% fewer emissions than traditional stoves, which is beneficial to health and the environment.

Use Cases

  • Envirofit International is one of the world’s leading developers of clean cookstoves for underserved customers. Envirofit uses a grant model for product development and early stage product commercialization, and then uses operating income to develop and expand its businesses. Envirofit’s G-series stove uses up to 60% less fuel than other stoves and slashes toxic emissions by up to 80%.
  • EnterpriseWorks/VITA Ghana sells improved cooking stoves manufactured in Ghana through local retailers, generating income for distributors and reducing money and time spent and indoor air pollution for users.
  • Grameen Shakti sells a clean cookstove designed by the Bangladesh government’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. Since their improved cookstove project was launched in 2006, Grameen Shakti has sold 260,000 units through their own salespeople or through other organizations such as the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC).
  • Potential Energy’s clean cookstove was designed by engineers at the University of California, Berkeley. The cookstoves are stamped into boxes of pre-assembled parts specific to a certain design, called flat kits.
  • Prakti Design manufactures clean stoves in South India and exports them to Africa, Haiti, Nepal, and North India. Prakti is working on developing a ‘factory in a container’ to export production as well.
  • SELCO’s innovation initiative, Selco Labs, has developed a low cost cookstove designed based on feedback from women in Bangalore.
  • SKG Sangha has developed a two pan cookstove with with a vent pipe to reduce smoke through the rooftops of the house.
  • Trees, Water, & People has developed an efficient stove based on the model promoted by Aprovecho. The stove is currently 100% manufactured by artisans in Haiti, but TWP is hoping to outsource the initial stages of production in order to scale up.
  • VANREPA / Green Power sells improved cookstoves, which have sold quickly at a cost of $40.
  • Wisdom Stoves sells efficient and affordable biomass gasification stoves that also produce charcoal that can be used as cooking fuel or biochar fertilizer.