China’s new energy

The Ashden Awards are presented to projects around the world that pioneer new approaches to sustainable energy. Sam Geall caught up with the winners of this year’s award for enterprise, a north China company who are transforming rural lives.

“Today is the fifth day of burning and the most serious so far. Out in the street, cars are moving slowly with their headlights on because the visibility is only about 10 metres.” Ge Bo, writing on chinadialogue, described this terrifying scene last week, as farmers burning crop waste in the fields around Xuzhou shrouded the east China city in smoke.

Ge Bo’s testimony highlights the great proportions of China’s pollution crisis. But it also points to a positive example of how the country, due to the seriousness of its environmental challenges, can become what John Elkington and Jodie Thorpe have called “an incubator for solutions that can be applied worldwide.”

One of these radical solutions was developed by Beijing Shenzhou Daxu Bio-energy Technology Company (Daxu), a company based in Yanqing County, north of Beijing, who last night won the Enterprise Award at the 2007 Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy. The prestigious award was announced at a ceremony at the Royal Geographical Society in London, and was addressed by former US vice president Al Gore.

Daxu designed a stove for use in rural areas, which uses either loose or compressed crop waste as fuel. The stove is over 40% efficient, and allows a meal to be cooked in 15 to 20 minutes with minimal smoke pollution, bringing a potential for radical improvement in the environment and health of farming families where it is sold.

Sarah Butler-Sloss, the chair of the Ashden Awards judging panel, said: “If these technologies were expanded and replicated on a large scale, they would play a significant role in helping us to tackle climate change and poverty. What we need now is the political will to scale-up and roll-out these solutions”

I caught up with Daxu’s director, Pan Shijiao, on the eve of the awards ceremony, and asked him about his innovative design… 

chinadialogue: Firstly, congratulations on being nominated for an Ashden Award. Let’s start with the basics: what is the Daxu stove, and how does it work?

Pan Shijiao: Thank you for your kind words. My company produces a stove known as a biomass gasification stove. It’s different from a normal stove because it is not designed to use coal or firewood. Its design is also unique in two other ways. Firstly, it uses a chamber to burn biomass, before the resultant gases, such as carbon monoxide and methane, are carefully transported to secondary chamber with an additional air supply that helps to burn these gases too, so that the biomass is burned very efficiently. The second unique aspect is that the stove is fitted with technology that reduces the smoke and dust from burning the fuel. So the stove is not only energy-saving and very sustainable – since it allows users to replace coal with organic matter and biomass – but it also does not produce indoor air pollution, something farmers and householders like very much. 

cd: What are the main advantages of using a biomass stove, as opposed to a regular stove?

PS: Our stove is small, but I think it can bring great benefits. It replaces the need for firewood in places where farmers traditionally use a lot of wood for cooking and heating, so it can help to mitigate deforestation in rural areas. In China, if a farmer lists the necessities of life at home they will always rank firewood in the very first place, before rice, vinegar, tea or anything else. We made some basic calculations, and found that each biomass stove can save at least 1,500 kilograms of firewood a year – so it really helps to conserve the forests.

It also helps reduce emissions by replacing coal, which is not a renewable resource. At the same time it can contribute greatly to the health and hygiene of the families that use it – especially children and women who often spend more time at home and do more cooking – because it has no smoke and is very clean, unlike dirty coal. And it reduces costs for farmers; they end up spending much less money on fuel, and a lot of farmers say they like this about our stove. 

cd: The stove is designed to use local crop residues as fuel, after being made into briquettes. How are these crop residues normally disposed of in Yanqing county, where you developed the stove?

PS: There is a great amount of crop residue and waste in China. Statistics indicate that the country produces around 600 million tonnes of crop waste each year. Of this, a small part is used as fodder for livestock, and a small part is returned to the fields as organic fertiliser. But the majority is just left in the fields; very few people appreciate it. Farmers think it is just a useless by-product – and in many cases will set it on fire – a great waste of energy. This explains why Daxu designed a straw-based stove for use by rural householders; the process of briquetting is a way to use this energy. An average family in Yanqing county can use this straw to make a large number of briquettes free of charge. We estimate that about 1,500 kilograms of straw briquettes are sufficient for a year’s use for a whole family, and this could save about three tonnes of coal. 

cd: What were their reactions of the local people who first tested the stove?

PS: Well, we have had to keep upgrading our stove to newer versions based on the responses, comments and complaints of the users. Now we are in the eighth generation of the Daxu stove. Everyone has being saying they like it, and have even called it the ideal type of stove, because it’s easy and safe for use by old and young alike. We had some difficult times developing this stove, but now the farmers say they like it and the gasification works well with high energy efficiency. Before, some farmers were finding it inconvenient and difficult to use, or were worried that it was unsafe. But now these problems have gone away and we’re doing really well. 

cd: You have said that the Daxu stove is convenient and safe, and is now very popular with its users. But is it affordable for families in Yanqing county?

PS: That’s a good question, and we have had to tailor our designs to resolve this issue. In the end, we designed a number of stoves at different price levels, all of which keep the full functions of the stove but use different materials. Now we have some more expensive designs, intermediate level and cheaper versions of the Daxu stove, so families in different economic situations can all have access to the stove. 

cd: We read in the newspapers only today that researchers in the Netherlands are saying China may have outstripped the US as the largest carbon-dioxide emitter in the world. How important were these concerns in your design?

PS: This is a larger question, and a complicated one. My feeling is that this big issue of China’s carbon-dioxide emissions really needs to be discussed, and there is a problem that must be resolved. But it is also encouraging to see that the Chinese government and policy makers have realised the importance of this issue very clearly. Not long ago our premier chaired a number of energy-saving and emissions reduction conferences, which were broadcast on live television across the country to remind officials of the need to conduct sustainable development, conserve energy and reduce emissions so that we can help in the global progress towards sustainable development.

As a manager of a small enterprise, I think I should run my own company very well and contribute to this process. We have a philosophy: to do practical things in terms of energy saving and emissions reductions, so that we can have a better environment. And in doing this we address the same environmental concerns as the central government. It’s my opinion that adopting these stoves across the country could reduce emissions by around 20%. There are currently some 200 million rural households in China, and almost all of them have coal stoves.

cd: Finally, how do you see in the future of renewable energy in China?

Renewable energy has been a priority on the agenda of the Chinese government, and perhaps my company is only a part of the practical expression of this agenda. I think that renewable energy is a multi-dimensional project that includes solar, wind, biogas and many other forms, but biomass may be the most important, because China still has 70% of its population in rural areas. It is a practical part of life for the rural population that they must cook three times a day, and the statistics show very clearly that each year around 20 million coal stoves are being sold. These stoves are extremely cheap – sometimes only 10 to 15 yuan a piece. And when people are finished with them they just throw them away and buy new ones. So I think our stoves can have a bright future and have a good market potential, but the difficulty and the challenge for me is that not too many people know about our stove and the importance of our invention – in China and the rest of the world. And that is why I would treasure the Ashden Award: so that farmers can learn about this opportunity and other developing countries can learn about this invention.

cd: Thank you very much – and good luck at the awards.

Sam Geall is the deputy editor of chinadialogue