Remodelling Chinese Homes for the Next Millennium


When most people think of remodelling it is often the physical changes, like adding new curtains, modern flooring or wallpaper, that first come  to mind.  But for the 337 million  rural Chinese residents  – representing  32 percent  of the total population  – that lack clean cooking fuel, the kind of renovations UNDP have been working on are having far wider implications.

While some estimates predict that China is likely to achieve universal electrification by 2015, opportunities for rural communities to switch to modern energy services remain few and far between. Many feel that they are unable to guarantee making regular payments for gas and electricity or that the cost is too high, while others see wood and other biological fuels as the only alternative on account of their widespread availability and perceived cheaper cost.

As a result, fuel wood and crop residues like straw now account for 80 percent of rural household energy use. Yet they are anything   but   cheap.   Fumes   from   wood   and   coal-burning stoves and boilers in poorly ventilated  homes are responsible for half a million deaths in China every year – a quarter of the 2 million deaths worldwide. Stockpiling natural resources has also caused deforestation, loss of soil fertility and in some cases local desertification.

But by adding  one simple  step into the fuel cycle – biogas  – UNDP  has  been  tackling  these  problems  head  on,  through  a 5-year operation with the Chinese government dubbed “One Digester plus Three Renovations”. The aim of this 40 billion yuan (US$6.3 billion) initiative was to turn ordinary household waste into clean renewable energy by installing biogas digesters in 23 million rural homes – all for a shared investment of 3,200 yuan (US$500).

Installation of biogas digesters focused on the combined health and sanitation merits of renovating kitchens, bathrooms and animal  sheds  in order  to transform biodegradable  waste  into a clean, affordable and renewable energy source for cooking, generating electricity and fertilizer. In addition to indoor air pollution, this addressed other health risks associated with China’s 200 million dry toilets and 3 billion tonnes of untreated animal waste. Since recycling and pig rearing have long been common in Chinese households, interest in the project meant over 32 million biogas digesters that serve 130 million people were eventually installed.

In pursuit of the Ministry of Agriculture’s national productio”n plans this brought  the total number  of household  biogas  digesters  in China to 40 million units, and provided rural homes with 14 billion cubic metres of biogas annually. That translates into approximately 438 cubic metres per household, which is enough gas to comfortably cook 3 meals a day for a family of six or electricity to power a 60-100 Watt light bulb for up to seven hours every day.

Naturally, returns on investments have been promising too; with analyses finding that costs can be recovered in a year through fuel savings,  increased  income  and extra  time.  Women  and children have especially benefitted from savings of seven to ten hours per day. Previously, the low thermal efficiency of traditional stoves, at around 10 percent, meant a lot of time was spent gathering the amount of fuel needed even for simple tasks like preparing a meal.

With this extra time many women are investing in their education and raising their social status by attending classes at night schools and seeking new employment opportunities. At the same time decomposed waste that is rich in nitrogen has been raising productivity on farmland as a powerful fertilizer, and has reduced both the amount of money that is spent on buying chemical alternatives and the environmental damage that is caused by their use.

There  have  even  been  benefits  for  regional  construction industries, with increased demand for local expertise and building materials such as clay, sand, pebbles and bricks leading to growth in income, employment opportunities and skills training for the wider community.

Encouraged by the success of this project these outcomes hold much promise for China’s future energy ambitions. Strong government   commitments   reflected  in  part  by  subsidies  that helped increased the scale of the project and made biogas more accessible  to  rural  towns  and  villages,  have  been  followed  up by ambitious targets outlined under the 12th Five-Year Plan, to reduce energy intensity by 16 percent and carbon emissions by 17 percent, by 2015.

Biogas has since become one of the most efficient and sustainable options for addressing the economic, social and environmental issues affecting rural energy use in China. It has also proven its efficiency as a solution to the Millennium Development Goals, including those related to child and maternal health, infectious diseases and environmental sustainability.

Furthermore, by expanding and applying the programme’s best practices to other communities and villages in China and other developing countries, millions more residents can acquire similar assistance, satisfying their basic needs and enhancing their quality of life.