Biomass: a more sustainable energy source

An article by Shadrack Kiprono Kirui, Rainforest Alliance

One of the most important transitions of our time is the switch from an economy based on fossil fuels to one that uses sustainable and renewable resources. There is no escaping the fact that we need energy: not only for our private households, but also for the factories that produce the goods we use in our everyday lives. However, the massive use of traditional energy sources drives up greenhouse gas emissions, bringing about climate change. This entails serious risks for our ecosystem, human health and the economy. Using biomass briquettes is just one of many ways to produce renewable and more eco-friendly energy. But what is biomass, what makes it more sustainable than other energy sources, and who will benefit particularly from its use?

Waste is turned into energy

Various waste products can be used to make biomass, such as agricultural by-products (like straw or sawdust), liquid manure or organic waste (e.g. corn or potato peelings). The simplest way to turn agricultural waste products into high-quality biomass energy is to compress the raw materials into briquettes using high pressure. They can then be burnt for cooking or heating purposes, or used as an energy source in factories.

Briquettes are a more sustainable alternative, especially in situations where coal and firewood are still used as the main source of energy, such as in rural regions of Kenya and India.

Though these countries may appear far away at first glance, switching to more sustainable energy forms improves conditions not only at the local level, but also in other parts of the world. Driven by fossil energy sources, climate change cares nothing for national boundaries, after all.

The disadvantages of fossil energy as illustrated by Kenya’s tea factories

Kenya is the world’s third-largest producer and second-largest exporter of tea. Roughly three million families in Kenya depend on tea production for a living. Tea has to be dried after picking before it becomes the finished product we are familiar with in Germany – a process that requires a large amount of energy. Tea factories primarily use firewood, consuming roughly 100-150 trees a day. Recently this has led to the destruction of 5,000 hectares of forest per year – the equivalent of more than 7,000 football fields!

However, generating energy from firewood and coal not only harms our forests; the smoke released in the process is also extremely damaging to our health. Families often use fossil fuels for cooking and heating or light their homes with paraffin lamps. As a result, they regularly breathe in smoke and toxic fumes, causing around 21,650 deaths per year in Kenya alone.

Biomass: more eco-friendly, easy to produce, inexpensive

By contrast, briquettes made of biomass are very easy to produce and when used are less harmful to health than firewood or coal. Furthermore, they are much cheaper; and because they are already a waste product, no new material has to be manufactured or mined, which also protects forests. Households can cut their heating costs by more than a third with biomass, while this sustainable energy source could enable factories to reduce their demand for firewood by 30 percent. This has been demonstrated by a Rainforest Alliance project that is designed to help Kenya’s tea farmers and factories switch to renewable energies.

Biomass briquettes thus also give developing countries the chance to use waste products to produce in a more climate-friendly way, while at the same time improving people’s quality of life and protecting our forests – a win-win situation for humans, nature and the economy, in other words!

About the researcher

Shadrack Kiprono Kirui is the programme manager for renewable energies at the Rainforest Alliance. A graduate in energy management, he develops and implements viable renewable energy strategies with a view to resolving energy problems in tea-growing regions. To this end, Shadrack is responsible for the Rainforest Alliance’s Renewable Energy Project in Kenya.