Is biomass a sustainable energy solution for off-grid villages in developing countries?


Much is said about moving to a biobased economy (BBE) for the production of food, feed, fuels, materials and products1 particularly in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals and delivering on the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation, published in 2016 and 2015, respectively. The question considered here is whether the better provision of biomass can help to provide energy solutions for off-grid villages in developing countries consistent with reaching these goals. Several scenarios indicate that bioenergy in the form of biomass and biomass resources could provide up to 30 % of the global energy supply in 2050 and will be crucial in achieving the new target of 1.5⁰C temperature rise. However, the full life cycle analysis of the scale up of biomass production and usage is a priority if stakeholders and policy makers are to avoid devastating collateral damage to the environment and food security1,2. What is certain is the need for action because delay will be even more costly and hazardous.

Primary energy supply

Fossil fuels supply almost 82 % of the world’s energy demands with well-documented impacts on greenhouse gas emissions and human health and wellbeing. There is a growing trend towards bioenergy in the form of fuel, electricity and heat. Bioenergy contributes approximately 10 % of the world’s primary energy supply alongside coal / peat (29 %), oil (32 %), natural gas (21 %), nuclear (5 %), hydro (2 %) and geothermal (1 %). Bioethanol and biodiesel currently provide about 3 % of the world’s transportation fuels which according to in some projections, could increase to about 30 % by 2050 2.

In 2014, renewable energy in the USA accounted for 11 % of domestically produced electricity, in the UK 19 % (provisionally 25 % in 2015) and in Germany 30 % (peak generation from wind and solar, 74 %). The relative sources of renewable energy in the UK were wind, 49 %, bioenergy 35 %, hydro 9 % and solar PV 7 %. In 2015, China, the world’s leading investor in renewables, installed 32 GW of wind power and 18 GW solar power in 2015 so that her total wind capacity of about 145 GW is the largest in the world.
Biomass briquettes in the making


In more developed countries biomass in the form of ligno-cellulose feedstocks is plentiful and is the world’s fourth largest energy resource. It is renewable and can be sustainably used to produce bioelectricity and heat in large-scale biomass plants with a conversion efficiency of about 25-35 % or 35-45 % when co-fired with coal. Bioenergy in the UK is derived from landfill gas, sewage sludge digestion, biodegradable energy from waste, co-firing of wood with fossil fuels, animal biomass and plant biomass. At the large DRAX power station, 2 of 6 units have been converted into using 5Mt per year of wood pellets and small amounts of agricultural feedstock, providing 7-8 % of the UK’s total renewable electricity generation3,4.Biogas, a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide, is produced by anaerobic digestion of organic waste as the feedstock including manure, landfill organics, or dried and ensiled grass2.

Advanced conversion pathways of biomass (wood, industry residues, logging residues, agricultural waste, municipal solid waste, sewage sludge and dedicated energy crops, algae) are also being investigated using thermochemical processes such as pyrolysis and torrefaction (biochar) to produce hydrocarbons and biomethane for transport fuels, natural gas substitution, and high efficiency power and heat generation. Biomass fermentation and chemical processes give rise to ethanol and higher alcohols using sugar and starch crops for energy-dense carriers5,6.

Mauritius was one of the first places to supply electricity from combustion of its crushed sugarcane stalks which is sold back to the distribution grid. Sweden has central thermal plants using wood pellets and municipal waste producing heat and electricity for the national grid and district heating, contributing 7 % of the total electricity supply. Germany has recently reported greater usage of land area for energy crops for biogas (corn silage, grasses) than for the production of biodiesel or ethanol. China has biogas units running on animal and human waste which fuel 30 million households and provide 1.2 % of China’s total energy use.

Biomass for off-grid villages in developing countries

UNDP advocates that energy is central to sustainable development and poverty reduction efforts and the lack of electricity is a major constraint to economic growth and better welfare in developing countries7,8. Over 1 billion people globally (600 million in African countries) live ‘off the grid’ in remote villages without a reliable supply of energy for lighting homes, cooking, charging mobile phones, or powering businesses. The national grid may never reach many of these remote villages for geographical and economic reasons7,8.

Off-grid villages in many less developed countries (LDCs) are highly bio-based, but in a basic and unsustainable way1. For sub-Saharan Africa (excluding S Africa), over 80 % of the total energy supply for heating, cooking and processing of agricultural produce is derived from biomass such as fuel wood and agricultural residues. Most cities in LDCs with booming populations have a great dependence on wood energy which means that biomass in these areas is in many cases exploitative and non-renewable leading to deforestation.

The opportunities for better biomass production are far reaching. Improved and renewable biomass production for cooking off-grid using novel crop and forestry systems, crop rotations that reduce soil degradation and combat pests and diseases, productive enterprises based on biomass utilisation, and alternative markets for times of oversupply are among promising options for the future7,8,9,.Potential biomass feedstocks include woody cellulosic biomass (grasses, trees, wastes) for combustion to produce heat and electricity; maize, wheat and sorghum for starch; sugar rich crops (sugar cane, sugar beet) for fermentation to produce ethanol; and oil seeds (rape seed, soy, sunflower, palm oil) for pressing and transesterification for biodiesel production2,5,6,.

Africa has 12 times the land area of India, grasses have the potential to regenerate degraded soils, plants such as Agave can be grown on dry land, and technical advances in genetically modified drought resistant plants are some of the emerging prospects. In addition LDCs are less locked into existing infrastructures and are better positioned to leapfrog in technical terms, as in the case of mobile phones and solar technology. But they are disadvantaged by underdeveloped institutions such as agricultural extension services, an unskilled human resource base largely based on subsistence farming and livestock rearing, lack of access to information and market channels, and poor legal structures for land and property9,10.

African countries and Brazil are frequently identified as the two regions with the greatest capacity for biomass production. Africa has the potential to meet both its food and fuel needs from biomass, but since it was largely bypassed by the green revolution cereal crop yields have barely improved in 50 years. If a bio-based economy is to flourish in African countries they will need to use the advanced plant breeding technologies enjoyed by more developed countries, technological know-how, improved infrastructure for transportation, better energy availability for agricultural processing, energy democratization, and address conflict resolution10.

Elizabeth Mukwimba M-Power customer with cookstove 01

Domestic cooking off-grid

Biomass and biogas have a major role in cooking and heating in off-grid villages in developing countries. Under present conditions, 3 bn people in the world burn wood and agricultural waste for this purpose which causes respiratory illness and deaths of 4.3 million per year, primarily among women and children. In India, solid fuels account for about 63 % of total household energy consumption with 954 deaths per million, exceeded only by Cambodia. Redesigning cookstoves that use wood or biogas with more complete combustion is a key to addressing health hazards.

An important event in the Smart Villages Initiative’s ongoing programme was a workshop in Myanmar with participants from Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Vietnam. Among numerous lessons learned was the need to hear women’s voices from groups and unions in the design of improved cookstoves as women are key agents in household cooking practices and most at risk of being affected by indoor air pollution. Furthermore, improvements in the manufacture and performance monitoring of clean cookstoves, and scaling up the deployment of improved cookstoves are highly desirable11. Other approaches are being discussed in Indonesia and Bangladesh involving a shift from biomass to other energy sources including liquid natural gas.

Energy resilience off-grid

Energy poverty means that most farmers who do not have reliable access to electricity or mechanical power lack the motive power required to drive farm machinery and irrigation. The latest report from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC suggests that producing conven¬tional biofuels in low-income countries could raise rural incomes beyond what is required to offset ris¬ing food prices12 but energy dense fossil fuels will still be needed for long-distance haulage6. In Ethiopia, farmers’ participation in biofuel programmes encouraged greater use of fertilizers and improved farming technologies, leading to higher food-crop produc¬tivity and better food security during the year. One precondition for success, however, was farmers’ access to high-quality and productive biofuel crops. Efforts to promote jatropha as a biofuel crop in many parts of Africa, with some exceptions, have had less success due to the use of low-yielding varieties and inadequate exten¬sion services9.

A bio-based exemplar is the Maasai village of Terrat located in the Manyara region in Tanzania. It was at a crossroads with youth leaving for cities and residents increasingly vulnerable to the pressures brought by globalisation. Realising that a lack of economic opportunities was driving the younger generation into towns and cities, villager Martin Saning’o began to dream of wanting to uplift his Maasai community and social-economic empowerment of his people since he was a teenager. He developed the Institute for Orkonerei Pastoralists Advancement (IOPA) and examined the main resources available to the Maasai: milk and livestock. The idea of processing surplus milk to make higher value dairy products, such as cheese, yoghurt, butter and ghee was discussed and, with the help of a Dutch family foundation, a company and five milk processing units were founded. IOPA sourced three biodiesel generations of 300kW capacity to run on biodiesel made from jatropha and croton, which are processed in-house. Electricity from the generators allowed milk processing to become an overwhelmingly successful economic activity and the village was able to successfully export their processed dairy products to niche national and regional markets exemplifying the successful use of bioenergy derived from locally-generated biofuels13.

The Smart Villages Initiative14 aims to provide policy makers, donors and development agencies concerned with rural energy access with new insights into the real barriers to energy access in off-grid villages in developing countries – technological, financial and political – and how they can be overcome. Biomass provides an option for energy access but it is only one of a diversity of local solutions which are becoming increasingly significant15.

Local solutions include pico-power and stand-alone home systems which derive energy from solar PV that provides lighting, communication, television, fans and limited motive and heat power (0.001-1 kW; $10-100). Micro- and mini-grids use hydro, wind, solar PV, biomass and hybrid combinations to enhance motive and heat power, and to power certain community-based services (1-1000 kW; $75-1000). Regional grid connections use fossil fuel, hydro, wind, solar PV, biomass and geothermal sources for a full range of electric power appliances with commercial and industrial applications (1000-1,000,000 kW; medium to large capital cost)16.

A recent policy introduced by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the Rurban Mission17. Non-bio-based minigrid development using predominantly solar as a source of energy will establish 300 rural centres in India catering for at least four adjoining villages each – urban clusters with modern facilities. The cluster aims to see development in different sectors, including electricity, health and education facilities and employment opportunities. Naturetech Infra is a company which has installed mini-grids in off-grid areas in India through corporate social responsibility (CSR) funding; villagers are charged for (subsidized) electricity using either a pre-paid or post-paid system. The company also installs street lights and solar systems specifically for schools, and makes grids large enough to support applications beyond just lighting. It has worked in 43 villages and electrified 3,500 households, with a total population about 10,000. On return to a village a few years after installation it has totally changed with internet in schools and economic development such as food processing plants (winner in Smart Villages entrepreneurial competition in India, 2016)18.

Biomass has problems

IFPRI has summarised how poorly structured policies around biomass production and usage in developing countries lead to negative outcomes for both the environment and food security. With properly structured and applied policies, biomass has the potential to contribute simultaneously to goals related to energy access, biofuels and food security12. A European Commission survey of the biobased economy for Europe showed overwhelming support for the new European strategy and action plan at both EU and regional levels. Nonetheless, numerous barriers persist. There are questions about insufficient linkages between policy makers, decision-takers and stakeholders; the lack of a long-term commitment to encourage investors and markets; the effectiveness of the current research and innovation actions; and the lack of market or consumer demand for bio-based products19.

Concerns have also been expressed by the European Academies Science Advisory Council20 which recommended that full account should be taken of the impacts of biofuel production on water, soil and air requirements, particularly where there are water scarcity/quality problems inside the EU and elsewhere. The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) recently concluded that ‘the combustion of wood in power stations and fuelling cars with bioethanol and biodiesel make virtually no contribution to reducing CO2 emissions. These technologies are therefore unsuitable for facilitating the transition to sustainable energy generation’21. Moreover, their controversial recommendations pointed to radically different solutions:

  1. Phase out the obligations regarding biofuel. In the meantime, impose more stringent sustainability requirements for the origin of biomass and demand transparency in this regard.
  2. Phase out the subsidy for firing/co-firing of wood in power stations.
  3. Increase the cost of emitting greenhouse gases.
  4. Encourage the use of biomass as a raw material for high-value products (cascading, biorefining) rather than for energy. Only burn what remains if it cannot be used for anything else.
  5. Encourage energy efficiency and fuel saving; there is much to be gained by doing so.
  6. Encourage innovations in the direct use of solar energy (photovoltaic, bio-organic)21.

Questions remain about the sustainability of global biomass production at scale particularly with regard to biofuels as unregulated production could threaten food security and damage the environment unless full life cycle analyses inform and underpin the work and recommendations of policy makers. In respect of LDCs, these concerns are reflected in worries about the over-exploitation of natural resources and a decrease in biodiversity20; food insecurity where land used for the increased production of crops for non-food use leads to invasive species that threaten native ecosystems22; displacement of indigenous populations and the loss of forest products; the collision between the provision of bioenergy feedstocks and food production which results in indirect land use change (iLUC; land outside a feedstock’s production area needed to replace the supply of the original commodity)2, 9.


Biomass has much to offer to the provision of future global energy needs, but an overblown focus on photosynthesis as a deployable and sustainable energy solution for off-grid villages in less developed countries could produce a false dichotomy and fail to take advantage of the potential of other forms of renewable energy. This dichotomy between ‘vegetative’ and ‘physical’ sources of renewable energy is regrettable and should be avoided as it threatens to lead to polarisation and missed opportunities to explore synergies.


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  16. Holmes J and van Gevelt T (2015) In: Smart Villages: new thinking for off-grid communications worldwide pp. 13-20. Ed. R B Heap, Banson: Cambridge.
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  22. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST). 2016. Barney J, Davis A. Porter R, and Simberloff D (2016) A life-cycle approach to low-invasion potential bioenergy production. CAST Commentary QTA 2016-1. CAST: Ames, Iowa.


Professor Sir Brian Heap is based at Cambridge and past President of the European Academies Science Advisory Council, Halle, Germany. Formerly Master of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge, he is a Fellow of The Royal Society and was Foreign Secretary and Vice-President. Hon Fellow of the Royal Agricultural Society, past Director of Research at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, and an international engagement in science, sustainable development and science advice for policy makers.

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