The use of biogas in rural areas is expected to increase five-fold in the next five years and the number of household biodigesters—installations that turn animal dung into methane gas for cooking and lighting—will reach about 10,000 this year, officials and energy experts said this week.
Om Kimsir, secretary of state at the Ministry of Agriculture, said the National Biodigester Program, a joint project between the Agriculture Ministry and the Netherlands Development Organization SNV, had so far installed about 9,500 household plants in 12 provinces.
“From year to year, the plant construction is increasing in number as the economic, social and environmental benefits of biodigesters…become better known,” he said during an international workshop on biogas organized by SNV in Phnom Penh on Wednesday.
Mr Kimsir said that by 2012 the program aimed to have installed the Farmer’s Friend Biodigester in 18,400 rural households, while the program’s long-term goal was to establish “a permanent domestic biogas sector on a commercial, market-oriented basis.”
Jan Lam, senior biogas advisor at SNV, said the number of installed plants would reach 10,000 in 2010, adding he expected the biogas program to surpass its 2012 goal. “The growth [in demand] is increasing fast,” he said during a break at the workshop.
“In the provinces where we first started, Svay Rieng, Takeo, Kompong Cham, Kampot, we now have a lot of momentum,” he said, explaining that demand for the plants had increased there after farmers had began to understand and trust biogas technology.
“If we continue to do well, we should have 50,000 installations in 2016,” Mr Lam said, adding that among the roughly 2 million rural households in Cambodia, about 300,000 had the potential to install a biodigester.
According to the Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey 2009, 93 percent of all rural Cambodians still rely on firewood for cooking, while only 11 percent have access to electricity.
The low-tech biodigesters provide these households with an alternative energy source.
Constructed with bricks and mortar, and buried underground, the plants turn animal and human dung into methane gas. After water is added, bacteria decompose the dung, which gives off odorless methane gas. This is piped into the farmer’s home where it fuels a stove and gas lamps, while the decomposed slurry can be used as fertilizer for crop production.
Lam Soleng, National Coordinator for SNV’s biogas program, said during a presentation that the program’s biodigesters differ in size from 4 cubic meters to 10 cubic meters and range in price from $450 to $1,000, and that SNV will provide a $150 discount subsidy per plant.
She said after plant installation, households could on average save about $29 per month on cooking fuel and fertilizer, allowing them to earn back their investment after about one year. Families would also no longer have to collect firewood, Ms Leng added, which saves them several hours per day and reduces deforestation.
Ms Leng explained demand for the plants received a strong boost during the past two years after microfinance organizations Prasac and Amret started providing special low-interest credit for buying biodigesters. She added the organizations had received a total of $3 million in loans from FMO, a Dutch development bank, to provide these loans.
The program also trains villagers in running small biogas construction companies in order to develop an independent, market-based biogas sector, Ms Leng said. Program funding for subsidies on the plants is being generated through the sale of carbon credits, which are earned because biogesters reduce methane emissions, she said.
Under the Kyoto Protocol carbon credit scheme, emission reductions from development projects can be sold as credits to industrialized countries that want to off set their emissions.
Rogier van Mansvelt, an independent energy expert, said the quality of the plants was one the factors for the biogas program’s increasing popularity among farmers. As a consultant Mr Van Mansvelt surveyed 120 plants of between one to four years old and found all were still working. “This is exceptional,” he said.
Mr Van Mansvelt said Cambodia had “enormous” potential for the expansion of its biogas sector, adding that in countries like Vietnam and Nepal SNV had helped develop similar national biogas programs, which have built several hundred thousand biodigesters.
He said however, that the program’s continued success was “somewhat dependent on how much aid is coming. Lately they received a lot of donor funding.” “The question is what will happen when the subsidy [for a plant] stops, how attractive is it then for farmers?”
Mr Van Mansvelt also pointed out that biodigesters remained out of reach for the poorest farmers, who could not afford a plant or lacked the cattle-several cows or pigs-to produce 20 kilo of dung per day required to fuel it.
Som Vann, a farmer in Kampot province’s Dang Tong district, said by telephone that his family had benefited much from the biodigester he bought in 2007, as they no longer had to buy or collect cooking fuels.
“Biogas can reduce money spent on buying wood, charcoal and kerosene, and it can also bring free time to work on other things. Especially our children have more free time to study,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)