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Interview with Mike Bess and Ankit Agarwal: Bioenergy for Sustainable Local Energy Services and Energy Access in Africa

In this episode of the Power for All podcast, Anand Pathanjali speaks to Mike Bess and Ankit Agarwal from BESA 2 project on behalf of NIRAS LTS. NIRAS-LTS partnered with Aston University, E4tech and AIGUASOL for a two-year research project entitled ‘Bioenergy for Sustainable Local Energy Services and Energy Access in Africa - Phase 2’ (BSEAA2), part of the Transforming Energy Access (TEA) programme, funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). The TEA programme aimed to create innovative solutions for scaling up technologies and business models to support energy access in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

Filing the gaps

Sub-Saharan Africa has a huge variety of bioenergy feedstocks with an enormous potential to meet Africa’s burgeoning demand for modern energy services. Making more effective use of biomass- based energy can play an important role in improving energy access. Given that biomass feedstocks are closely related to agricultural practices and land use, suitably designed bioenergy investments have the potential to improve agricultural productivity, support agro-forestry, localise energy supply, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, reduce deforestation, generate supply chain economic activities, deliver social benefits and empower poor communities.

However, commercial bioenergy development has been extremely fragmented with a track record of poor implementation in Africa. Key barriers to its commercial utilisation include:

  • Biomass resource (high dispersal, poor supply infrastructure and high sourcing costs)

  • Technology (insufficient understanding amongst local players of feedstock-technology fit and a lack of technologies tailored to African contexts)

  • Economics and finance (inadequate or non-existent supply chains, high costs of pre-treatment and conversion, and insufficiently robust and tested business models)

  • Unfavorable institutional and regulatory frameworks and inadequate understanding of interfaces between different supply chain stages and actors


Insights and Conclusion

The project began with the identification, analysis and screening of a range of bioenergy ‘pathways’, to identify the most promising opportunities for further investigation. Seven priority demand sectors in five countries were shortlisted. These sectors were investigated in more detail to explore the experiences of both adopters and non- adopters of bioenergy technologies through the study’s six inter-linked themes. A summary of the key conclusions from across these seven sectors is presented below:

  • The availability of sufficient and suitable feedstock is generally not a barrier to adoption of bioenergy, provided there are durable and commercially viable aggregation systems in place and clarity of ownership, particularly if the feedstock is not available on site. 

  • Technology is rarely a limiting factor for combustion-based combined heat and power (CHP)systems, though more local adaptation and supply chain development for AD technology would boost the economic case for biogas.

  • The economic case for bioenergy, especially for combustion-based CHP, requires significant on-site demand for heat, otherwise the resources are wasted.

  • In all cases there should be a transparent enabling environment for electricity suppliers to access the national grid (e.g. cost-reflective Feed-in-Tariffs, net-metering, wheeling to third parties).

  • Bioenergy for thermal applications offers the most growth potential within the sectors studied.

  • Investment in biomass-based electricity generation is largely limited to enterprises with significant internal requirements.

  • Wider adoption is constrained by unsupportive or poorly enforced policies, with a need for much stronger government commitment, particularly for supporting grid electricity exports.

A stand-alone study on the prospects for commercial biomass gasification in sub-Saharan Africa was also undertaken. Drawing upon African and relevant global experiences in gasification over the past forty years, the study concluded that the challenges hindering gasification development in Africa are too onerous to overcome. This gives no room for optimism that gasification can be a commercially sustainable technology for the region.

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