In this Viewpoints feature, we caught up with Mayte de Vries who tells us how ETC Energy and its partners have been developing and promoting biogas projects for market prices in rural Vietnam with local masons and farmers to increase energy security.
Mayte de Vries, Consultant Energy and Business Development, ETC Foundation, Kastanjelaan 5, Leusden, The Netherlands, +31 33 432 6000, email@example.com, www.etc-international.org
Q. Tell us about yourself and ETC Energy
My name is Mayte de Vries and I’ve been working for the Dutch organisation ETC Energy for three years. I started working in Vietnam where I did a four-month traineeship on business development services and how to support energy businesses and markets.
ETC Energy’s Enabling Access to Sustainable Energy (EASE) was a programme that was active in eight countries – Bolivia in Latin America; Senegal and Mali in West Africa; Uganda and Tanzania in East Africa; and Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in South East Asia. This was a four year programme funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs where we tried to develop energy access markets for the poor.
About six years ago under EASE, we worked with the Research Center for Energy and Environment (RCEE) in Vietnam, an NGO working with energy and energy efficiency. Subsequently, we wanted to widen our activities with biogas in Vietnam and started working with The Center for Rural Communities Research and Development (CCRD) and the Vietnamese Gardening Association VACVINA, focussing on energy access in rural areas of Vietnam.
Q. Can you describe the energy background in rural Vietnam?
Vietnam is a socialist country where there are a lot of programmes supported by the government. Some of these are delivered by what are called Associations, which operate at national, regional, provincial, district or communal level. One of these is VACVINA, whose concept is of an integrated farm management system comprising of three elements: the garden, the fishpond and the animal husbandry activities. Belonging to VACVINA, CCRD implements its targets such as the promotion of livestock and biogas technology as part an environmentally friendly solution for treatment of solid waste.
Initially as part of EASE, we started two biogas projects with CCRD in Thanh Hoa and Nghe An, two of the largest provinces in North Central Vietnam where it was quite successful. In 2006-2010, we supported the establishment of 40 biogas micro-entrepreneurs at commune level with 20 digesters each. After the capacity building of micro-entrepreneurs on technical and marketing skills, they continued as autonomous suppliers to sell biogas plants at full market prices. With an average record of 250-300 plants annually per province, more than 1500 biogas units were sold in Thanh Hoa and more than 1000 units in Nghe An.
ETC Energy’s current project is funded under the Energy and Environment Partnership (EEP) in the Mekong Delta, which is from the Finnish government. We are trying to replicate this biogas project in the South of Vietnam which is an area where CCRD had not very been active before.
Q. Can you describe the biogas technology?
In Vietnam, there are the SNV KT1 and KT2 Fixed Dome models, which are made from bricks and have the round top. The biogas produced will be stored inside, on the top part of the digestion tank. This has pipes connecting to the kitchens and then to the cookstoves. There is also another model, the Polyethylene (PE) tube bio-digester, which consists of a digestion tube (having two PE material layers) placed half-underground where the animal dung will be treated. The produced biogas will be collected and stored in a system of gas reservoirs placed under the roof of pigsty.
Both models have their advantages and disadvantages; a particular problem is with the formation of hardened scum that can reduce biogas output during operation in the absence of annual cleaning and overhaul. What CCRD did is adapt the two models into one new system called 'VACVINA Hybrid Technology Biodigester with Automatic scum Control' also known as 'VACVINA Advanced Biodigester'. The tank collecting all the animal waste is made from bricks and is shaped as a square dome, which is easy to construct. It also has an outlet and plastic bag, which is the reservoir for the gas before it comes to the cookstove in the kitchen (Figures 1 and 2). The square part is located under the pigsty from which the manure falls easily in to the tank. The remaining slurry, which can be used for fertilising land, comes out through a different outlet.
Figure 1 Lady in Thanh Hoa province using biogas to boil water for tea (Source: CCRD)
Figure 2 A lady in Vinh Long province using biogas to cook food for the family dinner (Source: CCRD)
The 'VACVINA Advanced biodigester' is low-maintenance and well adapted to the local context. The underground flat-top design integrates both the pigsty and as well as latrine, while providing a concrete floor on which the animal shelters are built. This reduces land requirements to a minimum, as available space is a major hurdle for many households. Its hybrid nature with plastic bag reservoir helps keep the cost down and the innovative design prevents the accumulation of the hardened scum layer, thus maintaining gas output (see Graph A).
Graph A: graphic representation of how the VACVINA biogas digester works (Source: CCRD)
Q. How big is the digester?
Its a household system that can be used if you have at least five or six pigs or two to three cows, which usually produces enough gas for household cooking. In Vietnam, most farmers have pigsties around their house. Depending on their income, usually they have at least five or six pigs; others 20, 30 or 50, depending on their business. So for them its quite easy because the pigsty is right beside the house and so you can build the biogas digester by the pigsty and the gas does not have to go very far (Figure 3).
Figure 3: The CCRD director is explaining how the just installed biogas digester works and how to maintain it (Source: CCRD)
Q. What role does biogas play in providing local communities and the environment to build resilience to climate change
People in rural areas usually have to go out to gather firewood when they use the iron three-pod wood-burning stove. The resulting indoor air pollution and consequential respiratory effects have very negative impacts on their health. The positive aspects of biogas is that the cooking is clean, none of these health issues exist and people have more time to spend on other things than on gathering wood for cooking. Plus, a household biogas digester can mitigate an average of 5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year.
Another added value of is that the pigsty and its surrounding area are much cleaner. Usually, if you don’t have biogas, the manure from the pigs just remains in the pigsty for some time before people do something with it. So there’s a lot of smell, flies and generally unhygienic conditions. Since the manure goes down into the tank immediately with our biogas system, it gives a much cleaner environment both for the pigs and people living in the area. No flies, no smell, and people can also add their toilet to the biogas system (Figure 4). In Vietnam especially, people tend to have their toilet over ponds. I’ve seen it myself a few months ago where the toilet is placed over the fish pond! When the toilet is integrated with the biogas digester, the rivers and ponds become much cleaner, as well as the hygiene of the environment in general.
Figure 4 The pigs are being fed in the pigsty which is a lot cleaner thanks to the biogas digester (Source: CCRD)
Q. And you also said that there’s an effective waste management system with the slurry being used for fertiliser?
Yes, that’s right. That’s also another great part. The slurry that comes out of the biogas system when mixed with water is a very good organic fertiliser. People can use it for their home gardens and rice fields. There are more nutrients when you use slurry than chemical fertiliser and it is natural, which also makes it better for the environment.
Moreover, CCRD has successfully designed a bio-fertiliser product process at household scale by recycling agricultural by-products (rice straw, rice husk, bean plants after the harvest, water hyacinth) and slurry from biodigester that can help farmers to reduce chemical fertilisers and practice sustainable agriculture (see Graph B and Figure 5). This model obtained First prize on “Vietnam Innovation Day-2005” organised by the World Bank and Vietnam Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
Graph B: Explanation of how biogas slurry is being transferred into organic fertilizer (CCRD)
Figure 5: A quality check on the organic fertilizer is being done (CCRD)
Q. Tell us about the training involved for the communities in taking up the biodigesters?
We work with local masons by training them in the projects with the technical aspects of building a biogas digester. This takes around 14 days and its not only practice but also theory involving exams as well. After that, they have two to three days marketing training on how to promote the biogas digester, including its advantages and how they can sell the stoves (Figure 6). Then they start by selling the technology to households in the area.
We support these masons in convincing farmers to start buying the digesters, because biogas is not always so well known. We work with VACVINA who help the masons in promotion of the biogas digester. We use their network in the gardening association, as most of the farmers are members of VACVINA, to disseminate information about biogas. We have different activities for them, such as one stop information shops in each commune located in the VACVINA office where people can come and obtain information about biogas and how we work, where it is provided, how much it costs, what are the building materials etc. We also have radio talks through VACVINA to promote the system. After they buy the biogas digester, we have the ‘Seeing is Believing’ promotional schemes where in each commune that the project is active, the first two systems are installed as demonstration models - in Vietnam, people won’t buy technologies before they see that it actually works. The next six systems the mason sells have a 40% ‘ Early Bird’ discount. After that, they sell them for the full price with a small profit for the mason.
Figure 6: Participants at EEP supported technical and market training in Vinh Long, Mekong Delta (Source: CCRD)
Q. Can the biogas programme be grown to be sustainable?
Yes, our demonstration models and promotional activities with masons support them to get the first sales going. After that, we step out of the project and they have the skills and knowledge to continue selling the biogas digesters in the area. Most of them continue with the programme and they are quite successful with making a living out of selling these biogas systems.
Since October 2011 EEP Mekong has supported the promotion of 331 units in total, which is a good figure considering the challenges experienced during the first year including needing to stop for a few months during the rainy seasons and pigs being affected by the ‘blue ear’ disease.
Q. Can biogas provide energy security for the communities?
In Vietnam, locals will keep having pigs because they are the most important animals and all aspects of the pig can be used, such as for meat for example. As long as they have animals, they always will have manure and thus biogas, and so they will be able to cook. Depending on how many pigs, they can also use biogas for heating or electricity. It will always remain and won’t affect the environment in any way because the slurry is used and therefore there is no waste material from the biogas technology. If you compare that to say LPG, which is generally preferred and for which the market is growing, the quality is not as effective but the source of biogas is sustainable.
Q. How much does the system cost?
It depends on the size of the biogas digester. You can make it as big as needed it to be and depending on how many pigs you have, the basic system costs about 200-250 Euros. That is including the stove and all the building materials, including digester tank gas pipe, valves, inlet and outlet pipes, biogas stoves and gas indicator. There is a five-year guarantee on it and all the materials last for at least that long except for the plastic bag, which might be the one element that needs replacing once every five years. But if built correctly, it lasts longer.
Q. Is there a place for biogas in Africa?
SNV has been trying with the African biogas programme, but I’m not aware of how successful they are at the moment. I think that the main impetus in Vietnam and most of Asia is that they have their pigsties or other animals close to the house, whereas in say Western Africa, there are more pastures and cows grazing in wider areas. I would say that it is a challenge to translate it to Africa, but I do know that biogas is happening; there are also private companies in East Africa selling it but I can’t really speak for the context of biogas in Africa.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Even though a biogas system costs 200-250 Euros, which can be quite a lot for a farmer in Vietnam, good cooperation with the local bank has been very important for the households to be able to access a loan. Especially in the areas in Vietnam where we’ve been able to successfully link up with the local bank, the Vietnam Bank for Social Policies. It provides loans for low interest rates (2% per year and the credit is for 48 months) and is focussed on Water sanitation and Environment protection, especially for farmers and others that don’t have too much money. It works well because it immediately increases the sales of the biogas system.
The other thing that is different with our biogas programme with CCRD is that we try to sell the technology for real market prices and make sure that we are not distorting the private sector market with subsidies on the biogas. We’ve seen that our programme works really well because people do not stop buying after the Early Bird discount but continue to do so and for the full market price. So I think that’s also one of our strengths.