Biomass A source of energy for thousands of years

Biomass has been used as a source of energy since time immemorial and still is very important today. For the traditional form of use the biomass remains largely unprocessed. Organic material such as wood, plant residues or dung is put directly into the fire. Modern forms involve converting biomass into sources of energy such as biodiesel, bioethanol or biogas.

A fuel-efficient stove in Kenya

A fuel-efficient stove in Kenya

A fuel-efficient stove in Kenya

The traditional form of use is currently far more prevalent. Some 2.8 billion people use biomass for their daily cooking and heating. In sub-Saharan Africa almost 85 per cent of the total population are completely dependent on these fuels. Biomass is their sole source of energy for cooking.

Advantages and disadvantages of biomass

So far the main advantage of biomass over fossil fuels was thought to be that it is greenhouse gas neutral, i.e. when it is burnt, it only emits the amount of carbon dioxide that the plants from which it was made have drawn from the air. Moreover, it is a renewable resource which is usually available locally and can be exploited with little effort.

However, awareness is growing that the use of biomass is not completely unproblematic. Its energy content can often only be used quite inefficiently. If it is widely used, this contributes to deforestation and thus to the destruction of natural carbon sinks. What is more, the open fires, which are still very common in houses, are harmful to people’s health – estimates say that several million people die every year from diseases that are linked to indoor smoke pollution.

There also is a controversial debate about modern forms of using bioenergy. If plants are grown explicitly to produce biogas, biodiesel and bioethanol – for instance maize – this requires vast areas of land. Since these areas are usually also suited for growing food this leads to competition (food or fuel conflict). No support should be provided to the growing of biomass that is meant to be used to generate energy if it competes with food production or is a threat to natural carbon sinks or biodiversity.

German activities

Rural road in Kenya

The German Development Ministry promotes, in particular, small biogas plants which convert plant residue, and the production and dissemination of modern cooking stoves. These stoves burn biomass in a way that is environmentally friendly, not health damaging and uses the energy very efficiently.

The BMZ is one of the most important supporters of the multidonor partnership Energising Development (EnDev). The partnership's goal is to give some 28.5 million people in more than 20 countries access to needs-based and climate-friendly energy by 2025. The focus is on developing local markets and achieving a comprehensive orientation towards decentralised energy solutions. Biomass as a source of energy for cooking plays an important interim role to give vulnerable groups the means to gradually improve their energy supply.

The measures have a large number of positive socio-economic effects in the areas of health, employment and income, food security and climate protection, benefitting women and girls in particular. Since 2005, some 19 million people worldwide have gained access to clean cooking energy with the help of EnDev.

Stand: 25/07/2023