Four out of five people without electricity in the world live in the rural areas of developing countries and rely on biomass for their energy needs, in particular for cooking and heating. In fact, despite the enormous attention the commercial use of liquid biofuels has received over the last years, over 85% of global biomass energy is still consumed as solid fuels, used in the traditional way and based on fuelwood or charcoal.

This situation poses many problems. One of the most immediate concerns health. Traditional cooking using biomass leads to indoor pollution and has been recognised to count amongst the major causes of death in many developing regions. In addition, the collection of fuel wood consumes large amounts of time, in particular from women and children. And the traditional use of bioenergy is not without environmental problems. The production of charcoal contributes to land degradation and deforestation.

But there is also a structural problem: economic development without affordable access to reliable energy suitable for both heating and lighting is difficult to realize. And in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 92 percent of the rural population is without electricity. The number of people living on less than US$1/day is approximately the same as the number of those lacking access to commercial energy: two thousand million people. Extending an electricity supply grid to remote households in a rural setting can mean costs of up to US$0.70 per kilowatt-hour, seven times the cost of providing electricity in an urban area. And while the rise of modern bioenergy may come close to many rural poor, this is most likely to concern large-scale biomass production that does not result is immediate access to energy for its labourers.

Transition from traditional to modern bioenergy

The challenge therefore is to develop bioenergy concepts and technologies that can be used and sustained at the local level, that are small-scale. A transitional solution that has been developed concerns improved cookstoves. These reduce indoor pollution and by burning the fuel much more efficient, reduce charcoal consumption. The efficiency improvement can range between 10-40%. Biogas from livestock waste was promoted by FAO as fuel for cooking in Nepal. But while significant progress has been made with the development of "improved traditional" uses of bioenergy, the development of small-scale modern bioenergy uses is still facing difficulties. The question therefore is: what will reach them sooner: the electricity grid or local modern bioenergy applications. The economic opportunities offered by large-scale biomass production may provide the required economic base.

The following graph, from Bioenergy and Agriculture: Promises and Challenges (2006) illustrates the link between poverty and the use of traditional energy use.

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ę FAO, 2007