Energy and environmental technology Environment

Posted October 1997

Biomass energy in ASEAN member countries

From "Biomass energy in ASEAN member countries", produced by the FAO Regional Wood Energy Development Programme (RWEDP) in Asia in cooperation with the ASEAN-EC Energy Management Training Centre and the EC-ASEAN COGEN Programme (Bangkok, 1997)


Biomass is an important source of energy in Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries and its use is still increasing. In ASEAN, energy from biomass such as wood and agricultural residues represents about 40% of total energy consumption - more than 2.5 million Terajoules per year. The bulk is from woodfuels, with an estimated value of US$ 7 billion per year. Main applications are in the domestic sector and small-scale industries, but also increasingly in modern systems for combined heat and power generation.

Managed properly, biomass energy (or bio-energy) can be sustainable, environmentally benign and economically sound. Moreover, biomass energy creates substantial local employment. The advantages are also being recognised in industrialised countries, and several governments have successfully adopted articulate policies for promoting biomass energy.

Tropical countries enjoy favourable conditions for growing biomass. However, constraints to optimal use as an energy source are still to be resolved. Main issues are legal and institutional barriers, as well as lack of information and technology transfer. Furthermore, common misconceptions about biomass energy have to be redressed. It should be emphasised that the larger part of woodfuels come from non-forest land; woodfuel use is not the root cause of deforestation; biomass energy is more than a traditional commodity; and biomass energy will not phase out in the foreseeable future.

At present, AEEMTRC, COGEN and RWEDP cooperate in order to integrate information on biomass in energy data bases and assist in the development of sustainable energy policies.

It is recommended that energy policy makers in ASEAN member countries acknowledge the important role of biomass energy and its future potential. This will mean biomass energy can be integrated in overall energy policy making and planning. In particular the potential of modern applications for power generation should be given serious consideration as a way of ensuring optimal utilisation of each country's biomass resources.

Biomass energy in ASEAN economies

The use of conventional energy like oil, coal and electricity has increased enormously in the last 25 years in ASEAN economies. During the 1980s, consumption more than doubled, with an average annual growth rate of 7%. Less spectacular, and somewhat overshadowed by this conventional energy boom, consumption of biomass energy has also increased substantially over the same period. Biomass energy includes fuelwood, charcoal and agriculture residues used as fuel.

For the five ASEAN countries where biomass is an important energy source (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam), consumption increased on average 2% per year between 1985 and 1994, due mainly to population growth. Consumption is highest in Indonesia, accounting for more than half of the total consumption because of the large population, while the rate of increase is highest in Malaysia and Vietnam.

Despite this growth, the share of biomass energy in total energy consumption has been decreasing for most countries, which often leads to the misconception that it is being substituted by modern energy and is phasing out. In reality, conventional energy is mostly used for new applications such as new industries, transport and household electricity, whereas wood and other biomass continue to dominate in domestic activities such as cooking and in many traditional industries.

Only for Thailand, recent and regular national statistics on wood and other biomass energy consumption are available. Comparing these with population data, it appears that there is a strong correlation between population and biomass energy consumption between 1985 and 1995 (0.99). By using population forecasts, we can predict an increase of nearly 15% in biomass energy consumption by 2010 over that in 1995. As accurate data on supply sources, both from forest and non-forest areas, are lacking it is difficult to assess if there will be enough supply available to meet future demand.

For the other four major biomass-using economies in ASEAN, similar or even higher trends of increase in biomass energy consumption are forecast, considering their higher population growth and greater dependence on biomass energy (except in Malaysia). Of course the above is only a simple modelling exercise, but it highlights the need for more accurate, regular and detailed data on consumption and production of biomass energy and its sources in order to asses trends, to develop forecasts and to formulate appropriate policies.

Advantages and constraints


Wood and other types of biomass are widely used as fuels in the (private) domestic and industrial sectors, basically because they are cheaper than other fuels. Local availability and reliability of supply add to the economic advantages. Modern applications in both industrialised countries and in South-East Asia have demonstrated that biomass energy can also be competitive for larger-scale industrial applications. For fuel-importing countries, the use of local biomass can save substantial amounts of foreign exchange. The value of woodfuels currently being used in ASEAN economies is equivalent to an estimated US$ 7 billion annually.

The sustainable use of biomass energy sources helps to manage the local environment. When wood and other biomass are properly valued by local populations as an important resource base, they are more likely to be protected. Sustainable use of biomass is also beneficial for the global climate, because it is carbon-neutral, whereas substitution by fossil fuels would add to the greenhouse effect. This is the main reason why many industrialised countries have embarked upon policies for increasing the share of biomass in national energy consumption.

Rural income
The use of wood and some other forms of biomass energy generates at least 20 times more local employment within the national economy than any other form of energy, per unit. A large amount of unskilled labour is engaged in growing, harvesting, processing, transporting and trading the fuels, which generates off-farm income for rural populations, either regularly or off-season. Policy makers in the European Union are increasingly coming to recognise the employment benefits for their own countries.

In times of hardship, or when harvests are inadequate for subsistence, the opportunity to generate income in woodfuel business provides a safety-net for the people affected.

The application of biomass energy in modern technologies allows for increased energy efficiency by combined heat and power generation (cogeneration). Applications of cogeneration in decentralised systems based on locally available fuel resources help to further reduce losses in the transmission and distribution of power.

Energy mix Incorporation of biomass fuels in national energy supply policy improves the energy mix by increasing the diversity of energy sources. This helps to reduce vulnerability to market fluctuations and can improve stabilization of prices.


It is sometimes assumed that biomass energy is a traditional commodity which will phase out in the near future. Some people even believe that woodfuel collection poses a major threat to tropical rainforests. Misconceptions such as these hamper the development of sound energy policies.

Data and planning
Systematic data are still inadequate or unavailable for biomass energy planning and for developing specific energy policies for supply and demand.

Technologies for biomass combustion which are at present widely used in ASEAN economies still need to be improved towards best practice. Financial, institutional and legal issues have to be resolved to make the best use of available technologies.

Utilisation and sources in ASEAN countries

Biomass fuels

Biomass fuels consist of both woody and non-woody biomass. The first come from trees and shrubs, the latter from crop residues and other vegetation. Both can be converted into charcoal. In ASEAN economies, important biomass fuels are wood and residues from coconut, rubber and oilpalm trees, as well as sawdust, bagasse and husks and straw from rice plants. They are used in both traditional and modern applications.

Utilisation of biomass fuels

The domestic sector is the main user of biomass fuels, primarily for cooking and space heating. The main user groups are farmers and villagers, but daily wage earners, industrial workers and food vendors in cities all use biomass fuels to some extent. Villagers also use biomass fuels to process agricultural products either for preservation or for conversion into tradable commodities.

Numerous industries in ASEAN member countries rely on biomass fuels for process heat and drying of the final product. Many are small-scale and based on traditional technology. These industries usually purchase the fuel, but some also collect biomass fuels from free supply sources. The industries include: agricultural and food processing (like sugar, rubber and coconut processing, rice parboiling, fish and meat drying and smoking); metal processing and mineral-based activities (e.g. brick making, lime burning, ceramics and pottery, smithing, foundry and jewellery); and forest products and textile industries (e.g. bamboo and cane, distilleries, timber drying, match factories, silk and textiles). Besides these industrial activities, services rely on biomass fuels (e.g. road tarring, soap making, tyre retreading, paper making, fishing net and boat making, food preparation and catering services).

The current situation is not expected to change as long as the supply of biofuels is secure and their price remains competitive with commercial fuels like coal, gas and electricity. The consumption of biomass fuels may even increase with growth in population. Bio-energy-using industrial and other commercial activities are mainly found in rural areas, but also exist in townships and even metropolitan cities like Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila. Also, many households in large urban centres use biomass fuels, in particular charcoal. Densified biofuels (briquettes of charcoal fines and loose residues) are becoming more popular in urban centres where different forms of woodfuels have already been accepted as traded commodities. At present, many higher-income rural families, urban households and industrial enterprises are purchasing biomass fuels, especially wood and charcoal, to meet their energy needs.

Modern applications
More recently, modern bio-energy has developed through adoption of technologies like cogeneration (generation of heat and power in wood and agro-based industries) and dendrothermal power plants (generation of electricity by burning woody biomass). Cogeneration is gaining increasing acceptance. Efficient, mature and proven biomass-based energy conversion technologies are available both within and outside the ASEAN region. Cogeneration of heat and power from residues in forest-based and agro-industries is being increasingly promoted (particularly in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand) by the private sector, mostly for own use. Utility companies in Western countries already supply electricity and heat from biomass to national grids and local communities.

Sources of biomass energy

The forest source is one of many sources of woodfuel production. It consists of government-owned and managed natural forests andtree plantations. However, this is not the only or even the main source. The situation in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand presents a typical scenario. In these countries, in recent years non-industrial plantations of different types (e.g. coconut, rubber and oilpalm plantations, fruit orchards, and trees in homesteads and homegardens) have gained recognition as important sources of woodfuel supply. These non-forest sources, managed and operated mostly by the private sector as informal business enterprises, are gaining prominence in supplying traded woodfuels to markets.

In the countries of South-East Asia, forest sources contribute between 10 and 50% of total national woodfuel supplies, with the balance coming from non-forest sources. The share of non-forest woodfuels in total household-level consumption in Indonesia is reported to be as high as 93%, and the share in total woodfuel supply in the Philippines and Thailand as 85% and 50% respectively.

Forest and non-forest sources produce woodfuels by the felling of trees which have grown naturally, or trees which were raised on single or multi-purpose plantations (i.e. as the main products of dedicated woodfuel plantations or as by-products of non-industrial plantations). Alternatively, woodfuels are obtained as lops and tops from forest harvesting; as dead wood, fallen branches, twigs and dead stumps at site; as by-products of wood-based industries (e.g. waste and scrap wood, sawdust); as surplus non-commercial wood derived from land clearing; or as recovered wood from replacement or demolition of old structures and constructions (e.g. wood from old poles, posts, buildings, scaffolding). The latter are used mostly by the urban poor.

Other biomass
Agro-residues like rice husk and straw, coconut husk and shells, palmoil kernel shells and fibre, and bagasse are the other main sources of biomass fuels. They are important for both the domestic and the industrial sectors.

In Thailand, the energy balance shows that bagasse and rice husk accounted respectively for 7.9% and 1.6% of all energy used in the country in 1995. In Indonesia, residues accounted for 7-8% in 1992, in Malaysia 15-16% in 1990, and in the Philippines about 12% in 1989. These amounts are basically consumed in the industrial sector (palmoil, coconut, sugar and rice milling). Data for the domestic sector are often not available, but evidence from limited surveys indicates that biomass in the form of residues plays an important role, in particular in areas where wood as a source of energy is in short supply.

People involved

In addition to the millions of users of biomass fuels in ASEAN countries, numerous actors play specific roles in the supply and distribution of traded biomass fuels from their sources to final users (e.g. collectors or gatherers, transporters, middlemen, wholesalers and retailers). Woodfuel collection for self-use and for the market can be an important occupation in rural areas. For the better-off it may be part-time off-season work, but for the poor it can very well be a full-time occupation for livelihood. And for yet others it may provide an opportunity for self-employment in woodfuel-related business to earn cash income and supplement household income. Most fuelwood gatherers live in villages close to the forests. They may be poor with very small land holdings, or landless labourers.

Estimated employment of woodfuel on the basis of person-days involved in production of one terajoule (TJ) of energy, compared to other commercial fuel alternatives, shows just 10 person-days per TJ for kerosene, compared to 200 to 350 person days for charcoal, depending upon productivity of site, efficiency of producers and the distance to the market.

For instance, over 830,000 households were employed in woodfuel-related activities in the Philippines in 1992 (536,000 in gathering, 158,000 in charcoal making and selling, and 40,000 rural and 100,000 urban traders). It was the main source of income for about 10% of rural households, supplying about 40% of their cash earnings.


If the supply source is properly managed, woodfuel can contribute positively to both the local and the global environment. Degradation of watershed and catchment areas occurs only when woodfuel is extracted in an unsustainable manner from environmentally sensitive sites. Also, woodfuel is a carbon-neutral energy source (that is, the CO2 released by its burning is matched by the amount used up in its production), provided the rate of harvest of the wood is equal to the rate of re-growth, so it need not contribute to the greenhouse effect. With present improvements in wood combustion technologies, other emissions like carbon monoxide (CO), polycyclo-aromoatic-hydrocarbons (PACs), nitrous oxides (NOx) and particulate matter can also be significantly reduced.

Considering the important contribution from non-forest production sources, it has been concluded that in most areas sustainable production of wood for energy can be viable. The present supply-demand imbalances may not be as serious as has been projected for most countries. It is also observed that, except in some highly populated forest deficit areas, the use of woodfuel by a majority of rural households is not the root cause of deforestation. In the present context of warnings against deforestation and growing concerns about biodiversity and environmental conservation, the role of government-raised plantations as newly emerging additional sources of woodfuel becomes more prominent as far as traded woodfuel is concerned.

Making the most of biomass energy

Biomass resources, particularly residues from forests, wood processing, agricultural crops and agro-processing, are under-utilised in ASEAN countries. These resources are renewable, environmentally friendly in energy production, and sustainable in terms of supply.

Some of these residues are already used as raw materials for other products (such as particle board and fibreboard), as fodder and fertilizer, or as household and industrial fuels. However, large portions are still unused and represent potential sources of energy. Energy generation technologies specifically designed to use biomass residues are available and are becoming more and more economical.

Countries have yet to make optimum use of the additional power generation potential from their biomass residue resources, which could help them to partially overcome the long-term problem of energy supply. However, in order to make the most of biomass energy, various aspects must be taken into account:


There are several factors limiting the potential for large-scale fast-growing fuelwood plantations on a commercial scale: international petroleum fuel prices, remaining subsidies on commercial fuels, large initial investment requirements for woodfuel plantations, long gestation period between planting and harvesting, and conversion and transportation costs. This implies that the development of woodfuel should focus on the by-products of agroforestry and on the use of wood and biomass residues from relevant processing industries at their source.

Biomass fuels are mostly used in the household sector, primarily by the rural and urban poor and middle-class people in small towns. These people usually end up paying more for their household energy than their counterparts in larger urban centres. Cost-benefit analyses should incorporate avoided costs.

The low income level of the majority of rural woodfuel users can not support high investments in modern biomass-based energy generation. Governments should come in with financial schemes.


Biomass has a lower calorific value than fossil fuels. Densification (briquetting) of biomass residues increases accessibility but involves a cost, which may be out of reach of those present users who get their biomass fuels free. Detailed study of the local fuel market and careful selection of technology should precede major investments in biomass energy development.

Prevailing practices of technology transfer do not sufficiently take into account the local conditions under which imported technology has to be operated and managed, the training required for its use, maintenance requirements and capabilities, and backstopping arrangements. Promoters need to consider both hardware and software aspects of technology transfer. Research and development for biomass production and use on a commercial basis has not yet received adequate attention in the region.


Governments' policies relating to biomass energy development and the role of the private sector are not yet clearly defined. Only limited opportunity exists for exchange of information and sharing of experiences with regard to the use of modern biomass energy technologies amongst implementing organisations within ASEAN. It is important to facilitate transfer of know-how within the region. It may be desirable to develop and institutionalise a system for facilitating information sharing and technology transfer within the region. Government support with regard to the increased use of residues is often inadequate and at times conflicting. This may result in implementing agencies being unable to carry out their mandated tasks.


Information on the amount of biomass that may be sustainably available for power generation does not exist in most countries. Relevant information includes biomass from both existing natural resource bases and additional production from new sources, including currently under-utilised residues. Further reliable information must be generated for data bases with regard to prices, competing uses, cost of biomass energy in relation to alternatives, energy market, size, and supply sources.

Data bases should be accessible to agencies willing to finance, implement, monitor or use biomass energy. Exchange of information between countries in the region can be promoted by networking and through collaboration with regional and international agencies. No dedicated system exists for information flow on research and development in biomass energy. This needs to be established and regularly upgraded.


Most policies and legislation today are not conducive to biomass energy development, e.g. sectoral policies and legislation governing private trees in non-forest lands, including planting, harvesting, utilisation, transport of tree and wood products, tree and land ownership and tenure systems. Some countries' policies use subsidies to promote the use of commercial fuels, instead of developing the sources and supply of biomass energy, which could contribute positively to the balance of trade.

Present misconceptions about use of biomass fuel being the root cause of deforestation and environmental degradation do not provide a conducive atmosphere for bio-energy development. Appropriate legislation which regulates only indiscriminate biomass use needs to be promoted.

Prevailing arrangements do not encourage private-sector participation in the development of biomass resources in forest and non-forest areas. Utilisation of biomass for commercial energy production and marketing requires legislative provisions and incentives. Wherever feasible, countries should encourage, through legal and financial provisions, the plantation of fast-growing multi-purpose trees, if not as single-purpose plantations then as part of larger, multiple-use production systems.

A call to action

ASEAN Member Countries have experienced high economic growth in recent years. They are now under enormous pressure to ensure reliable energy supplies in order to maintain current, or even accelerated, growth rates. Most of the additional energy demand is being met by fossil fuels. As ASEAN countries are in the tropics they have favourable conditions for growing biomass, which can strengthen their self-reliance in terms of energy. Clear and consistent policies are needed to make the most of this. Modern power generation from biomass sources should be further developed.

Data collection

Data on supply and demand of biomass energy should be collected systematically and periodically. The data should be used by planning units as a basis for energy policies.


Fiscal and pricing policies should be reviewed, so as to remove discrimination in favour of certain fuel sources. Biomass energy should be allowed a "level playing field" in competition with other renewables and fossil fuels.


Barriers to the production, free flow and sustainable use of wood and biomass fuels should be removed.

Technology transfer

Transfer of improved biomass combustion technology should be promoted both within the region and from outside. This can be implemented by stimulating leading institutes and organizations to acquire knowledge and cost-effective equipment and to establish demonstration sites for improved use of biomass fuels.

Information centres

Establishing national energy information centres to assist private-sector initiatives should be encouraged. These information centres should aim to serve as "one-stop agencies", providing all information on supply and demand projections, government regulations, technology suppliers, etc. They should fully incorporate biomass energy.


It is recommended that:

  1. ASEAN Ministers on Energy acknowledge the important role of biomass energy in Member Countries, as well as its future potential.

  2. Biomass energy is fully integrated in national energy policies and planning.

  3. Serious thought is given by policy makers to optimising modern power generation from biomass sources.

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