Energy and environmental technology Environment

Posted June 1996

FAO activities in the energy field

1. The energy and sustainability challenge

Both industrialized and developing countries have energy supply and demand structures which are unsustainable, volatile and environmentally dangerous. Developing countries, still lacking the necessary levels of energy inputs commensurate with their development goals, are faced with high priced and unreliable energy supplies. Industrialized countries, with only 20% of the world's population, consume more than 80% of the fossil fuels produced and are facing increasing environmental problems related to air, water and soil quality. There are signs pointing to dramatic changes in the industrialized countries, and in many urban areas of developing countries, where a combination of energy conservation measures and technological development of renewable sources (biomass, solar and wind energies), are leading to new viable options and to less energy intensity. Developing countries are having to face the difficult challenge of increasing energy demands at a time of higher energy prices and higher environmental consciousness.

This challenge is especially important in rural areas where the present energy situation in many countries is characterized by a reliance on firewood, agricultural residues and animal power and manure to cover mainly subsistence energy needs, while only meagre amounts of energy are available for income-generating activities. The rural areas are nevertheless placed in a unique position regarding the energy scenario in many countries. It is the rural areas which provide a large part of the energy consumed by both rural and urban populations, mainly in the form of wood. The full potential of agriculture and agroforestry as sources of renewable energy has yet to be realized. But rural areas require more intensive energy inputs which in most cases are not locally available. Thus, this gap in energy supply must be balanced with a "mix" of energy sources, including fossil and biomass fuels and alternative energy sources (solar, wind, etc.), in accordance with local natural resource endowment. Thus, energy efficient and renewable energy technologies need to be developed and promoted.

2. FAO's approach in the field of energy

FAO's energy activities aim at assisting developing countries to meet their energy requirements in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, as a means of achieving sustainable rural development. A transition from the present energy supply of mainly firewood and animal and human power, to a more diversified base and a better use of commercial energy, is key to improving the living conditions of rural populations.

FAO's member countries have requested assistance in implementing the Nairobi Programme of Action on New and renewable Sources of Energy and, more recently, in the adoption of Agenda 21 approved at UNCED. FAO's energy activities have thus emphasized the integration of energy as a tool towards attaining sustainability, the development and promotion of renewable sources of energy adapted to the socio-economic needs of rural populations, and the efficient use of conventional energy sources.

The following reflect the guiding principles of FAO's technical assistance activities in the field of energy:

Recognizing that the problems and potentials related to sustainable agriculture and rural development cut across a number of fields, FAO established an Inter-Departmental Working Group on Environment and Sustainable Development, under which a Subgroup on Rural Energy Development coordinates work in this field. This Group comprises representatives from relevant Divisions from FAO Departments. Under the new structure of FAO a Department on Sustainable Development was established with an Environment and Sustainable Development Coordinating Unit, to which the Energy Programme belongs.

3. FAO's Energy Programme and main activities

3.1 Assessment and planning

It is essential to improve and expand the supply of energy, both in the form of renewable and of commercial sources, in order to promote sustainable agricultural and rural development. To achieve this objective a better understanding is needed of resource endowment, the requirements for specific end-uses and the technologies available. In the area of energy assessment and planning, FAO's activities focus on developing an integrated approach to incorporate energy into rural and agricultural planning, and on assistance to countries in establishing a framework for activities in this field. Regarding technological issues, FAO promotes the use of mature and promising energy technologies.

These two elements, assessment and planning, and technological development and application, are complementary in that the first provides a framework for identifying priorities and strategies to enable the second to be set in its proper perspective within the national context.

FAO has developed an integrated approach to the assessment, planning and implementation of rural energy activities. The adaptation of this approach was carried out through Interministerial Consultations organized in Indonesia, Laos, Mongolia, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, where National Frameworks were discussed and actions launched to accelerate energy for sustainable rural development. A Latin American Working Group on Energy Planning for Sustainable Rural Development, GLAERS, has been established in cooperation with the experts from 19 countries. A methodological approach in this field for the Latin American and Caribbean Region was also formulated, a Regional Meeting was held in 1992 to discuss a Regional Plan of Action in cooperation with ECLAC, OLADE and IDB, and a package of more than 60 projects is presently being finalized and will be presented to potential donors. A National Consultation was organized in June 1994 in Uruguay where an inter-institutional framework for action was adopted. A similar exercise has been initiated in collaboration with the African Energy Programme of the African Development Bank and with ESCWA and ECA for the Near East Region.

3.2 Wood-energy

Due to continuous deforestation and population growth, a widening gap between wood energy supply and demand becomes apparent in many developing countries. Focal situations may vary significantly, some rural regions may have abundant wood resources, while others can experience acute lack of fuelwood and charcoal. Also, large differences between urban and rural areas exist. In urban areas, fuelwood and charcoal are part of the energy mix, which also comprise fossil fuels (kerosene, gas, etc.). Scarcity of wood fuels results in increased prices, thus promoting the switch to fossil fuels. Increased use of fossil fuels add to negative environmental effects such as greenhouse effects and acid rain. In rural areas, shortages of fuelwood generally means a switch to less efficient and lower value fuels, like agricultural wastes and dung, thereby limiting or preventing their utilization as fodder, manure or fertilizer.

A strategy to maintain and improve the supply of wood for energy should include the following measures: i) conservation through more efficient use of fuelwood; ii) increase productivity of existing forest resources by creating high yield fuelwood plantations, iii) inter-fuel substitution. Although fuelwood programmes are underway in many countries, activities need to be intensified on a scale proportional to the need, with emphasis on major fuelwood-deficit areas and on direct participation of rural people in developing their own fuelwood supplies.

The main priorities of FAO's wood energy programme are a) to develop activities and programmes for fuelwood-deficit areas; b) to promote an integrated approach in order to use wood as an environmentally friendly source of energy.

Wood energy is one of the five priority area of the Tropical Forestry Action Plan, launched in 1985 to address the most urgent aspects of tropical deforestation.

Activities include production of charcoal and wood-based commercial energy for industrial as well as rural community needs, such as decentralized electricity generalization. Among the main activities recently carried out are different studies about the flows of wood fuels in The Philippines, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic. For the use of wood for electricity generation, case studies are under preparation in Peru and Argentina. FAO is also sponsoring different regional wood energy meetings in Latin America and Asia.

3.3 Bioenergy

Bioenergy conversion is acquiring renewed importance, not only because of the excellent opportunities it offers for a new development thrust in rural areas, but also due to the role it can play in relation to the environment, in general, and to climatic change in particular. New technologies and policies are being developed and put into action which seek the benefits of growing biomass in CO2 sequestration and as an alternative fuel to hydrocarbons. For both developmental and environmental reasons, bioenergy is of interest to developing and industrialized countries.

An International Expert Meeting on Biofuels for Development was organized in Rome by FAO in September 1993 to assess the latest thinking and programmes on biofuels, and to formulate a series of recommendations regarding the main issues guiding biofuel development and utilization. Participants at this meeting were internationally recognized experts from 19 countries. Their recommendations are at the base of FAO's programme on biofuels, which is becoming one of its major activities in the field of energy.

The programme on biofuels includes issues such as land use planning, employment generation, environment, technological and economic considerations. Among the technologies to be included will be: anaerobic digestion of organic wastes and residues; production of liquid fuels, organic recycling; gasification of wood and agricultural residues (such as rice husks, and coconut and peanut shells); the transfer of Chinese experience in rice-husk gasification to other countries; pyrolisis and briquetting. Particular stress is given to the rehabilitation of degraded and marginal lands through energy plantations.

Since bioenergy relates to agriculture, forestry, energy, and social and cultural issues, it requires multi-disciplinary experience and approaches. FAO's bioenergy programme reflects these requirements and is set in the context of FAO's Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Programme, SARD.

3.4 Rural mechanization

The introduction of machinery, tools and alternative technologies to rural areas, taking into account various farming systems and agro-industrial activities, is an active field of action of FAO. An implicit treatment of energy inputs is present in many field projects.

3.5 Solar energy

Solar energy applications of interest for agricultural and rural development include solar drying of grain, other food crops and fish, solar cooking, water heating, water pumping, communications, lighting, pumping, solar greenhouses and refrigeration. Although several of these are mature technologies, their widespread adoption would be enhanced by improving efficiency and reliability. FAO's activities in this field are concerned with the promotion of promising technologies and the assessment of systems appropriate for rural areas. An International Workshop on Grain Drying was held in October 1993 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where the latest solar drying technologies were discussed.

3.6 Wind energy

Wind energy is relevant for water pumping and lifting, milling and providing auxiliary power to fishing vessels. Although both windmills and sailing boats are well known technologies, many countries need to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Improving knowledge of wind energy potential and of the most appropriate siting for these systems, and monitoring and analysis of windpower generating systems for rural decentralized electrification schemes form part of FAO's work.

3.7 Small hydropower systems

There is a large potential for small and medium-scale hydro-power plants in many developing countries. FAO's work in this field is directed mainly to the monitoring of developments in this area and the consideration of this energy option in its field activities.

3.8 Draught animal technology

Draught animals, estimated at over 400 million head, are used in many developing countries for both agriculture and transport. Draught animal power can alleviate human drudgery and increase agricultural production. However, efficiency needs to be improved through modernization of equipment, better breeding, husbandry, feeding and veterinary care, and improved infrastructures for research, training and credit facilities.

FAO's activities in this area deal mainly with the draught animal equipment components of agricultural mechanization projects and with the improvement of animal systems for food production, pumping, grinding, etc.

3.9. Integration of energy sources

The possibility of utilizing various energy sources towards the fulfilment of particular energy requirements is a topic of FAO's attention, as is the improved efficiency of use of energy in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Activities in this area include a field project integrating alcohol production from sorghum with biogas, pyrolysis, solar and wind systems; energy conservation; and assessment of the potential of various renewable sources of energy in specific farm activities. A number of the projects identified by GLAERS in Latin America and the Caribbean have an integrated approach to energy sources, their supply and their utilization.

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