Bioenergy, the Ugly Duckling of Mexico’s Energy Transition

Two women fill sacks of charcoal made in mud igloos in the small town of San Juan Evangelista Analco in the mountains of the state of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico. A group of women from this Zapotec indigenous village created a charcoal company in 2017, to take advantage of the wood that the community logs sustainably. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Two women fill sacks of charcoal made in mud igloos in the small
town of San Juan Evangelista Analco in the mountains of the state
of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico. A group of women from this
Zapotec indigenous village created a charcoal company in 2017, to
take advantage of the wood that the community logs sustainably.
CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

By Emilio Godoy
OAXACA, Mexico, Apr 10 2020 (IPS)

Rosa Manzano carefully arranges pieces of wood in a big mud
igloo that, seven days after it is full, will produce charcoal of
high caloric content.

“Our forest also produces oak, which in the past was only sold
as firewood and had little value. But with forest management and
the work of women who have organised, we began this project,”
Manzano told IPS, as she stacked the pieces of wood neatly and
without leaving empty spaces inside the large igloo-shaped
ovens.

Manzano belongs to the “Ka Niulas Yanni” – “active
women” in the Zapotec language – Group
of Women Charcoal Producers
. The organisation was founded in
2017 by 10 women and two men in San Juan Evangelista Analco, a
Zapotec indigenous municipality of fewer than 500 people, located
in the northern highlands of the southern Mexican state of
Oaxaca.

With financing from the government’s National Forestry Commission, the
women built seven eight-cubic-meter igloo-shaped ovens and set up a
warehouse for their community logging project. Under a 10-year plan
that began in 2013, the community can extract 1,500 cubic meters of
oak wood annually to make furniture and sell wood.

The charcoal makers light the ovens through a hole called a
“rozadera”, and through a similar hole they check the progress
of the fire and then block up the entrance with mud bricks. As the
fire descends through the structure, smoke spews from the igloo’s
“ears”.

“We work hard, because there is a market for charcoal, but
being pioneers involves an effort,” says Manzano, a married
mother of one, whose workday starts very early and ends
mid-afternoon. She also works in the restaurant at a
community-owned ecotourism site.

The women fire up the ovens twice a month, to produce 23-kg bags
of black charcoal, which they sell for about five dollars a
sack.

Wasted bioenergy

Despite these local initiatives, Mexico is wasting the potential
of bioenergy, especially solid biofuels, including all forms of
energy from different kinds of biomass.

This alternative source represents 10 percent of final energy
consumption, with 23 million users of bioenergy for cooking
(especially in rural areas), 10 million for heating (mainly in
urban areas), 100,000 small factories and 100 medium and large
ones, according to the Thematic Network on Bioenergy
(RTB), an association of bioenergy researchers and
entrepreneurs.

In Mexico, Latin America’s second-largest economy, almost 19
million tons of dry waste are produced and consumed annually in the
residential sector for cooking, heating and water heating.

The installed capacity totals about 400 megawatts, based on raw
materials such as firewood for domestic and industrial use,
bagasse, charcoal and biogas.

Industrial uses of biomass are gaining ground in Mexico, such as the sawmill of the Sezaric Industrial Group, owned by the General Emiliano Zapata Union of Ejidos and Forest Communities, located in the municipality of Santiago Papasquiaro, in the state of Durango in northern Mexico. At the facility, forest waste fires the boiler that dries the wood and generates electricity. CREDIT: Emilio Godoy/IPS

Industrial uses of biomass are gaining ground in Mexico, such as
the sawmill of the Sezaric Industrial Group, owned by the General
Emiliano Zapata Union of Ejidos and Forest Communities, located in
the municipality of Santiago Papasquiaro, in the state of Durango
in northern Mexico. At the facility, forest waste fires the boiler
that dries the wood and generates electricity. CREDIT: Emilio
Godoy/IPS

The country also generates some 70 million tons of organic waste
per year, which can be used in this area.

In terms of electricity generation, the sector’s contribution
is modest – 894 gigawatt-hours (Gwh) – compared to other
alternative sources of energy. In the first quarter of 2019, gross
generation totaled 80,225 Gwh, up from 78,167 in the same period
last year. Gas-fired combined cycle plants produced 40,094,
conventional thermal power plants 9,306 and coal-fired plants
6,265.

Hydroelectric plants accounted for 5,137 Gwh, wind farms 4,285,
nuclear plants 2,382 and solar stations 1,037.

One technology that is expanding is the biodigester, for the
treatment of manure and agricultural waste to obtain biogas and
electricity. Some 900 of these operate in rural areas. Of this
total, around 300 generate electricity, according to the state-run
Shared Risk Trust.

In this country of 130 million people, around 19 million use
solid fuels for cooking, according to the National Institute of
Statistics and Geography. The main material consumed by 79 percent
of these households is LPG, followed by firewood or coal (11
percent) and natural gas (seven percent).

In the southwestern state of Oaxaca, gas and firewood each
represent 49 percent of household consumption.

“It is a renewable energy that is largely untapped in the
areas of agriculture, urban waste and industry,” said Abel Reyes,
president of the non-governmental Mexican Association of Biomass and
Biogas
.

The expert stressed to IPS that if the country were to develop
the sector’s value chain, it would be equivalent to five or six
points of GDP, with energy, economic, labour, health and climate
benefits.

While bioethanol and biodiesel have boomed over the past decade,
their growth now seems to be slowing down due to high costs
compared to alternative sources and to competition with food
crops.

Teresa Arias, president of the non-governmental organisation
Nature and Development, noted
that the industrial sector is interested in using waste to fire
boilers, while households, hospitals, restaurants and hotels can
use pellets of agglomerated sawdust.

“The most viable variables are determined by the market. It
has a lot to do with competitiveness against fossil fuels. Solid
biomass does not compete with natural gas, and in hotel heating it
could compete with liquefied petroleum gas,” she told IPS.

The environmentalist said that “there is enough biomass for
electricity, its costs just have to be lower or equal to those of
the fuel they currently use. But it couldn’t compete with solar,
although mixed systems could be installed.”

Forest and jungle management, agro-industrial residues, forest
plantations, sugar cane and agricultural waste offer the greatest
biomass potential. Replacing fossil fuels with bioenergy and solid
biofuels would mean savings of some 6.7 billion dollars a year, in
addition to social and environmental benefits, according to the
RTB.

Although Mexico has adopted ambitious goals for bioenergy, the
pro-fossil fuel policies of leftist President Andrés Manuel López
Obrador, in office since December 2018, have clouded the picture,
according to analysts.

The 2017 “Biogas
Technology Roadmap
” predicts production of between 32 million
and 120 million cubic meters of biomethane per year from animal
waste by 2024, and 57 million to 100 million by 2030, in the face
of barriers such as low production attractiveness and lack of
project financing.

With respect to solid biofuels in 2030, the map projects 160
petajoules of energy, 130 of which would correspond to households,
20 to the commercial sector and 10 to government institutions. The
joule is the energy measurement unit that is equivalent to one watt
per second and estimates the amount of heat required to carry out
an activity. Each petajoule represents one quadrillion joules.

Arias, the environmentalist, who is preparing diagnoses of
biomass in the north of the country, said the outlook is
discouraging, because “there is no defined and determined policy
for pushing alternative energies.

“They’re taking a position that looks to the past instead of
the future; they’re taking steps backwards after many efforts to
have a diverse energy mix that would make us less vulnerable, and
to transition to climate benefits,” she said.

In this context, she proposed incentives for their use in
households and businesses; adapting commercial technologies to the
conditions in Mexico; increasing the efficiency of supply chains;
disseminating the benefits of bioenergy; implementing favourable
policies for this sources; and designing programmes for rural
areas.

For his part, Reyes, from the Biomass Association, called for
the design of regional and local policies, aimed at boosting the
use of bioenergy with adequate financial support.

Meanwhile, the charcoal makers of San Juan Evangelista know what
they want: to take care of the forest, foment self-employment and
consolidate their organisation and thus their community.

“We are trying to earn an income, but we are working precisely
because we know it has a future. We’ve tried to organise
ourselves as women, because in the social sphere it’s difficult
to get out,” Manzano said during the day that IPS accompanied
their activities in this town, 48 km from Oaxaca, the state
capital, and 540 km from Mexico City.

Along with other Oaxacan community-owned companies, the group
offers its products on
new digital platforms
.

Some say the government does not support initiatives like those
of her group, but Manzano and her colleagues are confident that
wood and charcoal will continue to be available in Mexican kitchens
thanks to sustainable efforts like theirs.

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Bioenergy, the Ugly Duckling of Mexico’s Energy Transition

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Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Bioenergy, the Ugly Duckling of Mexico’s Energy Transition