Michael's Dispatches

Gobar Gas II


The caloric rollercoaster for the star anaerobes begins at about 15ºC (59ºF).  That’s when they start waking up and going to work.  To kick them out of bed, some farmers pile straw atop the digester.  Decaying straw produces heat.  Busy anaerobes begin to help by producing heat inside the digester.  Some people build greenhouses over top, or barns.  In China, according to Jan Lam, the SNV biogas project manager in Cambodia, “The ‘3 in 1’ approach is popular.  A greenhouse contains a vegetable garden, pig sty and biodigester.  Vegetable waste is fed into the pigs and their waste goes directly into the plant which is often large enough for cooking and a water heater.”

In cold weather, digestion can be prodded with warm water.  As temperature rises, production rises, but the top of the “thermo coaster,” the ideal temperature, is about 35ºC (95ºF).  Good dung, plenty of water, little oxygen, and the anaerobes do their job.  Above that temperature, they slow down, trying to shed some heat.  But if slowing down doesn’t work, if their world gets too hot, they die.

Installing a digester is like adopting a baby elephant.  It can’t get too hot or cold.  It must eat every day, and drink lots of water.  Sometimes it needs a little washing.  If the water source is far, the system is impractical.  Many parts of Nepal and Afghanistan are impractical for baby elephants and biogas.

Mt. Everest: 8,850 meters (29,035 feet): too high for Gobar Gas, and yaks.

Dr. Ram Baran Yadav, President of Nepal.  (Saroj Rai, head of biogas in Nepal, stands on President Yadav’s left.)


Plants in Nepal seldom break unless there is an earthquake or calamity, cracking the collector dome.  Concrete is semi-permeable to gas, requiring sealant on the concave side of the dome.  A tiny crack in the sealant allows methane to escape, disabling the unit until it is repaired.  Cracks on the bottom and the wall of the digester can self-seal like scabs.

If too much oxygen gets into the digester, the anaerobes die and the unit must be cleaned out and refilled.  The anaerobes can be killed by too much soap, pesticides, insecticides and other “cides” such as antibiotics.  Experts say hospital installations are headaches because when people take antibiotics, they kill the microbes, but the bigger problem is toilet disinfectants.  On farms, cows on antibiotics can also kill the plant.  Gisella McGuinness, from the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that a prison installation in Nepal is working fine.  This is important, she said, because the prison is only allotted a specific amount for food and cooking gas, and so the Gobar Gas allows more of the budget to go to food.  Asked if antibiotics damage the plant, she answered, “no because prisoners don’t get much medical care.”

President Yadav at biogas conference in Kathmandu

Kanak Mani Dixit, PhD, is a well-known academic and journalist in Nepal, who lived in New York for 10 years and is the publisher and editor of the monthly magazine Himal Southasian.  Dr. Dixit said that his family was one of the first to install Gobar Gas in Nepal, and their plant has been running with no problems for about 30 years.  Jan Lam from SNV says, “All plants are constructed with a guarantee clause.  Usually the guarantee period is 2-3 years.  If a plant functions after a 2 year period, it will function for a 20 year period with normal operation.”

Maintenance costs are trivial.  BSP-Nepal estimates that 94-98% of the plants that were installed since 1992 are still operational.  In Vietnam, the SNV program manager, Jeroen Kruisman, in his Hanoi office, said that about 99% of the about 74,000 plants in Vietnam are operating.  Mr. Kruisman explained that plant failures occur because of socio-economics, not design.  If a farmer moves or sells his pigs, for instance, the plant stops.

Physically, the plants are not indestructible. But for all intents and purposes they only fail due to calamities such as earthquakes and floods, in which cases people have more to worry about than fixing their Gobar Gas.

User Investment and Social Marketing

Financial participation from users is crucial to marketing success.  Experience shows that if users are not investors, they tend to let the units fail, and as Andrew Williamson from SNV said in Laos, “One bad unit equals ten good units.”  Entire programs can suffer heavy damage by installing plants for people who do not care for them.

Lalit, the Gurkha soldier who first told me about Gobar Gas, said his father installed a biodigester some 25 years ago and it never had a problem.  Lalit’s dad was also a Gurkha who had traveled the world, and when he returned to Nepal and installed biogas, other villagers were skeptical.  Lalit says that today hundreds of families in the immediate area have Gobar Gas.  “It’s monkey see monkey do,” said Lalit.  “If you bring Gobar Gas to Afghanistan, at first they will not believe it works.  Then they see it, and all will want Gobar Gas. And then it’s easy.”

Social marketing likely would be a large dimension of a program for Afghanistan.  This is not as simple as just installing a few hundred thousand plants, but includes the development of an entire business sector.  Though the Chinese and Indians are the undisputed champions of biogas in their home countries, it’s unclear if they would succeed in Afghanistan.  SNV has biogas operations in 14 countries and has developed institutional expertise from bottom to top.  Social marketing is nuanced and would require an “international mindset” to crack that nut in Afghanistan, and even within countries the marketing is complex.  In Nepal, there are arguably 160 ethnicities and 67% of users come from only two of those.  On literacy, in Nepal 83% of members of biogas households are literate while about half the country cannot read.  Higher subsidies are provided to ethnicities that are less involved in biogas.

Bottom line: Social marketing is complex and unit failure nearly always is due to user failure.  The user must participate in costs or there will be a high failure rate.  Program success builds through social marketing as a result of successful units.

The SNV idea is to plant the seed that leaves behind a viable, self-sustaining biogas industry that functions alone and without perpetual outside inputs.  To accomplish this goal, SNV conducts a detailed feasibility study and strategy.  Then comes the nuts and bolts of identifying managers, training trainers to install units, social marketing, subsidies and other details.  The biogas units themselves are different in every country, as is the strategic business model, which must be tailored to cultural values.   A rule of development projects is that the technology is the easy part. The keys to success are in getting people to change what is often age-old traditional behavior.  It’s tricky to convince a farmer that this new technology should be a priority for his family.

In Laos, when SNV opens programs in new districts, they identify social leaders such as teachers or veterinarians, and install biogas at their homes.  Those social leaders become kernels for social marketing.  When a farmer wants biogas, the local government official who has been trained by the SNV project inspects the person’s home for basics such as water availability, dung output, and flooding potential.  If the official signs off, the process can begin.

Carbon Credits

Global warming is a huge political issue, playing out across the planet.  Though third world nations can rarely afford to be as pollution-sensitive as developed nations, biogas is a ticket into the international carbon credit market.  In that market, entities which reduce net emissions of greenhouses gases can sell carbon credits to companies which use more carbon-based fuel.

According to Saroj Rai, Nepal pulled in about $600,000 on the sale of seven years’ worth of carbon credits from 19,396 plants. That represents a small start, since Nepal has 220,000 plants, which BSP-Nepal is working to get certified. Selling these carbon credits will potentially bring tens of millions of dollars into Nepal over the projected life of the plants.  This “carbon revenue” is earmarked by the government for re-investment into biogas and other renewable energy programs.

CDM certification, which is necessary in order to participate in the international carbon market, is painstaking, extremely expensive, and takes up a big part of the return unless the national program is large enough to achieve an economy of scale.

For the farmers on the ground the eco-friendliness is just a byproduct.  In parts of Cambodia and Nepal, biogas is attractive because the wood is gone.  Other countries use biogas plants for agriculture.  China and India view biogas as basic infrastructure.  These programs would exist regardless of trendy carbon credit markets.  Nonetheless, the advent of these credit schemes works for investors and users alike.

On a side note, I attended some carbon financing talks in Kathmandu in relation to biogas.  That part seemed like a scam of global proportion.  The rest of the biogas program seemed incredibly good.

Final Leg: Vietnam

Jeroen Kruisman, SNV Program manager in Vietnam, explains the Vietnamese model at the Hanoi office.

This research began serendipitously in the jungles of Borneo, leapt to Afghanistan, over to Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, back to Nepal, and finally to Vietnam.  Vietnam is set to become SNV’s most important biogas undertaking.  Vietnam biogas likely will overshadow even Nepal’s wildly successful program.

Whereas Nepal has over 200,000 domestic units, SNV-Vietnam program manager Jeroen Kruisman said that since 2003, 74,000 units have been installed in Vietnam.  Annual installations have already passed Nepal.  The program is so successful in Vietnam—the social marketing so strong—that many farmers don’t even spend the time waiting for subsidies; they just buy the plants.  About 22,000 units will be installed in 2010.

Vietnamese plant model.

Most fascinating about the Vietnamese success, is that Vietnamese say they buy the plants for the sake of improved sanitation.  The maximum subsidy is only about 13.5%.

The Vietnamese raise millions of pigs in urban and semi-urban environments.  Imagine a tracthouse neighbor with a backyard full of pigs.  Swine draw flies, mosquitoes, stink to high heaven, and unlike cow dung, pig dung is not safe to use to clean your floors.  It poisons the water.  And so, Vietnamese use the biogas only as an afterthought, though they are happy with the savings.  Many Vietnamese are rich compared to Nepalese.  Vietnamese cook mostly with gas or coal, making Hanoi smell acrid.

Mr. Nguxen Duc Bang, living in a densely packed neighborhood in Hanoi, had just bought a 12m3 plant, which was a couple of days before completion.  I counted only eleven pigs.  Not enough dung for such a big plant.  Mr. Nguxen said that when the plant is finished, he will add ten more pigs.

In Vietnamese, “biogas” is Khi Sinh Hoc, but a lot of Vietnamese don’t know that because they call it biogas.  For Vietnamese, it’s biomoney.  At this rate, biogas may add billions of clean dollars to the Vietnamese economy.  They buy the sanitation systems because the neighbors then permit them to raise more pigs.  At a different household, a Vietnamese woman said she is sending her son through university with money from the extra pigs.  Again, domestic biogas can be a nearly direct link to education.

For governments there is an additional payoff: increased legitimacy.  The incremental improvement in conditions that each plant represents is a more direct route to winning hearts and minds than most big, impersonal development projects.

SNV experts say national leaders like to be associated with the biogas projects, explaining why Nepalese President Yadav came to the Kathmandu biogas conference.

According Mr. Kruisman, SNV expert for Vietnam, there might be a technical potential for 2 million units, and a practical potential of about 1 million units in Vietnam.

This research odyssey on Gobar Gas was sparked by Lalit, a Gurkha whose father installed a plant in Nepal, and a man who grew up eating hot meals cooked on Gobar Gas, and who saw his village, house by house, install Gobar Gas, go to school, start businesses and prosper.  Villages with Gobar Gas are better than villages without.

It could work in Aghanistan. Our troop concentration of efforts and resources happens to be in optimal places for biogas.  The Helmand River Valley, for instance, is ideal. The Dutch have the experience and resources to make it happen.  They are already a crucial partner in Afghanistan.  And it fits into our current strategic, nation-building needs.  Our huge, “save Afghanistan all in one fell swoop” electrification projects have not been as successful as we had hoped.  Domestic biogas grows like a tree, from the bottom up, and the roots occur at the district level, a level we must win at.

Subsequent some matchmaking, SNV has been in contact with the U.S. Army with interest in bringing biogas to Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, since I completed this research in 2009, in an attempt to bring Gobar Gas to Afghanistan and help win the war, the trajectory of the war has taken a nosedive.  I’ve never had confidence that the current U.S. President has the wisdom or personal fire to win this war.  Our President is not a war winner, a reality so obvious that this sentence is already redundant.  My final hope, or nearly final hope, was that General Stanley McChrystal would have the fire and the wisdom.  He has the fire.

Note: An excellent book that covers these topics and more: “BIOGAS, As Renewable Source of Energy in Nepal, Theory and Development.” (ISBN 99946-34-76-3)


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