Shifts in China’s biomass energy policy

Biomass has been recognized by the Chinese government as a viable source of energy, particularly in rural areas. Although the world’s second largest economy, around 7 million of China’s residents are without electricity. In rural areas, inefficient crop residues and firewood still account for about 70 percent of the energy supply. In addition to meeting the energy needs of the countryside, China must still meet growing demand in its expanding cities which greatly contributed to the doubling of China’s energy consumption in the last decade.

As a result, biomass will play a greater role in China’s renewable energy mix. According to information disseminated in the run-up to the release of China’s National Forestry Biomass Energy Development Plan for 2011 – 2020, biomass energy will rise from less than 0.5 percent of all domestically produced renewable energy, to 1.52 percent in 2015 and to 2 percent in 2020. Land dedicated for biofuel crops will expand to exceed 9.6 million hectares by 2015 before reaching nearly 19 million hectares in 2020, the increase proposed for land considered marginal for agricultural purposes so as not to disrupt food production. A greater proportion of forestry residues are also planned for use toward China’s energy needs.

However these prospective gains for China’s biomass industry, although nonetheless impressive, are less than earlier estimates earlier and reflect evolving preferences for various biomass sources on the part of the Chinese government. Preceding the yet-to-be-released National Forestry Biomass Energy Development Plan is the more high-level Twelfth Five Year Plan set by China’s Communist Party to direct policy from 2011 to 2015. And released just prior to this was the China Biomass Energy Technology Development Roadmap 2010, prepared by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). (Hopefully the reader is still following and has not become lost in the myriad of Chinese governmental bodies and reports.)

In just a year’s time anticipated biomass power capacity decreased, from 14.5 GW in 2015 and 34.5 GW in 2020 (per the NDRC) to a less optimistic 13 GW and 30 GW, respectively, in the Twelfth Five Year Plan—still a marked increase from the 5.5 GW installed at the end of 2010. Also interesting are the proposed capacities from differing biomass sources after five years time.

China nationally planned biomass capacities for 2015*


12th FYP

Biomass power (GW)



Agro-forestry residues



Biogas (methane)



Municipal waste



Biofuel gas (bn m3)


Pellets and briquettes (mn tons)



Ethanol (mn tons)


3.5 – 4.0

Biodiesel (mn tons)



Aviation biofuel (mn tons)


Agricultural and forestry residues will be more heavily utilized as a fuel source at the expense of biogas and solid municipal waste. Condensed biomass in the form of pellets and briquettes are targeted for 10 million tons per annum by 2015 rather than 6 million tons, likely destined for cogeneration purposes in China’s predominantly coal-based power generation. Less is expected of biodiesel due to a lack of sustainable feedstock supply at economical prices.

The Chinese government may be winding down from its spendthrift, stimulus-induced ways of the post-financial crisis in hopes of a “soft landing” for its economy, with a hint of caution expressed toward its nascent biomass industry. Biomass power is in fact more expensive than coal, with unit construction costs at RMB 9,000 (USD 1,429) per biomass-generated kilowatt as opposed to RMB 4,500 (USD 714) per kilowatt for thermal coal. Although the feed-in-tariff for agro-forestry biomass remains at RMB 0.75 per kilowatt hour, the subsidy for ethanol has been reduced from RMB 0.20 per liter in 2008 to RMB 0.17 at present. The 5 percent biodiesel fuel blend standard remains voluntary and only feasible in one Chinese province—Hainan.

Nonetheless, China’s biomass industry will be far from idle. An investment of RMB 90 billion (USD 14.3 billion) over the next five years is expected to bring forth around 200 new agro-forestry power plants, 83 municipal waste power facilities, and numerous small-scale methane-based power facilities.

After a year of reflection China’s government remains ambitious, albeit more prudent, in its plans for biomass energy.



*Note: The table represents the methodology China uses to track its biomass power production. The categories in bold are mutually exclusive.