China uses more fertilizer than any other country, and that results in the release of nitrous oxide -- a greenhouse gas that climate scientists say is 298 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
"China in recent years has begun trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, but solutions it had used are either too costly or too time-consuming," said Pan Genxing, director of the Agriculture and Climate Change Center at Nanjing Agriculture University.
Pan estimates that biochar will help China cut carbon dioxide emissions for each ton of grain output by 25 to 45 percent.
But not everyone agrees. In 2009, a group of environmental organizations led by Britain-based Biofuelwatch issued a report against the use of biochar. The report argued that some studies showed it could increase carbon dioxide emissions from the soil.
What is beyond dispute is a decent economic return in Lin's business. It enjoys a double-digit profit margin each year. After the business presented its straw-to-energy-and-chemicals solution in a global forum last year, Lin said companies from Belgium, Russia and other countries have been in talks with him about exporting the technology.
China's biomass business potential has also caught the eyes of international giants. General Electric Co., for one, signed a partnership last year with an energy research institute in the city Guangzhou to develop and commercialize a technology that uses power from straw gasification to generate electricity.
According to China's latest bioenergy development guideline, the nation annually generates 340 million tons of straw that is available for energy use. So far, less than 3 percent of the straw has been used for that purpose.
Bumping up against King Coal
To seek more clean energy, the government here created fiscal incentives for companies nationwide to produce straw-based fuels and sell straw-generated electricity to utilities. It also subsidized the buildup of biomass power plants in rural China.
Still, there are problems. A straw gasification power plant built in Jiangsu province after an investment equivalent to $321,500 was abandoned only two months after it started in 2008. A local paper said the operator blamed the shutdown on safety concerns.
Lin has a different explanation: Collecting straw is labor-intensive. Transportation and storage also add to the cost. Some factories fail to convert straw into energy in an effective manner. And when they finally produce straw-based fuels, they come up against a more formidable barrier, which is that, despite the subsidies, coal is still cheaper to burn and easier to store and handle.
Policymakers here want to make cities use more biomass energy for heating. They promise to build biogas pipeline networks in rural communities. Lin said those policies help create market demand, but he wants more.
As a member of the Henan Provincial People's Congress, the region's legislature, Lin recently proposed to give the straw-to-energy industry more government support such as subsidized electricity and free tolls on trucks that transport straw. Those proposals are under review.
"If we can turn all of China's straw into energy, rural Chinese will no longer need other energy means," Lin said. "Henan province alone generates 70 million tons of straw each year, and that has an energy potential equal to seven big coal reserves. We'll run out of coal reserves one day, but we'll always have straw."
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500