FloWood: a study of biomass energy demand patterns in Cambodia

It is quite lamentable that the biggest contributor – biomass – to Cambodia’s total energy mix is also one that gets probably the least attention among researchers and government alike.

Biomass energy makes up 70 percent of Cambodia’s energy consumption, more than 90 percent of which – according to FloWood: A Study of Biomass Energy Demand Patterns in Cambodia undertaken by GERES from the middle of 2013 till end-2014 – is supplied by woodfuel (firewood and charcoal), representing 4.3 million tons (or 2 million ton oil equivalent) of Cambodia’s primary wood consumption annually.


Is that bad, you ask. “Not if it’s sustainable,” Romain Joya, FloWood’s lead researcher says. Wood energy is a renewable and sustainable form of energy, and is a tremendous asset for a country, but only for as long as wood consumption that does not outpace the renewability of biomass source (e.g. trees).

The problem is – and this is one of the interesting realizations to be had from the study – a lot of wood is coming from forest lands converted to agriculture. This does not only mean that eventually no more wood is going to come from these places; this phenomenon also has artificially brought the price of wood down, only to rise back up drastically when the supply from these converted lands had all been consumed. In fact, this huge increase in wood prices is already being felt in some places in the country.

Severe pressure in forests to supply wood demand is occurring in places where industry biomass users are geographically concentrated (and industries do tend to concentrate in particular areas in the country). And while industry users consume so much less biomass compared to domestic cooking – which is responsible for more than 70 percent of the final biomass energy demand – increasing industrial and economic activities makes ignoring this group of biomass users utterly foolish.

“These industries need help. They need technical support to be able to improve the energy efficiency of their production processes,” Joya adds.

The industries are not the only ones to benefit from comprehending the results of the FloWood research. A research of this (national) scale that gives detailed data and information on Cambodia’s top biomass users – domestic cooking, brick production, rubber processing, fish smoking, small-scale food processing, salt refining, ice production, tobacco curing, garment, rice husk and wood gasification – will give government the much needed data support that it would do well to heed if it is to design sound policies surrounding biomass. In fact, findings from the study were used by GERES in assisting the Ministry of Mines and Energy in drafting a Wood Energy Strategy. In addition, project developers like GERES will also benefit from the findings of the study which will help them design more appropriate and context-relevant interventions.

Highlights of FloWood were presented at the Green Business Forum hosted by EuroCham Cambodia in April 2015. If you are interested to know more about the study, CONTACT US.

Read on the transcripts of an interview with Romain Joya, lead researcher and project manager of the FloWood study.

(1) Why did you call it FloWood?

In the beginning, we wanted to do an assessment of wood flows in the country, and we thought of FloWood. But later on, we extended the study to incorporate all of biomass. Our entry point was wood because it is the main source of energy in this country and also the main source of biomass.

(2) What is FloWood?

FloWood is an assessment of biomass consumption patterns in Cambodia. It’s nationwide. The goal is to understand better the demand for biomass in the country. We wanted to know where is this demand coming from, from which province, for which purpose, and when – is there a seasonality, etc.?

GERES has been working for 20 years in Cambodia on the subject of domestic cooking, but we wanted to know what is the share of domestic cooking in wood usage in the country.

We wanted to close knowledge gaps. There are a lot of misconceptions on biomass in Cambodia. People are not really aware of the significance of wood energy in the energy balance of the country, and so we wanted to fill that knowledge gap and to bring evidences to light that will shape our projects and programs, and also build capacity among project implementers and policy makers.

(3) Why do you think that there are a lot of knowledge gaps in biomass energy despite it being the biggest contributor in Cambodia’s energy mix?

I think that is so because it is very difficult to account for it because the woodfuel industry is a highly informal one and there is no one main source of information, for example, unlike oil which is imported, and so if you want to know the country’s oil consumption, you base it on oil imports.

(4) Tell us about the research process.

When we started with the research, we started from nothing. We didn’t know who’s consuming wood, where it’s coming from, what was the share of other biomass, and so on. To have a first glance of what’s happening, we performed experts elicitation from experts and researchers working in government, NGOs, research firms, and asked for their ideas on who might be biomass users in the country. So we got a few suggestions from them. We also performed a desk review of existing literature and databases about the subject, such as the Economic Census of Cambodia. Then we did a preliminary field survey – drove to places where there are known biomass users, asked them a few questions to lead us to the other users. All this is in the preliminary phase. In this phase we were able to identify the sectors which were the top users of biomass, and which we’re going to study in-depth.

The second phase consisted of in-depth analysis and surveys among tens of producers from each sector. This had allowed us to have very detailed information of their business, their production, the seasonality of their production – everything. From these surveys we got information as to how much wood the business is consuming, what kind of technology they’re using, etc. After, comes an estimation of the total wood consumption of the country. We looked at the social and environmental issues too. We had to be very smart in asking questions.

The last part is dissemination of study results.

(5) What challenges did you encounter in conducting this research?
Getting accurate data was a real challenge. The respondents from businesses couldn’t give correct data for two reasons – either they don’t have, don’t know all the data that we’re asking about their business, or they are afraid that we might harm their business with the information that we have on them. You need to have a very good team to deal with this kind of respondents, you got to explain to them that this is for research and how recommendations from us could eventually help their business become, for example, more energy-efficient so they could compete better with competition, from say, Vietnam or other countries. We had to ask the same question in three different ways just to make sure to get the “real” answer.

Another challenge is accounting here in Cambodia: it was very difficult to harmonize the units, to know how much really was costs, profits, etc.

(6) Who is bound to benefit the most from knowing the findings of this study?
Project developers like GERES would benefit a lot from the findings of this study. The whole value chain – from supply to demand – is detailed for each sector in this study.

Another is government. If you need to design sound policy, you need solid evidences. Biomass is a very important part of Cambodia’s energy mix, and government knowing the results of this study would support their decision-making about biomass energy.

The businesses would benefit. The study stresses the fact that they lack technical assistance. They need help on their design, on their production processes. The rubber sector for example, they don’t know to make their drying more energy-efficient; the fish sector, their smoking consumes a lot of wood; the palm sugar producers, they are giving up because wood is becoming too costly for them. They need help to improve their energy-efficiency through better technologies or helping them switch to alternative fuels.

(7) What other interesting bit of information which you came across while conducting this study?
A lot of wood is coming from forest land conversion to agricultural land. Wood prices are artificially low because of this ‘’free’’ wood coming from land conversions, but later on at some point, there will be no more wood coming from these areas – and this is already happening in some areas.

We found that most agricultural residues like rice husk is under tapped.

We also found that charcoal production is a huge waste in Cambodia. A lot of wood and energy is lost in the process of converting to charcoal. Charcoal in Cambodia is not going away, so measures need to be put in place to improve charcoal production technology. Improved cookstoves should also continue. The source of wood needs to be sustainable. If wood is sustainably harvested, then your wood energy is sustainable and that is an asset for Cambodia.

Domestic cooking accounts for nearly 4million tonnes of wood, while industry only accounts for 700 kilo tonnes. Industry activities is small compared to domestic cooking, but it still is significant because they keep on growing. Industry also knows that wood is cheaper and so they use wood instead of other fuels. Also, while the total wood demand by industry is lower, their consumption at very particular geographic locations where one industry tends to concentrate – for example, most of brick kilns is located north of Phnom Penh, in Kandal province – is higher, and they can cause pressure in forests in these areas.

(8) In one sentence or two, what is the message that GERES is trying to send out in this study?
Wood energy in Cambodia is a big challenge , yet it’s very significant. And we shouldn’t ignore it. It’s got great potential with the right technology and right measures.