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Grasslands Promising for Renewable Energy Sources

Vast grasslands provide a promising future for clean energy in China, with rich reserves of solar and wind power and great biofuels potential, experts at an international conference here said.

Zhang Yingjun, a professor who specializes in grassland research at Beijing-based China Agricultural University, said to develop liquid fuels (mainly ethanol, at present) from particular plants would surely become a major step toward clean, renewable resource development in China.

According to Chinese researchers, there are about 3.6 million hectares of waste grassland with good potential as arable land. That is almost half the reserve land that's most suited to arable land exploitation in China.

"If this part of the waste grassland is used for bio-ethanol energy plants, the yearly potential bio-ethanol production will be 11 million tonnes, which can substitute for more than one fifth of China's present gasoline consumption," the researchers said in a paper that was submitted to the international grassland and rangeland congress here in the capital of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

The conference runs from June 29 to July 5.

With oil prices surging, China, one of the world's major energy users with its fast-growing economy, has spent heavily to develop alternative energy resources.

In 2006, it implemented a renewable energy law, which designated such resources as wind, solar, hydropower and biomass as development priorities.

The vast grassland, covering about 40 percent of the country's land area, has become a promising base for clean energy projects.

Compared with fossil fuels, plant-based biofuels are believed to have numerous environmental benefits such as lower greenhouse gas emissions -- and of course, they are renewable. Perennial species can also help reduce soil erosion and water runoff and provide wildlife habitat, experts said.

The United States and some European countries have made great progress in biofuels production, while China remains at the early stages of this industry. A few biofuels production lines operate, but much of China's bio-energy is generated in other forms. One example is electricity generated from straw.

Liu Jiawen, deputy director of the grassland monitoring and administration center under the Ministry of Agriculture, said bioenergy development requires the cultivation of special plants. The government should offer subsidies for bio-energy research and development to spur growth.

China should also develop policies to support the cultivation of the necessary plants, Zuo Haitao, a Beijing Research and Development Center for Grass and Environment expert, told Xinhua in an interview during the congress. The event is a joint meeting of the International Grassland Congress and the International Rangeland Congress.

"The prospects for biomass energy are very promising," said Zuo.

Experts at the congress expressed optimism on the development of solar and wind power on the grasslands.

"There is a lot of solar and wind on the grasslands. Why not use it?" said James O'Rourke, president of the International Rangeland Congress. He agreed that solar and wind can be important alternative resources.

"I see China is really on the right track in this area," he said. The expert said he was deeply impressed by the wind farms he saw in his visits to the grasslands in China.

China has achieved remarkable progress in wind and solar energy use. In Inner Mongolia, where grasslands are plentiful, the installed capacity of wind turbines increased by 180 percent year-on-year to hit 980,000 kw in 2007. The figure is expected to reach 2 million kw at the end of this year.

At the end of 2005, total installed wind capacity hit 1.26 million kw, with solar capacity of 70,000 kw.

Under China's energy plan, released in March, renewable energy should rise to 10 percent of total energy consumption by 2010 from 7.5 percent in 2005. The figure will be 15 percent in 2020, the plan said.

(Xinhua News Agency July 4, 2008)

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