Author – Nandini Kumar
With the exponentially increasing world population and rapidly diminishing fossil fuels, there is an urgent need to explore alternative energy sources for a sustainable future. One such method involves using biomass and biogas to generate power. Biomass is any organic matter derived from living or recently living organisms which can be processed into electricity.
Biomass has been recognized as an important source of alternate energy generation all across the world due to its various advantages including the fact that it is:
- A renewable source of energy
- Widely available
- Carbon-neutral (emits zero net carbon emissions)
- Has the potential to provide employment in rural areas
- Free from weather related fluctuations (unlike wind energy)
The Indian Ministry of New & Renewable Energy has realized the critical need of biomass energy in the country whose climatic conditions provide an ideal environment for biomass production. Thus, it has initiated numerous projects aimed at utilizing this technique. Large-scale power production from biomass is becoming a huge industry in India, attracting investments of over INR600 crores every year. Bihar, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Punjab are the states that lead in the establishment of biomass-based power plants.
One such plant, the Punjab Biomass Power was established in 2010 in the village of Ghanaur after converting the existing coal power plant at the site. The functioning of this plant requires the collection of rice straw from farmers who work in the nearby fields. This straw would otherwise have been burned by farmers as waste or fed to cattle as fodder. Today, 120,000 tons of straw are usefully combusted at Punjab Biomass Power every year to generate 12 megawatts of electricity for the state’s power grid. The power plant pays 15,000 farmers about INR500 per acre of rice straw, hence allowing the Indian farmers to earn extra income.
The combustion technology used to convert biomass into electricity is similar to that of a thermal plant based on coal, except for the boiler. The cycle involves burning the biomass in high pressure boilers to produce steam, which is then used to operate a turbine, thereby generating power. Although the combustion of straw produces emissions, the filters and the electro-static precipitators at the plant significantly reduce the amount pollution generated. Further, biomass energy generation is considered carbon neutral since the biomass used comes from plants, which took carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as they grew. Therefore, the amount of carbon sequestered and released into the atmosphere during the entire energy generation process is zero.
Since roughly 60% percent of India’s population relies on agriculture for a living, an estimated 600 million tons of agricultural waste is produced each year. This is a big resource and should be channelized properly to aid the power generation of the nation. However, there lie several challenges in further expanding the biomass energy sector like collecting, storing and transporting the agricultural waste. Most Indian farm lands are fragmented among small farmers and lack organized disposal systems, so energy companies require many threshers and tractors in order to collect the agro waste from fields.
Further, since crop harvesting is seasonal, enough fodder to run the plant for 12 months needs to be collected and stored for efficient operation. Another perplexing problem is keeping the biomass dry during heavy monsoon rains. Additionally, companies operating the plants face many legal hindrances in getting clearance for large pieces of land to store the fodder. The company also has to bear losses in its initial years of establishing the plant before it becomes operationally profitable.
While there is a huge scope for biomass power in India, there is a considerable lack of efficiency, logistical infrastructure and investment needed for research & development. Some European countries have been successful in efficiently harnessing biomass energy and serve as an example for us. Nearly half of Austria’s renewable energy comes from biomass and the region aims to rely solely on renewable energy by the year 2030. Similarly, Finland uses biomass from its well managed and abundant forests to generate 20% of its energy supply. Sweden has also recently developed its biomass energy industry and generates 16 percent of its power in this sustainable way.
India needs to double its non-conventional energy supply from various alternative energy sources, including biomass, from 25,000 megawatts to 55,000 megawatts by 2017. If the required action is taken to achieve this vision, it would be a major step towards ensuring a more secure future for the generations to come.