Bihar is undoubtedly on the national media spotlight these days. While the entire government machinery and political parties are focusing their energy towards the state’s assembly elections, socio-economic conditions remain the same in the state. Development is still not the top issue in this election, while caste combination is.
Politicians often complain that the deadly combination of poverty, illiteracy and people’s apathy prevents development in Bihar. There is no doubt this northern Indian state has the worst infrastructure in terms of roads, electricity, water and telecommunications. The darkness that envelopes every night across the state’s rural areas starkly symbolizes “Bihar mein andhakar”. Fortunately, a small company named ‘Husk Power Systems’ is showing the way by building a localized micro-grid energy system, which is powered by a cheap local resource.
Rural Power Supply – Acute problem
Uninterrupted electric power supply is such a rarity in India that has become an oxymoron! The problem is acute in rural areas where power is only given in shifts, particularly in off-peak hours. So electric power is never there when it is needed and the supply quality is also deficient. Villagers rely on kerosene lanterns for lighting and diesel generators for irrigation and commercial power. Both are expensive and destructive to health and the environment.
Not only this system burdens rural households who cannot afford to buy these fuels from the market, but also adds to the import burden of our country. Alternative energy options like solar PV and wind are still too costly for rural poor, though their prices have come down drastically. In contrast, local energy resources such as biomass and biodiesel are abundantly available and remain underutilized.
Innovative Local Solution Husk Power Systems
Husk Power Systems has innovatively utilized this resource to provide a reliable and affordable option for rural electrification. As the company name suggests, Husk Power uses rice husk – a waste product in rice milling – to power a 40 kilowatt power plant, which provides electricity for 500 village households for around six to eight hours every day.
India is one of the world’s leading rice producing countries, so there is abundant availability of rice husk. Apart from rice husk, the region also produces a significant amount of straw, another by-product of rice production. While straw is well utilized as fodder for cattle during the dry months, rice husk is marginally used as fuel for stoves and mostly it is wasted.
While the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy in India had been promoting biomass gasification projects for many decades, most of these were pilot projects run by NGOs in remote areas. However, the success of Husk Power Systems as a private, off-grid electricity producer and supplier has renewed the commercial interest in the conversion of this waste material into electricity.
Gyanesh Pandey and Manoj Sinha chose to establish Husk Power Systems in 2008 in the most power-starved state in the country. They realized that the low cost electric supply and high quality service are key factors for a viable, small-scale electricity generation option. They looked into various alternative electricity generation options such as wind turbines, solar photovoltaic, biodiesel, and bio-gas, but selected rice husk, an abundant local resource in the rice-growing region.
Husk Power Systems uses biomass gasification technology, which is a partial oxidation process that burns a solid fuel mixed with oxygen in a controlled system to produce producer gas. However, husk does not burn easily due to its high silica content that causes wears out the biomass gasifiers. Most biomass gasifiers in India utilize dual fuels where diesel is used as a support fuel, but this increases the cost of electricity generation. For a mono-fuel application, a customized, proprietary design of gasification technology was required that had to be built and maintained locally without much technical expertise.
Husk Power Systems locally fabricated a mono-fuel biomass gasifier and a cheap compressed natural gas engine was procured to start the initiative. The decision to locally fabricate the equipment rather than buying from a manufacturer, which turned out to be a smart move that reduced the total capital cost of the plant.
The company today installs and operates mini biomass power plants (15-250 kW) and solar micro-grids (20 KW) in remote rural electricity deficient villages. Currently, Husk Power Systems has installed around 85 plants across 300 villages in Bihar, serving an estimated coverage of 20,000 households and 200,000 individuals. At INR2.2 per watt, the company’s rates are much cheaper than the subsidized power provided by the government electricity boards!
However, there is one disadvantage to this otherwise great boon for rural masses. Husk Power uses biomass as a fuel because of its abundant availability in farming communities. While biomass power plants are considered “green” because of their use of farm waste instead of fossil fuels, they are still combusting the fuel much like how a standard power plant burns coal or gas. That means biomass power stations still emit emissions that aren’t so good for the environment and human health.