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Renewable Energy's Ugly Duckling

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Cow dung being dried for fuel in Agra, India
India at the Energy Crossroads, Part 2

Could the fate of the planet be shaped by rice husks, eucalyptus twigs, and cow dung? Serious question. Power from the sun, which I wrote about in my last column, is the sexy poster child of renewable energy. Power from the soil -- biomass -- is the ugly duckling. For more than 700 million people in South Asia, daily survival still depends on burning biomass, and the idea that these people will continue to power their lives with firewood and agricultural waste carries a persistent stigma: it's a symbol of the past, not the future; it's a health hazard and a poverty trap; it's crude, dirty, and downright distasteful.

In fact, burning biomass cleanly may be vital to the future of the developing world, and the ability of these hundreds of millions to escape from poverty. The understandable instinct of governments is to think as Americans did in the 1930s, when FDR created the Tennessee Valley Authority: that such a monumental challenge demands monumental solutions, grand schemes that will add hundreds of gigawatts to a nationwide spider's web of power plants, towers, and transmission lines. But the alternative is to think small, to start from how people actually live, and what they most urgently aspire to: to build up from the ground, rather than down from the grid.

To its credit -- and despite its general tendency to think in gigawatts -- India has a proud record on biomass. The only country in the world with a Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, it has been looking to unromantic things like firewood and animal waste for almost 30 years now. Just two weeks ago, the ministry announced that India's next five-year plan (yes, it still has that relic of socialism, despite the overall liberalization of its economy) will include a National Biomass Mission, parallel in ambition to its National Solar Mission. And if you're still worried about the pre-modern image of biomass, look no farther than Germany, which has done more to reduce its carbon emissions in the past 20 years than any other developed nation, in part because it now covers 7 percent of its energy needs with biomass (a figure that may rise to 15 percent by the end of this decade).


Biomass is a word that's often thrown around loosely to cover a number of different things: the burning of plant matter to create energy, either through a gasifier or to drive a steam turbine; its transformation, through a chemical process, into biofuels; and the production of biogas (mainly methane), usually at the household or neighborhood level, by breaking down organic matter in an oxygen-free environment. It's impossible, in India, to leave biogas out of the energy equation. But what interested me most in coming to Bangalore was to find out what the best brains in India's high-tech capital were doing to bring gasifier technology to the village level, and how this effort might help to solve the country's crippling energy problems.

The people I visited in Bangalore are based there for a logical reason: the presence of the Indian Institute of Science, whose Combustion, Gasification, and Propulsion Laboratory is doing some of the world's most advanced R&D in biomass technology. But there were also some surprises in my conversations with the heads of two of the country's most ambitious biomass initiatives. One of them, DESI Power, can't wait to leave Bangalore and move its operations to Bihar, the dirt-poor northern state where the company's founders grew up. The other, the Biomass Energy for Rural India Society (BERI), is rooted not in the high tech sector but in the Indian Forest Service. And the models they espouse are quite different, one tailored to villages that have no access to the power grid, and the other to villages that do.

Well, make that nominal access. Shortly before arriving in Bangalore, I'd visited a village that was listed in government records as having a grid connection. An impressive line of electricity poles marched along the narrow main street. A farmer took me into his home and showed me the meter mounted on his wall. The only problem was that there no wires, and the meter was festooned with cobwebs. Government workers came here a few years ago, put up the poles, installed the meters, and never returned. But no matter: check it off the list; add it to the official stats. Another electrified village.

In tens of thousands of other villages, the ones that do have wires, the current may flow for only a few hours each day. When the grid can't cope with demand, the available power goes to the cities and factories. The villages are disconnected. Maybe you'll get a spurt of power in the morning; maybe it will come in the middle of the night. Maybe they'll tell you those hours in advance; maybe they won't.

DESI Power's dream, said the company's CEO, Ashok Das, is to build standalone, off-grid plants in 1,000 villages in Bihar. These will be tiny, producing less than 100 kilowatts on average, but that's enough to make a small village self-sufficient in energy. Solar lighting programs, like those I wrote about in my last column, had more limited potential, Das said, especially in more remote areas that had zero access to the grid. "Solar is best for light," he said, "but biomass is best for power." Without 24/7 power to run grain mills, irrigation pumps, and cottage industries, you would never open a meaningful path to prosperity. These activities would generate new income, and part of that would be used to pay for the electricity. DESI Power had already demonstrated the soundness of this business model in three villages in Bihar; there was no reason, Das said, to think that it couldn't be replicated all over the state, indeed all over India.

The BERI model is quite different; in fact it's unique, in that it's aimed at villages that have a nominal grid connection, and it will involve somewhat larger power plants, up to about one to two megawatts. The pilot project, which is centered on the village of Kabbigere, two hours north of Bangalore, is designed to generate enough power to meet the needs of a cluster of five communities during periods when the grid supply is shut down. The idea is that the state power company, BESCOM, will pay a reasonable amount for this "tail-end support."

BERI is the brainchild of G. S. Prabhu, a boisterous, at times abrasive 33-year veteran of the Indian Forest Service with a fondness for speaking in aphorisms. Biomass, he told me, is "power for all seasons and all reasons." He checked off a list of its built-in advantages. "The driving factors are climate change, the exhaustion of fossil fuels, and energy security," he said. "Any energy source has to deal with its own fuel needs. If it's a coal plant, you have to lock up coal supplies. Ditto uranium for nuclear. You can't set up a winery without grapes." Biomass was the obvious answer, he said. If you were smart about which trees you planted and where you planted them, there were no limits to the amount of fuel you could produce. If it could work in Kabbigere, it could work anywhere.

With the right technology, and with the "energy forests" acting as a carbon sink, biomass will generate zero CO2 emissions, he continued. It will also produce energy at less than half the cost of wind and a third that of solar. And if it's produced close to the villages that use it, almost nothing is lost during transmission and distribution. The Indian grid is infamous for losing up to a third of its output before it reaches the consumer, and electricity becomes more and more expensive the farther you are from the main power lines. So a poverty-stricken villager in rural Karnataka can pay many times more for a light that flickers on and off for four hours a day than a software executive in Bangalore pays for all his household electricity needs.

Reality is a bit more complicated than a tabletop model, of course, and Prabhu acknowledged that BERI had to overcome all sorts of practical obstacles to prove that its ideas would work. Local people had to develop the necessary skills, although he said tree-planting "isn't rocket science" and a smart kid could learn enough with six months of training to handle most day-to-day operations and maintenance at the plant. You had to get buy-in from the elected local government, the gram panchayat, and in Kabbigere those conversations had been thorny. You also needed to resolve land ownership issues, which are complicated in India, and above all, Prabhu said, "you don't want to displace food crops so that you empty the poor man's stomach and fill the rich man's."


It was a hot, dusty afternoon when we reached Kabbigere. There's nothing romantic about a biomass plant. Two women in saris were squatting outside in the blazing sun under a sign that said "Green Power," hacking up eucalyptus branches into three-inch chunks with short-handled sickles of the sort people use to harvest rice. Inside the plant, men were winching up bucketfuls of wood to feed the gasifier, which looked a bit like the smokestack on a 19th century railroad engine. The machinery clanked and groaned and hissed. The building smelled of sawdust and woodsmoke. The walls were scuffed, the concrete floor was cracked, there were puddles of standing water, boxes of discarded parts caked in grease, and a labyrinth of ducts, gantries, and catwalks that put me in mind of the movie Brazil.

Kabbigere could generate 500 kilowatts, I was told by the young plant engineer, Harsha Naik -- enough to provide backup for the grid for three hours a day. When two smaller nearby plants came online, pushing the total output up to one megawatt, this would rise to six hours. Two megawatts would make electricity available around the clock.

But there was much more to the package than I'd realized from talking to G. S. Prabhu. People struggle for subsistence in this part of Karnataka, the engineer explained. The land is arid where much of the state is lush and fertile, and BERI's goal was to meet the full range of people's basic energy needs.

We drove out through the plant's 10,000-acre energy forest to one of the villages that would benefit. There were backyard biogas digesters, two-burner gas stoves, solar lanterns -- all courtesy of BERI. Out in the fields, we encountered a couple of farmers at work by a borewell and an electric irrigation pump -- also installed by BERI. The older man said he used to leave the village seeking casual labor during the eight months of the dry season; now, with irrigation, he could produce year-round crops of chilis, vegetables, coconuts, and bananas. His neighbor plucked a small white blossom, a variety of jasmine, and held it to my nose so that I could smell the delicate scent. Raising flowers for the market in the nearest town had changed his life, he said, bringing in more than 10,000 rupees a month -- $200 -- an unheard-of sum.

I asked the young engineer whether Prabhu had been serious when he told me that the Kabbigere model could be replicated in every one of the 33,000 villages in Karnataka. He looked at me earnestly, and said, "Oh yes. We're planning 20 years ahead. The technology is still developing, but this has to be one of our energy options when fossil fuels are exhausted."


The question is, how does India get from here to there? All the clean energy projects I'd seen around Bangalore, whether solar or biomass, depended on financial angels in their early stages, to prove that their ideas were viable and could be replicated at a larger scale. SELCO, whose work I described in my last column, had relied on European donors to persuade local banks to underwrite solar loans. Half the budget for the Kabbigere project comes from the United Nations Development Program. DESI Power relied on the support of the Rockefeller Foundation.

At some point the training wheels will have to come off, but realizing the full potential of these initiatives to meet India's need for clean energy will require government subsidies, soft loans, venture capital, carbon credit financing, an equitable tariff structure, investment in ongoing R&D. And those things will happen only with a radical change in the mindset of government and the private sector, which have the necessary skills, resources, and good intentions, but may be wedded to the wrong assumptions.

The International Energy Agency says that if the world is to achieve universal access to energy by 2030, 70 percent of all investments should go to off-grid projects. The figure for India's National Solar Mission? Less than 10 percent. That think-big approach has been ingrained in the psyche of Indian governments ever since independence. As the Sierra Club's Justin Guay recently wrote in his excellent blog, the grid is unlikely ever to keep place with India's needs: while it has expanded by 60 percent in the past decade, access to energy has grown by just 10 percent. Maybe the National Biomass Mission will be different. We'll see.

The private sector, meanwhile, has an equally long way to go. At Davos last year, SELCO's Harish Hande was asked to chair a panel of 30 leading CEOs interested in clean energy. "Extremely smart people," he wrote in his blog, "but so removed from reality."

"Big solar arrays are so hyped because of big corporate lobbies who see huge profits," said Ashok Das of DESI Power. "But who speaks up for biomass?"

If India faces up to questions like these, the ugly duckling of renewable energy may turn into a swan, and the country's future may be both clean, prosperous, and equitable. If it doesn't, we may just see a lot more glitz and glitter in places like Bangalore -- more and more of it powered, no doubt, by solar energy from the grid.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >
Although I enjoyed reading your article, I found a typo. When it said, "depended on financial angels in their early stages, to prove that their ideas were viable and could be replicated at a larger scale." I believe it should be "angles" not "angels". Not meaning to be rude, or anything. Although I'm trying not to insert a random joke about finances having wings and a golden halo. Although you COULD say they were financially blessed. :)
The comment of Jessica is mind stripping. How ever the invention is the mother of necesity. India has to goo for Bio energy sooner or latter when all the manipulations of the big corporate sector stands still in the absence of fossil fuels. The Bio energy when properly used and tapped will meet all the rural economic needs of India. we are working on it and looking forwards to swans fly soon.