Biogas Sector in India: Perspectives

Biogas is an often overlooked and neglected aspect of renewable energy in India. While solar, wind and hydropower dominate the discussion in the cuntry, they are not the only options available. Biogas is a lesser known but highly important option to foster sustainable development in agriculture-based economies, such as India.

What is Biogas

Briefly speaking, biogas is the production of gaseous fuel, usually methane, by fermentation of organic material. It is an anaerobic process or one that takes place in the absence of oxygen. Technically, the yeast that causes your bread to rise or the alcohol in beer to ferment is a form of biogas. We don’t use it in the same way that we would use other renewable sources, but the idea is similar. Biogas can be used for cooking, lighting, heating, power generation and much more. Infact, biogas is an excellent and effective to promote development of rural and marginalized communities in all developing countries.

This presents a problem, however. The organic matter is putting off a gas, and to use it, we have to turn it into a liquid. This requires work, machinery and manpower. Research is still being done to figure out the most efficient methods to make it work, but there is a great deal of progress that has been made, and the technology is no longer new.

Fossil Fuel Importation

India has a rapidly expanding economy and the population to fit. This has created problems with electricity supplies to expanding areas. Like most countries, India mainly uses fossil fuels. However, as oil prices fluctuate and the country’s demand for oil grows, the supply doesn’t always keep up with the demand. In the past, India has primarily imported oil from the Middle East, specifically Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Without a steady and sustainable fossil fuels supply, India has looking more seriously into renewable sources they can produce within the country. Biogas is an excellent candidate to meet those requirements and has been used for this goal before.

Biogas in India

There are significant differences between biogas and fossil fuels, but for India, one of the biggest is that you can create biogas at home. It’s pretty tricky to find, dig up and transform crude oil into gas, but biogas doesn’t have the same barriers. In fact, many farmers who those who have gardens or greenhouses could benefit with proper water management and temperature control so that plants can be grown year round, It still takes some learning and investment, but for many people, especially those who live in rural places, it’s doable.

This would be the most beneficial to people in India because it would help ease the strain of delivering reliable energy sources based on fossil fuels, and would allow the country to become more energy independent. Plus, the rural areas are places where the raw materials for biogas will be more available, such animal manure, crop residues and poultry litter. But this isn’t the first time most people there are hearing about it.

Biogas in India has been around for a long time. In the 1970’s the country began a program called the National Biogas and Manure Management Program (NBMMP) to deal with the same problem — a gas shortage. The country did a great deal of research and implemented a wide variety of ideas to help their people become more self-sufficient, regardless of the availability of traditional gasoline and other fossil fuel based products.

The original program was pioneering for its time, but the Chinese quickly followed suit and have been able to top the market in biogas production in relatively little time. Comparatively, India’s production of biogas is quite small. It only produces about 2.07 billion m3/year of biogas, while it’s estimated that it could produce as much as 48 billion m3/year. This means that there are various issues with the current method’s India is using in its biogas production.

Biogas_Animal

Biogas has the potential to rejuvenate India’s agricultural sector

The original planning in the NBMMP involved scientists who tried to create the most efficient biogas generators. This was good, but it slowed people’s abilities to adopt the techniques individually. China, on the other hand, explicitly worked to help their most rural areas create biogas. This allowed the country to spread the development of biogas to the most people with the lowest barriers to its proliferation.

If India can learn from the strategy that China has employed, they may be able to give their biogas production a significant boost which will also help in the rejuvenation of biomass sector in the country. Doing so will require the help and willingness of both the people and the government. Either way, this is an industry with a lot of room for growth.

Role of Biomass Energy in Rural Development

biomass-balesBiomass energy systems not only offer significant possibilities for clean energy production and agricultural waste management but also foster sustainable development in rural areas. The increased utilization of biomass wastes will be instrumental in safeguarding the environment, generation of new job opportunities, sustainable development and health improvements in rural areas.

Biomass energy has the potential to modernize the agricultural economy and catalyze rural development. The development of efficient biomass handling technology, improvement of agro-forestry systems and establishment of small, medium and large-scale biomass-based power plants can play a major role in rural development.

Sustainable harvesting practices remove only a small portion of branches and tops leaving sufficient biomass to conserve organic matter and nutrients. Moreover, the ash obtained after combustion of biomass compensates for nutrient losses by fertilizing the soil periodically in natural forests as well as fields.

Planting of energy crops on abandoned agricultural lands will lead to an increase in species diversity. The creation of structurally and species diverse forests helps in reducing the impacts of insects, diseases and weeds. Similarly the artificial creation of diversity is essential when genetically modified or genetically identical species are being planted.

Improvements in agricultural practices promises to increased biomass yields, reductions in cultivation costs, and improved environmental quality. Extensive research in the fields of plant genetics, analytical techniques, remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS) will immensely help in increasing the energy potential of biomass feedstock.

Rural areas are the preferred hunting ground for the development of biomass sector worldwide. By making use of various biological and thermal processes (anaerobic digestion, combustion, gasification, pyrolysis), agricultural wastes can be converted into biofuels, heat or electricity, and thus catalyzing sustainable development of rural areas economically, socially and environmentally.

Biomass energy can reduce 'fuel poverty' in remote and isolated communities

Biomass energy can reduce ‘fuel poverty’ in remote and isolated communities

A large amount of energy is utilized in the cultivation and processing of crops like sugarcane, wheat and rice which can met by utilizing energy-rich residues for electricity production. The integration of biomass-fueled gasifiers in coal-fired power stations would be advantageous in terms of improved flexibility in response to fluctuations in biomass availability and lower investment costs.

There are many areas in India where people still lack access to electricity and thus face enormous hardship in day-to-day lives. Biomass energy promises to reduce ‘fuel poverty’ commonly prevalent among remote and isolated communities.  Obviously, when a remote area is able to access reliable and cheap energy, it will lead to economic development and youth empowerment.

Importance of Biomass Energy

Biomass energy has rapidly become a vital part of the global renewable energy mix and account for an ever-growing share of electric capacity added worldwide. Renewable energy supplies around one-fifth of the final energy consumption worldwide, counting traditional biomass, large hydropower, and “new” renewables (small hydro, modern biomass, wind, solar, geothermal, and biofuels).

Traditional biomass, primarily for cooking and heating, represents about 13 percent and is growing slowly or even declining in some regions as biomass is used more efficiently or replaced by more modern energy forms. Some of the recent predictions suggest that biomass energy is likely to make up one third of the total world energy mix by 2050. Infact, biofuel provides around 3% of the world’s fuel for transport.

Biomass energy resources are readily available in rural and urban areas of all countries. Biomass-based industries can foster rural development, provide employment opportunities and promote biomass re-growth through sustainable land management practices.

The negative aspects of traditional biomass utilization in developing countries can be mitigated by promotion of modern waste-to-energy technologies which provide solid, liquid and gaseous fuels as well as electricity. Biomass wastes encompass a wide array of materials derived from agricultural, agro-industrial, and timber residues, as well as municipal and industrial wastes.

The most common technique for producing both heat and electrical energy from biomass wastes is direct combustion. Thermal efficiencies as high as 80 – 90% can be achieved by advanced gasification technology with greatly reduced atmospheric emissions.

Combined heat and power (CHP) systems, ranging from small-scale technology to large grid-connected facilities, provide significantly higher efficiencies than systems that only generate electricity. Biochemical processes, like anaerobic digestion and sanitary landfills, can also produce clean energy in the form of biogas and producer gas which can be converted to power and heat using a gas engine.

Advantages of Biomass Energy

Bioenergy systems offer significant possibilities for reducing greenhouse gas emissions due to their immense potential to replace fossil fuels in energy production. Biomass reduces emissions and enhances carbon sequestration since short-rotation crops or forests established on abandoned agricultural land accumulate carbon in the soil.

Bioenergy usually provides an irreversible mitigation effect by reducing carbon dioxide at source, but it may emit more carbon per unit of energy than fossil fuels unless biomass fuels are produced unsustainably.

Biomass can play a major role in reducing the reliance on fossil fuels by making use of thermochemical conversion technologies. In addition, the increased utilization of biomass-based fuels will be instrumental in safeguarding the environment, generation of new job opportunities, sustainable development and health improvements in rural areas.

The development of efficient biomass handling technology, improvement of agro-forestry systems and establishment of small and large-scale biomass-based power plants can play a major role in rural development. Biomass energy could also aid in modernizing the agricultural economy.

Consistent and reliable supply of biomass is crucial for any biomass project

When compared with wind and solar energy, biomass power plants are able to provide crucial, reliable baseload generation. Biomass plants provide fuel diversity, which protects communities from volatile fossil fuels. Since biomass energy uses domestically-produced fuels, biomass power greatly reduces our dependence on foreign energy sources and increases national energy security.

A large amount of energy is expended in the cultivation and processing of crops like sugarcane, coconut, and rice which can met by utilizing energy-rich residues for electricity production.

The integration of biomass-fueled gasifiers in coal-fired power stations would be advantageous in terms of improved flexibility in response to fluctuations in biomass availability and lower investment costs. The growth of the bioenergy industry can also be achieved by laying more stress on green power marketing.

Biogas and Rural Development

Anaerobic digestion proves to be a beneficial technology in various spheres. Biogas produced is a green replacement of unprocessed fuels (like fuel wood, dung cakes, crop residues). It is a cost effective replacement for dung cakes and conventional domestic fuels like LPG or kerosene. Biogas technology has the potential to meet the energy requirements in rural areas, and also counter the effects of reckless burning of biomass resources.

An additional benefit is that the quantity of digested slurry is the same as that of the feedstock fed in a biogas plant. This slurry can be dried and sold as high quality compost. The nitrogen-rich compost indirectly reduces the costs associated with use of fertilizers. It enriches the soil, improves its porosity, buffering capacity and ion exchange capacity and prevents nutrient depletion thus improving the crop quality. This means increased income for the farmer.

Further, being relatively-clean cooking fuel; biogas reduces the health risks associated with conventional chulhas. Thinking regionally, decreased residue burning brings down the seasonal high pollutant levels in air, ensuring a better environmental quality. Anaerobic digestion thus proves to be more efficient in utilization of crop residues. The social benefits associated with biomethanation, along with its capacity to generate income for the rural households make it a viable alternative for conventional methods.

The Way Forward

The federal and stage governments needs to be more proactive in providing easy access to these technologies to the poor farmers. The policies and support of the government are decisive in persuading the farmers to adopt such technologies and to make a transition from wasteful traditional approaches to efficient resource utilization. The farmers are largely unaware of the possible ways in which farm and cattle wastes could be efficiently utilised. The government agencies and NGOs are major stakeholders in creating awareness in this respect.

Moreover, many farmers find it difficult to bear the construction and operational costs of setting up the digester. This again requires the government to introduce incentives (like soft loans) and subsidies to enhance the approachability of the technology and thus increase its market diffusion.

Biogas Prospects in Rural Areas: Perspectives

Biogas, sometimes called renewable natural gas, could be part of the solution for providing people in rural areas with reliable, clean and cheap energy. In fact, it could provide various benefits beyond clean fuel as well, including improved sanitation, health and environmental sustainability.

What Is Biogas?

Biogas is the high calorific value gas produced by anaerobic decomposition of organic wastes. Biogas can come from a variety of sources including organic fraction of MSW, animal wastes, poultry litter, crop residues, food waste, sewage and organic industrial effluents. Biogas can be used to produce electricity, for heating, for lighting and to power vehicles.

Using manure for energy might seem unappealing, but you don’t burn the organic matter directly. Instead, you burn the methane gas it produces, which is odorless and clean burning.

Biogas Prospects in Rural Areas

Biogas finds wide application in all parts of the world, but it could be especially useful to developing countries, especially in rural areas. People that live in these places likely already use a form of biomass energy — burning wood. Using wood fires for heat, light and cooking releases large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The smoke they release also has harmful health impacts, particularly when used indoors. You also need a lot to burn a lot of wood when it’s your primary energy source. Collecting this wood is a time-consuming and sometimes difficult as well as dangerous task.

Many of these same communities that rely on wood fires, however, also have an abundant supply of another fuel source. They just need the tools to capture and use it. Many of these have a lot of dung from livestock and lack sanitation equipment. This lack of sanitation creates health hazards.

Turning that waste into biogas could solve both the energy problem and the sanitation problem. Creating a biogas system for a rural home is much simpler than building other types of systems. It requires an airtight pit lined and covered with concrete and a way to feed waste from animals and latrines into the pit. Because the pit is sealed, the waste will decompose quickly, releasing methane.

This methane flows through a PCV pipe to the home where you can turn it on and light on when you need to use it. This system also produces manure that is free of pathogens, which farmers can use as fertilizer.

A similar but larger setup can provide similar benefits for urban areas in developing countries and elsewhere.

Benefits of Biogas

Anaerobic digestion systems are beneficial to developing countries because they are low-cost compared to other technologies, low-tech, low-maintenance and safe. They provide reliable fuel as well as improved public health and sanitation. Also, they save people the labor of collecting large amounts of firewood, freeing them up to do other activities. Thus, biomass-based energy systems can help in rural development.

Biogas also has environmental benefits. It reduces the need to burn wood fires, which helps to slow deforestation and eliminates the emissions those fires would have produced. On average, a single home biogas system can replace approximately 4.5 tons of firewood annually and eliminate the associated four tons of annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Biogas is also a clean, renewable energy source and reduces the need for fossil fuels. Chemically, biogas is the same as natural gas. Biogas, however, is a renewable fuel source, while natural gas is a fossil fuel. The methane in organic wastes would release into the atmosphere through natural processes if left alone, while the greenhouse gases in natural gas would stay trapped underground. Using biogas as a fuel source reduces the amount of methane released by matter decomposing out in the open.

What Can We Do?

Although biogas systems cost less than some other technologies, affording them is often still a challenge for low-income families in developing countries, especially in villages. Many of these families need financial and technical assistance to build them. Both governments and non-governmental organizations can step in to help in this area.

Once people do have biogas systems in place though, with minimal maintenance of the system, they can live healthier, more comfortable lives, while also reducing their impacts on the environment.