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 using rural small town business idea 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.

Biomass Exchange – Key to Success in Biomass Projects

Biomass exchange is emerging as a key factor in the progress of biomass energy sector. It is well-known that the supply chain management in any biomass project is a big management conundrum. The complexity deepens owing to the large number of stages which encompass the entire biomass value chain. It starts right from biomass resource harvesting and goes on to include biomass collection, processing, storage and eventually its transportation to the point of ultimate utilization.

biomass-exchange

Owing to the voluminous nature of the resource, its handling becomes a major issue since it requires bigger modes of biomass logistics, employment of a larger number of work-force and a better storage infrastructure, as compared to any other fuel or feedstock. Not only this their lower energy density characteristic, makes it inevitable for the resource to be first processed and then utilized for power generation to make for better economics.

All these problems call for a mechanism to strengthen the biomass value chain. This can be done by considering the following:

  • Assuring a readily available market for the resource providers or the producers
  • Assuring the project developers of a reliable chain and consistent feedstock availability
  • Awareness to the project developer of the resources in closest proximity to the plant site
  • Assurance to the project developer of the resource quality
  • Timely pick-up and drop of resource
  • Proper fuel preparation as per technology requirements
  • Removal of intermediaries involved in the process – to increase value for both, the producers as well as the buyers
  • No need for long term contracts (Not an obligation)
  • Competitive fuel prices
  • Assistance to producers in crop management

Biomass Exchange Model

The figure below gives a general understanding of how such a model could work, especially in the context of developing nations where the size of land holdings is usually small and the location of resources is scattered, making their procurement a highly uneconomic affair. This model is commonly known as Biomass Exchange

In such a model, the seed, fertilizer shops and other local village level commercial enterprises could be utilized as an outreach or marketing platform for such a service.  Once the producer approves off the initial price estimate, as provided by these agencies, he could send a sample of the feedstock to the pre-deputed warehouses for a quality check.

These warehouses need to be organized at different levels according to the village hierarchy and depending on the size, cultivated area and local logistic options available in that region. On assessing the feedstock sample’s quality, these centers would release a plausible quote to the farmer after approving which, he would be asked to supply the feedstock.

On the other hand, an entity in need of the feedstock would approach the biomass exchange, where it would be appraised of the feedstock available in the region near its utilization point and made aware of the quantity and quality of the feedstock. The entity would then quote a price according to its suitability which would be relayed to the primary producer.

An agreement from both the sides would entail the placement of order and the feedstock’s subsequent processing and transportation to the buyer’s gate. The pricing mechanisms could be numerous ranging from, fixed (according to quality), bid-based or even market-driven.

Roadblocks

The hurdles could be in the form of the initial resource assessment which could in itself be a tedious and time consuming exercise. Another roadblock could be in the form of engaging the resource producers with such a mechanism. Since these would usually involve rural landscapes, things could prove to be a little difficult in terms of implementation of initial capacity building measures and concept marketing.

Benefits

The benefits of  a biomass exchange are enumerated below:

  • Support to the ever increasing power needs of the country
  • Promotion of biomass energy technologies
  • Development of rural infrastructure
  • Increased opportunities for social and micro-entrepreneurship
  • Creation of direct and indirect job opportunities
  • Efficient utilization of biomass wastes
  • Potential of averting millions of tonnes of GHGs emissions

Conclusions

In India alone, there has been several cases where biomass power projects of the scale greater than 5 MW are on sale already, even with their power purchase agreements still in place. Such events necessitate the need to have a mechanism in place which would further seek the promotion of such technologies.

Biomass Exchange is an attractive solution to different problems afflicting biomass projects, at the same time providing the investors and entrepreneurs with a multi-million dollar opportunity. Although such a concept has been in existence in the developed world for a long time now, it has not witnessed many entrepreneurial ventures in developing nations where the need to strengthen the biomass supply chain becomes even more necessary.

However, one needs to be really careful while initiating such a model since it cannot be blindly copied from Western countries owing to entirely different land-ownership patterns, regional socio-political conditions and economic framework. With a strong backup and government support, such an idea could go a long way in strengthening the biomass supply chain, promotion of associated clean energy technologies and in making a significant dent in the present power scenario in the developing world.