The hulking power plant set against the green countryside of Punjab state in northwest India does not look like a source of renewable energy. Yet filling its stockyard, instead of mounds of coal, are bales of rice straw. Machines break up the heavy straw cubes as men with pitchforks hoist fibrous mounds onto a conveyor belt leading to the power plant. Handkerchiefs cover their faces to protect them from dust swirling in the air.
This is Punjab Biomass Power, a plant near the village of Ghanaur that collects the straw collected from farmers tilling the lush fields of the surrounding countryside. After harvest, they would normally burn this agricultural waste, inedible to people and animals, to clear fields for wheat crops, as farmers across India do, and in that way contribute to the country’s dire air pollution. But at Punjab Biomass, 120,000 tons of rice straw a year are instead burned to generate 12 megawatts of electricity for the state’s power grid.
The plant produces emissions, although its filters reduce the amount that outdoor burning would generate. But such biomass energy in theory is considered carbon-neutral because of what these plants use as fuel — like sugar cane pulp and nut shells that took carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as it grew. Biomass power plants are eligible for carbon credits that translate into cash, and Punjab Biomass hopes to eventually earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from the plant.
Yet biomass is far from a solution to the enormous energy needs of India and its 1.2 billion people. Alternative energy, like wind, biomass and solar, accounted for less than 8 percent of India’s power generation in 2009. Still, because India imports about 70 percent of its oil and natural gas and relies on coal for more than half of its electricity generation, it must consider all options for energy.
In April, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for a doubling of India’s nonconventional energy supply, including biomass, from 25,000 megawatts in 2012 to 55,000 megawatts by 2017. “Energy is both scarce and expensive and yet it is vital for development,” said Mr. Singh at the Clean Energy Ministerial in New Delhi. Developing countries “have to expand all sources of supply, including both conventional and nonconventional energy,” he said.
Agricultural waste in India is abundant, since roughly 60 percent of its population relies on agriculture for a living. Sunil Dhingra, a senior fellow at the Energy Resources Institute (TERI), a Delhi-based policy center, estimated that India produced 600 million tons of such “agro-waste” each year, 150 to 200 tons of which are not used. This is “a big resource that needs to be channelized,” he said.
Some European countries have already successfully harnessed biomass energy. In Finland, biomass such as leaves and wood from its abundant, managed forest industry accounts for 20 percent of the energy supply, according to the European Biomass Industry Association. Sixteen percent of Sweden’s energy comes from biomass. And nearly half of upper Austria’s renewable energy comes from biomass; the region aims to use renewable energy for all of its heat and energy demand by 2030.
Punjab Biomass began operations in November 2010 after converting the existing coal power plant at the site, an option less expensive than building a new plant or solar or wind farm. In Britain and other parts of Europe, some coal-fired plants are converting to biomass to comply with new European environmental regulations, said David Hostert, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance in London.
In India, biomass has the potential to generate at least 18,000 megawatts of electricity, according to the country’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. Biomass energy can be produced through big power plants but also in small, rural gasifiers for grass-roots industries like brick kilns. Mr. Dhingra of TERI estimated that there were 800 to 900 biomass power plants and 3,000 small thermal gasifiers across India.
Biomass energy also generates extra income for Indian farmers. Punjab Biomass pays 15,000 farmers about 500 rupees, about $8, per acre of rice straw that would otherwise be burned.
But there are many challenges to expanding biomass energy, especially collecting, storing and transporting the agricultural waste to power plants. Most farms are fragmented, without organized disposal operations, so energy companies need fleets of threshers and tractors to collect agro-waste from fields. Enough fodder to run a power plant for 11 months must be collected and stored. Punjab Biomass runs mainly on rice straw, but it is considering other agro-waste unfit for livestock, like corn and cotton stalks and sugar cane waste to supplement its current supply.
Biomass is stored in enormous depots and must be kept dry even in India’s heavy rains. Companies must get clearance for large swaths of land to store fodder — no easy task in bureaucratic India. Murad Ali Baig, director of Bermaco Energy Systems, one of the partners in the Punjab plant, admitted that getting the plant running “should have taken 18 months but took four years.” The logistics of storing and transporting fodder and maintaining fuel-guzzling equipment is far more complicated than it seems in unpredictable India. “It’s been bloody hard work,” said Mr. Baig.
The company is operationally profitable, but still has losses from its first couple of years of business. Still, the company aims to build eight more rice-straw energy plants in Punjab state to generate 96 megawatts of electricity by 2017. Across India, Bermaco hopes to set up about 20 biomass plants generating 240 megawatts during the next three years and about 1,000 megawatts in the next six years.
While there is potential for biomass energy in India, the country lacks the efficiency, logistical infrastructure and investments of countries like Finland. There, the public and private sector have invested heavily in research and development. Huge warehouses store leaves and wood to ensure steady, efficient supplies of fodder from well-managed forests.
In India, biomass “is low-tech, but let’s invest, like the example we’ve seen in Europe,” Mr. Dhingra of TERI, said. “Industry, academia and government all work on one platform there. You don’t see that happening here.”