Is biomass the silver bullet we are looking for?

By Rohit Pathania

Photo courtesy: cr.middlebury.edu

Agriculture plays an important role in providing employment to billions of people, which in 2009 International Labour Organization (ILO) accounted for as much as a third of the global working labour force. It is a multi-faceted sector including such activities as pisciculture, silviculture animal husbandry as well as plant form cultivation. These activities not only use up a lot of resources, they also generate a lot of waste.  What is often ignored is that waste can also be turned into a valuable source of energy if utilized through the right technology.

What is Biomass, and Why Does it Matter?

Biomass, as the name itself suggests, refers to materials of biological origins, ranging from living to recently living organisms. Thus all wood, grass, manure, dung and organic waste produced can be called biomass. For our discussion however, we would like to stick to materials that are renewable in nature on a human time scale as biomass, thus leaving out wood, which is also the defining parameter for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Agricultural practices generate a huge quantum of biomass as waste each year, and while the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in 2010 noted that 70% of the population in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) still depends on biomass for cooking and heating purposes, even then huge amounts of it go to waste. It is a telling example that in a country like India, a heavily industrialized state like Maharashtra, according to the Biomass Resource Atlas of India launched by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, has a biomass surplus of 5721 kilo tonnes per year between 2000 and 2004, for the monsoon season, corresponding to a potential 731.3 MW electrical power!  This, when the state has a shortage of about 2200 MW* shows the critical nature of taking up this challenge, which is being addressed through policy and fiscal measures now.   *[Based on estimates by Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Limited (MSEDCL) ]

A study by Khanji Harijan, Muhammad Aslam Uqaili and Mujeebuddin Memon of Mehran University of Engineering and Technology in Pakistan noted that in 2008 biomass energy from bagasse of the sugar mills of Pakistan contributed 5700 GWh or about 6.6% of the country’s electricity generation for the year in the face of ever increasing power crisis. Even Vietnam’s potential has been pegged at 500 MW as specified by ASEAN and gtz, the German technical aid agency.  Such examples only go to show how we have been literally sitting on heaps of energy and letting it go to waste for no reason. Moreover, it does not lead to an increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions if the right energy conversion technologies are used, whereas letting it go to ‘waste’ means greater emissions that are already adding to the contentious issue of GHG emissions from the agricultural sector.

A critical area that is not given much attention is that electricity is not available even today in many rural areas across the world. Biomass and biogas energy systems provide an excellent mechanism for distributed power (DP) to be take place, which would be nothing short of a revolution. Instead of bringing grid connections to these areas, local generation and distribution systems set up could effectively save time and big money that is otherwise spent in attempts to connecting these places with electrical connections, and with both livestock and agricultural waste being in plenty in rural areas, an assured supply can be set up, which could also lead to energy independence of the rural economy, a big step in fighting poverty in the world. Biogas generated from animal and poultry waste is an excellent fuel due to its high methane content (65% and above) that makes it perfect for heating and small scale gas based power generation.

Extending the concept to plantations on degraded lands, a 2009 study jointly done by Indian and Swedish institutions noted that producing wood for bio-energy is a good strategy for climate change mitigation as well, and if managed in a sustainable manner all of these strategies can contribute to the improvement of the social and environmental situation of the local community.

The Challenges and Solutions

IIED in 2010 had put forward some compelling statements that perhaps sums up the answer. As the author of the report, Keith Openshaw dryly remarked, biomass has been dubbed the ‘Cinderella’ of fuels as few people in planning, development and policy circles treat it seriously in spite of its penetration and potential to simultaneously fight the multiple problems of rural health, waste management, energy (electrical and thermal) generation and even poverty.

The challenge of lower calorific value vis-à-vis the fossil fuels is easily offset by the mountains of surplus available, and yet the misconceptions of  biomass being ‘traditionally polluting’ fuel needs replacement as a ‘modern’ energy sources. Due to neglect by one and all, many issues have subsequently risen:

  •  Many poor countries tend to lack proper assessment studies of their biomass resources. In many of those present, these studies are outdated and do not reflect the ground realities. This is a challenge for power generation as the reliability of fuel varies with agricultural output as well as geographical location, affecting the fuel price and thus making profitability of projects a challenge. In several places, it is mandated on project developers to conduct independent assessments to determine the real ground situation. Compulsory periodic assessments of the same, with the periods being small (say about 2-3 years), could certainly help address the problems.
  • Calorific value tends to be low for these fuels when compared to fossil fuels. However, as pointed out earlier, optimal energy conversion technologies can overcome this problem, and so can the problem of waste surpluses with the right installation capacities so as to neither underwhelm nor overwhelm the system.
  • There is generally little fiscal and policy support to biomass energy in many countries. Even where policies exist, the policy regime tends to be unstable with continuous “chop and change” leading to uncertainty in the business climate for serious players. India is a classic case where feed in tariffs are changed frequently, and in spite of long term agreements, new players generally perceive that they are at a loss for entering in a ‘little late’. Moreover, projects are also postponed often in expectation of better future prices, thus delaying the set up in a major way. Stable policy regimes are the requirement in developing countries, with a strong focus on giving generation incentives to the performers. Renewable energy certificate (REC) trading schemes are a good idea; however it needs to be kept transparent without any upper ceilings and secondary trading. Also, allowing third party sales is a great way to allow independent power producers to get the appropriate price, which can make it a profitable exercise.
  • A genuine concern now arising is the fear that rising global demand for cleaner energy from biomass could drive more land acquisition in poorer nations where food security and land rights are weak. IIED in its latest report in 2011 has in fact pointed out that this is happening due to wood being used as the primary biomass source. Disincentive for use of wood needs to be introduced into the system, accompanied by transparent land acquisition schemes that counter the problem of opaque and controversial sales of land.
  • Agriculture as a sector is seeing a decline in many developing countries. Consequently, we have people exiting this sector, and added to the improper linkage of the field with the power plant and conversion plant, we are seeing a situation where biomass prices are increasing rapidly and shortage of biomass surplus is occurring causing a recurrence of fossil fuels being burnt instead, making the whole exercise a farce. Such a situation is arising in India where biomass power plants are now suffering major losses, making the sector unattractive for new entrants whereas existing parties wish to exit the business. Linkages are important to address the multiple problems, and voluntary contracts with farmers could be allowed that address concerns of all parties. For instance, a price increment could be promised each year to the farmers selling the biomass so that they do not feel cheated in any way. Moreover, these deals could be kept for about three years so that enough elbow room for negotiation and profit is allowed to either party as the power generation business picks up in the area or new plants enter the same area.

Conclusion

Can biomass be the answer to our energy needs? This is a question that needs to be answered with a certain ‘yes’. Biomass energy can certainly be the silver bullet that we are looking for in the short run, and a cheap one at that, especially in agrarian nations. However we need to address the various issues that surround it. While we point out many things to be the ‘elephants’ in the room, biomass energy is the ‘elephant’ that needs to be cornered. Agriculture needs a new boost to make it productive and remunerative, so that we can arrest the fall of people into poverty. The fuel needs to be the agricultural residue and the animal waste, and both can be improved upon to address their calorific value concerns.

Mahatma Gandhi had envisioned gram swarajya or village autonomy. Energy today is the issue around which independence of everyone, the rural economy included depends today. We are a fighting another war of independence – one from the tyranny of fossil fuels and its terrorising activities of climate change, air pollution and its dangerous impacts on human health. We owe this not only to ourselves and to our home, but to our children, for whom we need to fight to achieve the path of sustainable development that we are striving for.

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About the Writer:

Rohit Pathania has a B.Tech in Environmental Engineering from Delhi University and an M.Sc in Environmental Management from National University of Singapore. He has worked as an Environmental Consultant with Ernst & Young and his areas of interest are environment, energy, climate change (mitigation and adaptation) and sustainable development.

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Comments

  1. Varun Kumar says:

    I think I agree, distributed generation of electricity in villages using biomass(agricultural waste and residue) with the right combustion technology certainly seems like a “Win -Win” solution to develop sustainable rural economy, remove poverty and henceforth boost world economy. Indirect effect will be of-course increased food production due to energy availability required to feast world’s ever increasing population. This initial perception is enough impetus to put money in doing this option’s more rigorous viability analysis.

  2. iman says:

    Its very good , thanks a lot

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