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19th May, 2011


BGP for BoP - Biomass Gasification Power (BGP) for India’s Bottom of Power (BoP)

At last count, there are over 60,000 Indian villages without any access to power. Yep, that’s right; these are folks who have not seen electricity at all. That’s a humungous number.

This fact is hardly a secret, and it is thus not surprising that the Indian government had been keen on doing something about it for quite a while. In fact, there is a government programme whose aim is “Electricity to All” by 2012. We are in the middle of 2011, and there is no blooming way that we are going to have electricity in these 60,000 villages by end of next year.

It is fashionable to blame our government for everything, but you wouldn’t want to be the government in this case (the rate at which our ministers are going to jail these days, you wouldn’t want to be the government in any case!). Extending the grid to these thousands of villages is no mean task, both in terms of cost and in technical feasibility. If extending the grid is the only option being tried out, I would say it could take a decade before the “electricity to all” is achieved.

At a capex of about Rs 15 crore per MW, levelized cost of power from solar PV will cost about Rs 11-12 per kWh. That’s a heck of a lot – almost three times as much as what many of us pay to the state electricity board. With this kind of comparison, it looks as if solar PV doesn’t have a chance, even with significant government subsidies (such as 30% subsidy on capital costs) thrown in.

But, what if that was not the only option tried out? What if decentralized (call it offgrid/microgrid whatever) power generation options are considered? Decentralized power has been touted as a possible solution in selective cases for quite a while now, so I am not propounding something new. I would say the jury is still out on some aspects of such decentralized power production, but there is denying the fact that decentralized power directly addresses pain points resulting from our centralized power production. Among the decentralized avenues, one option that appears to have excellent promise is biomass gasification based power production.

You doubtless know that power can be generated from biomass – it is not very different from using coal for power production, conceptually speaking. The difference is that biomass is renewable, less polluting and most importantly, available in abundance in many rural areas that have no access to power. Which leads to a simple equation:

Rural Areas  -> Do not have electricity  ->  Have lots of biomass

Thus, it is only logical to think of using biomass for power production.

The only catch is that, if you use the traditional route of the rankine cycle that produces steam to run a turbine for power production, you are looking at scales that are minimum 4-5 MW for optimal performance. But a small remote village of 200 households, with their minimal power usage, might require only about 50 kW capacity. Trying to build a power plant for 100 such villages again get us into the problem of providing a grid connection.

What is the solution? Biomass gasification perhaps?

Biomass gasification produces power in a different way from biomass combustion. The biomass is first fed into a “gasifier” that results in the biomass getting converted into producer gas a mixture of CO, H2, CO2, CH4 and N). This gas is subsequently used in a gas engine (even a modified diesel engine would do) to produce electricity. The advantage with this process is that, unlike combustion which requires scales of over 5 MW for optimal performance, biomass gasifiers on scales as low as 20 kW have been designed and are operational. While the performance of small-scale gasifiers are still being debated, it is generally accepted that operational efficiencies and performances increase significantly beyond the 30 KW scale. Thus, for our villages requiring say about 50 kW capacity each, biomass gasification could really fill the gap.

The other reason why biomass gasification lends itself well to the remote rural electrification is that these gasifiers can pretty much use any type of biomass. The biomass might need to be processed before being fed into the gasifier (in order to ensure the moisture and woodiness characteristics), but biomass could be utilized, and these include agro and crop waste, wood chips, biomass from bamboo and wild plants like julieflora. With time, some of the remaining constraints for biomass use in gasifiers are also expected to fall away as well. A pointer in this direction is Ankur’s efforts with their fine biomass gasifiers. While typically gasifiers need briquetteting to be done for fine and non-woody biomass, Ankur has come out with gasifiers that could use the fine/powdery biomass directly (Ankur Scientific).

The advantages of biomass gasification could extend to the Bottom of Power (BoP) business sector as well – that is, businesses that have problems with uninterrupted grid power but have access to biomass. Particular mention must be made of companies that are in areas with access to biomass but are currently depending on diesel. I know of one company which has a factory in Uttar Pradesh and running fully on diesel because for some reason they had not been able to get the grid extension to their plant. They consume about 7 million units of electricity a year, which translated to about 2 million liters of diesel. The company is in a location that has easy access to biomass, and hence they are seriously considering shifting to biomass gasification based power generation. Some simple math will show you why the company is so keen: A liter of diesel costs Rs 42 (expect that number to go higher every month), thus the company is blowing about Rs 80 million (Rs 8 crores). The levelized cost of biomass gasification power will be about Rs 3.5 per unit, so that’s Rs 22.5 million (Rs 2.25 crores) in total costs for producing the 7 million units using gasification. Net savings per year: Rs 5.75 crores, a more green option, and don’t have to worry about transporting accelerating diesel prices.

I am not saying biomass gasification based power production is without its problems. Tell me anything at all in life which is! Industry experts will tell you how many small scale gasifiers are not working well because they suffer from lack of service and maintenance. They will also tell you how the price of biomass feedstock had increased by over 200% in some cases in the last two years (case in point: rice husk price in Andhra in 2007: Rs 300 per T; 2011: Rs 2000 per T – go figure!), throwing the entire economics of power production off balance.

All these are facts. But what are also facts are that gasification is a technology that’s fairly down to earth, and works reasonably well even at small scales of 50 KW. Yes, it requires fine tunings; yes, someone has to figure out how to build a service and maintenance network, and yes, a more sustainable framework needs to emerge for a smoother biomass supply scenario. But there are significant efforts being undertaken to overcome these hurdles, at research, industry and governmental levels. Call me an optimist, but I would stick my neck out and say most, if not all, these hurdles would have been overcome within the next five years.

Just imagine the dramatic benefits the growth of this segment of biomass power production could provide. It has the ability to lift millions of rural masses living a miserable life (especially after sunset) and radically improve their lifestyles and their overall productivity. It could give these millions at the “bottom of power” the escape velocity that will take them into the subsequent orbits of productivity and prosperity.

I know I have told you a long story, so let me compensate by ending with a short summary. India is estimated to have over 30 GW of biomass power potential (and under certain assumptions, perhaps beyond 40 GW). These GWs have the potential that could uplift millions from the bottom of power, and I expect and hope biomass gasification to play an important role in the realization of this potential.

EAI has published the report “India Biomass Gasification Power Production” that provides a comprehensive review of this important sector. You can get to know more about this report from here - http://www.eai.in/ref/reports/biomass_gasification.html . Should you wish to know more about purchasing the report, talk to Sumukhi Sreevatsan –> sumukhi@clixoo.com ,Mob: +91-99621-40666. Should you wish to know more about the report contents in specific and the status of biomass gasification based power production in general, talk to Narasimhan Santhanam – narsi@clixoo.com, Mob: +91-98413-48117.

Download free preview of the report

Narasimhan Santhanam
EAI – Energy Alternatives India @ www.eai.in
Mob: +91-98413-48117
Email:narsi@eai.in
more about me here - http://www.eai.in/ref/team/ns.html

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