Local resources can meet India's rural needs
The use of kerosene for lighting and biomass for cooking is predominant throughout rural India. And since provision of grid electricity to rural India is still a far cry, there is an urgent need to develop alternative sources of liquid fuels for lighting and cooking.
Studies at the National Agricultural Research Institute (nari
), Phaltan, Maharashtra have shown that ethanol can be a good alternative. Traditionally it has been produced from sugarcane and molasses. However, in view of the current debate on the use of the same piece of land for both food and fuel, it is better to look for multi-purpose biomass sources for ethanol production. One such source is sweet sorghum. It provides grain from its earhead, sugar and hence ethanol from its stalk, and the bagasse and leaves make excellent fodder. Besides, it matures faster than sugarcane (requiring 100-140 days as compared to 12 to 18 months for sugarcane), can withstand a range of climatic conditions and requires far less water than sugarcane. Per-unit of water it is perhaps the highest sugar yielding crop.
Another alternative liquid-fuel produced from biomass is pyrolysis oil. It has a medium calorific value and can be produced from any biomass and agricultural residue by the fast pyrolyisis method. Its medium calorific value and low moisture content makes it appropriate for modified lanterns and cookstoves. But cookstoves and lanterns that can use this fuel with efficiency need to be developed.
A majority of households in India today use biomass cookstoves irrespective of economic strata. These stoves are very inefficient and smoky with about 10-15 per cent cooking efficiency. An extremely efficient thermoelectric device attached to the stove can produce 50-60 watts of direct current power. This power can be stored in suitable high efficiency batteries for lighting. At the same time, part of the power can also be used to run a small fan for cookstoves. Recent bomass cookstove designs have shown that air draft powered by a 5 megawatt fan can double the efficiency of these stoves.
Biogas is another fuel, which can improve cooking facilities in rural areas. That is, if it is produced by a process more efficient than the one in use currently. And for that to happen, research and development needs to be directed towards efficient biogas reactors and improved storage facilities.
Locally available sources can provide fuel for safe, clean and convenient cooking and lighting system to rural areas. But they need to be tapped efficiently. And then they have all potentials of becoming a lucrative venture. Take the case of ethanol. To replace all the kerosene used in rural areas will require ethanol production of 14,700 million litres. With an average price of ethanol currently offered by the government of India -- Rs 18 per litre -- the ethanol production will be of the order of Rs 2,65,000 crore per year. Besides the implications for rural industry in terms of wealth and foreign exchange generation, it will certainly help the country save foreign exchange that goes in importing kerosene, and improve energy security.
The lighting and cooking energy programme can be a very major national effort touching every aspect of rural life. However, for it to be so important, policy changes are required. A technology mission for cooking and lighting should be set up on lines of existing technology missions. All cooking and lighting energy programmes, which are scattered under different heads in different ministries, need to be brought under one umbrella ministry. Setting up industries in rural areas to produce fuels from biomass should be encouraged by providing them easy finance and tax incentives.
And most importantly, the focus should be now on putting very intense efforts into areas of emerging technologies, such as nano-technology and biotechnology. Anil K Rajavanshi is at the National Agricultural Research Institute, Phaltan, Maharashtra