Biomass market in a flux

Biomass power generation started with a bang 10 years ago. Plant owners, Ruhi Kandhari and Aparna Pallavi met say the picture is not that rosy now


By Aparna Pallavi, Ruhi Kandhari
Published: Wednesday 31 March 2010

Biomass market in a flux

Business is down at the Surya Chambal power plant, but not because of recession. It is the fuel. This power plant runs not on coal, but on mustard husk.


When it was set up four years ago in Kota, in Rajasthan, mustard husk was in surplus. 

It cost Jyoti Ranjan, Surya Chambal’s chief executive officer (ceo), just 70 paise to produce a unit of energy from biomass sourced from plants.

While cheap coal could have been cheaper, it would not have fetched the incentives the government offered for producing electricity using mustard crop residue. It bought the power so produced. Then there was money from carbon credits, earned under the UN’s clean development mechanism (cdm) fund.

That was then. Four years ago. Last month, Ranjan wrote to the Rajasthan government that the price of mustard husk had tripled, but the state government continues to buy electricity at the rate fixed four years ago.

Surya Chambal entered a growing sector. Use of biomass as fuel has gained wide acceptance recently.
Four power plants in Rajasthan run entirely on mustard husk. “More than 30 such plants are proposed in the state,” Ranjan said. Rajasthan may be the leading producer of mustard in India—an estimated 2.9 million tonnes annually—but most investors are worried. There is scarcity staring in the face now.

Today it costs Ranjan four times to produce a unit of energy from biomass because the raw material is more expensive: Mustard husk now costs Rs 2,000 per tonne, up from Rs 500 a tonne four years ago.

Ranjan’s raw material comes from Digod, about 25 km from the plant. Mustard husk prices have shot up there.

This has hit hard people who depend on crop residues for income, such as landless farm labourers in villages within 50 km of the power plant, from where Ranjan’s plant procures mustard husk.

Mohini Bai is one such. Her household of 20 (including her four sons and their families) lives on livestock rearing and farm labour. Rajasthan, with a livestock population of 54.35 million, contributes 11 per cent of the India’s milk production. It produces 69,000 tonnes of goat meat, about a third of the country’s total. But subsistence-level dairy farmers like Mohini Bai’s large family can only sigh as they watch truck after truck cart away mustard husk from landed farmers in their village. “Wheat husk is so expensive this season; we thought we would mix mustard and soy husk with some wheat husk to feed the cattle. But even that is so expensive,” said Mahaveer Prasad Rathore, Mohini Bai’s son. With 13 buffaloes, four bulls and three cows to feed Rathore can ill-afford fodder at current prices. “I cannot even imagine what the prices will be if more power plants are built,” he feared.

More power plants

If the Central and state governments have their way, more plants will be built because there is a surplus of biomass waiting to be properly managed, believe their experts. “If exploited fully, surplus biomass could sustain a capacity of 16,000 MW; another 45,000 MW could be produced by growing plants that give a quick yield of woody biomass on degraded land,” said H S Mukunda, scientist at the Indian Institute of Science (iisc), Bengaluru. He has been a key figure in developing the technology that uses biomass as fuel in power plants.

In a study titled Biomass Resource Atlas of India, which mapped biomass surplus across the country estimated by iisc, 500 million metric tonnes of biomass is available each year; it can generate approximately 16,000 MW.

Since the late 1980s the Union government has been promoting the use of biomass to produce electricity by replacing coal or diesel. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (mnre) promotes two technologies.

imageOne is combustion; it uses biomass in place of coal in thermal power plants. The other is gasification, in which the biomass is partially burned and converted into gas, which then powers generators. But with the cost of biomass rising, companies are running into financial difficulties and looking for ways to keep going.

Ranjan employs 30 people to collect mustard husk from village sarpanchs and famers who also act as contractors. One such contractor is 53-year-old Sita Ram Nagar of Digod village, where Mohini Bai’s family lives on cattle farming. He grows mustard, wheat and soybean on his own farm, a little above a hectare. He also gets other farmers to grow this crop for him. At the start of every season he pays small farmers Rs 2,000 per ha, committing them to grow mustard and sell him all the husk.

Nagar’s is one of the 100-odd trucks that carry husk to Ranjan’s power plant every day. The plant needs 250 tonnes of husk every day. The raw material that feeds the power plant is eating into the fodder stock in villages. Small dairy farmers find it difficult to keep their animal farms going.

Fodder crisis

Sagari Ramdas, co-director of the non- profit Anthra in Hyderabad, researches on livestock production. She anticipates a fodder crisis in Andhra Pradesh. So do poor farmers in the state. Most of the biomass plants are using rice bran, rice husk and the husk of various pulses—red gram, green gram, groundnut cake, black gram, horse gram. “All these are critical food for milch animals. Specially for the poor farmers who cannot afford to purchase oil cakes,” she said.

Andhra Pradesh was the first state to set up biomass energy plants, an official of the nodal Non-conventional Energy Development Corporation of Andhra Pradesh (nedcap) told Down To Earth. The corporation gave licences to power producers who set up their plants too close to one another and ended up competing for raw material, the official added. According to nedcap, 67 biomass power projects amounting to a capacity of 404 MW were sanctioned in the state based on the availability of biomass in 1998 and 1999. Of these 18 projects with a combined capacity of 133.75 MW were cancelled, the coroporation’s website stated.

The cancellation though did not help fodder security in the state or in the country. A study sponsored by mnre in 2004-05 showed that on a countrywide average, around 50 per cent of electricity generated in biomass power projects was derived from rice husk, 30 per cent from wood (mainly Prosopis juliflora ) and the remaining 20 per cent was from agricultural residues. “Rice straw is used as fodder; juliflora is used as fuel by the very poor, who also gather and sell these for a living. They have little bargaining power,” Ramdas said. According to a senior official in mnre, about a third of biomass power producers are using poor villagers’ fuel because it is low-hanging fruit; collecting and transporting of agricultural residues to the power plant is far more cumbersome.

mnre promoted bagasse, rice husk, straw, cotton stalk, coconut shells, soy husk, de-oiled cakes, coffee waste, jute wastes, groundnut shells, saw dust, among biomass power producers. A former mnre official told Down To Earth that there is little monitoring of biomass being used by power plants. The use is determined by state policies,” he said.

P N Bhat, chairperson of World Buffaloes Trust and author of the Planning Commission report of the working group on animal husbandry and dairying, said rice straw and wheat husk are most widely used for fodder. “If their costs go up, the cost of milk production will go up; the poorest dairy farmers will suffer the most,” he said.

imageDe-oiled cakes, Bhat said, are an important source of protein for cattle.

An Andhra Pradesh biomass power plant owner, who did not want to be named, said 30 per cent of the biomass he uses comprises pulse husk and de-oiled cakes because rice husk is expensive and scarce. In the midst of the scramble for husk between fast-growing trees that yield wood are emerging a clear choice for generating green power.

Power grows on juliflora

Perumal is a trader who collects, chips and transports wood to a 7.5 MW biomass power plant operated by Orient Green Power Limited (ogpl), located in Vandavasi, taluk headquarters in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvannamalai district. He deals in all varieties of local wood— P juliflora, a thorny tree that grows wild, casuarina and eucalyptus, tall short-term trees that are harvested once in three years, and neem, cashew and mango. “This wild plant is now being cultivated specially to fuel power plants. The demand for its wood suddenly went up from 2005 onwards,” Perumal said.

The ogpl plant has been able to run its power plant continuously because biomass was available. The plant consumes 280 tonnes of biomass per day. The average cost comes to Rs 1,800 per tonne—prices vary from Rs 1,350 a tonne for coconut husk to Rs 2,600 per tonne for juliflora, with most other woods hovering between Rs 1,600 and Rs 2,300 per tonne.

Their overall operational cost is Rs 2-2.5 per kWh. The Tamil Nadu Electricity Board pays the plant Rs 4.45 per unit of power generated, the highest in the country. Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh closely follow with Rs 4.28 per unit and Rs 4.26 per unit, respectively. Tamil Nadu has an installed capacity of 110 MW, generating 864 million kWh annually.

imageSustained supply of wood and agricultural waste is crucial, Krishna Kumar, managing directior of ogpl, said. “Procurement of raw material from the open market works fine for small plants of 5-7.5 MW capacity. But for those planning to set up 15-20 MW plants, only energy plantations will work,” he said.

Initially, biomass power plants procured fuelwood at a premium; this led to an overall price hike of 100 per cent. “These woods used to sell at an average of Rs 700-1,000 per tonne five years ago; now, the average price is Rs 1,800-2,300 per tonne, with juliflora being the most expensive,” Perumal said. “Not just biomass power plants, brick kilns, rice, oil and textile mills and even chemical and pharmaceutical units have started using biomass,” Perumal added.

It helps them save costs, he added. “Even college canteens and highway eateries have started using wood as fuel; I have delivery contracts with a number of engineering colleges and highway restaurants in this district,” Perumal said.

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