'Bioenergy is being taken quite seriously'

Gerald Leach is a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in London. He has written extensively on rural energy issues in developing countries at the SEI and earlier at the International Institute of Environment and Development (IIED). He is an expert on food-energy linkages of development. He was in India recently as a member of the International Organising Committee of the recently concluded BioResources '94 International Conference (October 3-7). KOSHY CHERAIL grilled him in Bangalore on the energy issues confronting India and other developing countries.

Published: Saturday 31 December 1994

Renewable energy sources and technologies have been researched and promoted in varying degrees in different countries over the past 2 decades. Do energy experts have a clearer idea now as to which renewable sources and technologies should play a greater role in meeting rural energy needs?
I don't think that there is a single energy source or technology that is a winner. There is a whole set of possible winners, depending on local resource endowments and on what kind spare biomass is available -- woody biomass, woody grass or crop residues. On this depends the type of conversion technology used. Biomass conversion to gases which generate electricity through the combustion of high grade fuels depends on what resource surplus you have or can create by being more productive in your agriculture and forestry policy.

When you really come down to it, there are 2 big competing winners for largescale renewable energy in the next century. This is not wind nor wave energy. Their roles are limited. It is solar -- direct solar conversion, through photovoltaics or even solar thermal to electricity, on the one hand. On the other is biomass. Both will have a place but I think photovoltaics will get ahead because, in this case, the value added accrues to the people who make the photovoltaics. And they are in the urban industrial system, largely in the developed countries, and they will push it forward.

With biomass, the value added goes to the people who grow it in their villages. This is good, in terms of equity and in spreading the benefits. However, it is also a more complicated technology, with resources varying from place to place. You have to tailor it more specifically to local conditions; it is also more technically difficult to set up. I have a nasty suspicion that simple hardware technologies such as photovoltaics are going to get ahead because their manufacturing base is in the developed countries. They may leave behind the biomass technologies.

Is bioenergy being taken seriously in India and other developing countries?
I really think that bioenergy is being taken quite seriously by a large number of people, and there is a big bioenergy R&D programme in the International Energy Agency. There is a large share in the European Economic Community, a tremendous amount of R&D in the US and, quite recently, in the UK. All across the Northern world, there is a growing interest in renewables and bioenergy. I see it here in the South -- in India and in Southeast Asia. So I am really puzzled as to what needs to be done to get things moving fast.

What are the major constraints in India and other developing countries?
There are many constraints and one of them is the lack of a level playing field. In India, it is the energy prices. You have to price electricity according to the real cost of getting it to the end-line consumer, and you have to do the same thing with kerosene. If people pay properly for these competing fuels, bioenergy would stand a much bigger chance. But I realise that in a country like India there are very big social problems related to this, because here it is the poor who are paying for conventional energy.

In which countries has a major shift in favour of renewables taken place?
A study done by International Institute of Environmental Development back in the '70s on successes in renewable energy showcased one country -- tiny Cyprus. They got solar water heating up from virtually zero to 80 per cent of dwelliings and more than 80 per cent of offices. And within 3 years they did 3 things, they put electricity pricing on long run marginal cost, they told the engineering firms who manufactured these systems, that they would protect from Israeli competition for two years of, so 2 yeaars tariff protection to get their act together. And most important of all, they got together with the bankers, the wholesalers, the ratailers the manufacturers, to get a system going where the users pay on hire purchase basis so that you did not have a big first cost and you pay on easy terms. You could do this on a lot of bioenergy systems in your country.

The UK government's energy technology support unit which does technical research for the government to develop policy, aid programmes and monitors R&D, recently ran a scenario for Britain a least cost energy supply options assuming a nuclear freeze, and moderately green policies -- such as a carbon tax -- and it turns out that by 2015-2020 AD we would be having atleast 30-35 per cent of UK's energy from renewables much of it from bioenergy, and every one thought it would be only about 5 per cent or at most 8 power cent. A least cost energy strategy has created a lot of interest renewables.

In India the government is moving away from almost free installation of renewable energy systems and devices and is phasing out subsidies and is looking to the market forces to promote technologies. Is this the right approach?
The Indian government has spent a great deal of money on R&D with renewables in villages. There are whole village renewable energy programmes set up by DNES and now MNES. Have the lessons from those programmes been written up? Do you as an Indian really know what the successes were, and what the cost of these equipment were, their performance or the lessons drawn from these programmes?

What is the experience of other countries in this?
GL: What I have picked up in discussions with several experts is the same old story. People from smaller countries than India, which have not got the technical resources base and the skills -- basically the countries of Africa and South Pacific -- they don't have enough technical knowledge about different types of gasifiers or the various types of biogas systems. They have no idea about the costs or about their performance levels. Added to this is the whole social and institutional infrastructure. Though information exists all over the world it is not getting to those who need it. I think any country which is spending R&D money, or the taxpayer's money, on this has got a real prime reason to analyse and review these programmes. I think you ought to be pushing your government to do this.

How do you view India's future energy scenario? Will the country balance its energy demand and supply? Will the energy sector in India be flooded with high costs, alien technologies and oversized capacities?
I recently visited Pura and Ungra villages of Karnataka. I have read so much about these and other renewable energy villages (Urjagrams) in India. I was really impressed by what has happened in Pura and Ungra where community based energy systems are working well and I feel that model is replicable. There is enough energy and enthusiasm and the system is right the package is right. I am quite optimistic about these possibilities, that rural energy situation can be improved by these biomass systems and gasifiers.

What worries me is the cities, the urban areas, what about the massive amounts of energy you need outside that village demand. What happens if and when you have economic takeoff and rural incomes are increasing and people don't just want drinking water or cooking fuel or light but start wanting refrigerators .

Energy consumption is going up. You want it to, if you profess in equitable development. But then you start getting into bigger power and bigger systems to supply this energy. I don't see how India or any country can actually power the cities in term of bioresources unless you got into very very big plantations.

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