Indo-German biogas plant: Best of both worlds

Satara (Maharashtra), Nov 6 (IANS) With the wind and solar energy sector taking off in India, experts say it's time that the biogas initiative gained momentum. And with the advent of German technology coupled with Indian engineering, the synergy ensures the "best of both worlds" for the nation.

"There has been a lot of progress in the wind and solar power sector, but biogas, which is there in villages across the country, is yet to be commercially utilised on a large scale. It has got tremendous potential as a renewable energy source," Rishabh Kedia, principal co-ordinator, Indian BioGas Association, told IANS.

In July 2012 when India experienced the world's biggest blackout, it revealed the yawning gap between energy supply and demand.

According to a Ernst and Young report, the huge power deficit represents a significant opportunity for renewable sources to step in to meet this growing demand for energy, while also increasing the country's energy security by reducing dependence on coal imports.

"Biogas could provide a buffer against energy security concerns, provide energy in rural off-grid areas and open up employment opportunities," explained Kedia.

This was echoed by Felix-Michael Webber, managing director of Germany's Green Elephant that has set up India's largest biogas production unit in Satara, 109 km from Pune in Maharashtra.

The plant generates 25,000 cubic metres of biogas per day from 600 cubic metres of sugar waste (spent wash or the liquid effluent) generated at the distillery attached to local sugar mills under a cooperative.

While 80 percent of the gas is upgraded to compressed biogas (CBG), the remaining is sold to the sugar cooperative as a fuel for industrial purposes.

"CBG is an alternative fuel compared to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), diesel and petrol and it is clean. Any type of biodegradable waste can be used to produce CBG, including municipal, industrial and agricultural," Webber said.

The unit, a product of Indo-German Development Partnership, essentially uses the advanced continuous stirred tank reactor (CSTR) process of anaerobic digestion to boost gas production from waste with the help of microbes.

While Germany - the torchbearer in sustainable energy and renewable energy practices in Europe - is witnessing a saturation point with biogas plants, India has just stepped up its projects.

"It's a win-win situation for industries like the distilleries and sugar units that need ways to dispose of the waste which can otherwise have harmful effects. Also, it gives industries the flexibility to generate their own power," said Kedia.

Considering India's ranking at No.2 in Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Indices under the biomass category in the latest Ernst and Young report, Kedia asserted such collaborations could boost the sector.

But a few concerns need to be addressed first in order to successfully replicate and customise German models in India, Kedia added.

"Conditions in our country are different from theirs and therefore we need to adapt the technology to Indian specifications," said Kedia, who advocated the 'push-pull' theory for biogas.

"There is no need for continuous subsidies by the government...the sector just needs an initial push after which the market will pull by itself."

One also needs to walk the line in regard to going for complete automisation of biogas units when India has cheap labour.

Another area that needs to warm up in sync with technological adaptation is the problem of unsegregated waste in India.

"In India, the economics don't work because most of the time, the developer is expected to segregate the waste himself which adds to costs. The capital cost of this technology is extremely high," Joel Kumar, research associate in the Renewable Energy Unit of New Delhi's Centre for Science & Environment, told IANS.

"In Europe, the developer is paid a tipping fee by the municipality to treat the waste. In India, the developer pays the municipality or gets it for no cost to treat the waste. Therefore, in India it is only viable where waste is presented to the developer in a segregated form," he added.

"Most importantly it needs organization...like the thermal and power corporations, maybe a waste-to-energy corporation would be needed," opined Amiya Kumar Sahu, president of the National Solid Waste Association of India.

(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at sahana.g@ians.in)

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