Needing Energy, India Turns to Farm Waste ; Biomass Power Plants Offer Carbon-Neutral Alternative to Fossil Fuels

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Biomass power plants that use agricultural waste to create energy are far from a complete solution to the enormous energy needs of India, but they are being developed as an power source.

The hulking power plant set against the green countryside of Punjab State in northwest India does not look like a source of renewable energy. Yet filling its stockyard, instead of mounds of coal, are bales of rice straw. Machines break up the heavy straw cubes as men with pitchforks hoist fibrous mounds onto a conveyor belt leading to the power plant. Handkerchiefs cover their faces to protect them from dust swirling in the air.

This is Punjab Biomass Power, a plant near the village of Ghanaur that collects the straw gathered by farmers tilling the lush fields of the surrounding countryside. After harvest, they would normally burn this agricultural waste, inedible to people and animals, to clear fields for wheat crops, as farmers across India do, and in that way contribute to the country's dire air pollution. But at Punjab Biomass, 120,000 tons of rice straw a year are instead burned to generate 12 megawatts of electricity for the state's power grid.

The plant produces emissions, although its filters reduce the amount that outdoor burning would generate. But such biomass energy in theory is considered carbon-neutral because of what these power plants use as fuel -- like sugar cane pulp and nut shells that took carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as it grew. Biomass power plants are eligible for carbon credits that translate into cash, and Punjab Biomass hopes to earn eventually hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from the plant.

Yet biomass is far from a solution to the enormous energy needs of India and its 1.2 billion people. Alternative energy, like wind, biomass and solar, accounted for less than 8 percent of India's power generation in 2009. Still, because India imports about 70 percent of its oil and natural gas and relies on coal for more than half of its electricity generation, it must consider all options for energy.

In April, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India called for a doubling of the country's nonconventional energy supply, including biomass, from 25,000 megawatts in 2012 to 55,000 megawatts by 2017. "Energy is both scarce and expensive and yet it is vital for development," Mr. Singh said at the Clean Energy Ministerial meeting in New Delhi. Developing countries "have to expand all sources of supply, including both conventional and nonconventional energy," he said.

Agricultural waste in India is abundant, since about 60 percent of its population relies on agriculture for a living. Sunil Dhingra, a senior fellow at the Energy Resources Institute, or TERI, a policy center based in New Delhi, estimated that India produced 600 million tons of such "agro-waste" each year, 150 million to 200 million tons of which are not used. This is "a big resource that needs to be channelized," he said.

Some European countries have already successfully harnessed biomass energy. In Finland, biomass, like leaves and wood from its abundant, managed forest industry, accounts for 20 percent of the energy supply, according to the European Biomass Industry Association. Sixteen percent of Sweden's energy comes from biomass. And nearly half of upper Austria's renewable energy comes from biomass; the region aims to use renewable energy for all of its heat and energy demand by 2030. …