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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 March 2006, 01:59 GMT
Can a bush solve rural energy needs?
By Mark Gregory
BBC World Service international business reporter, Jhansi

Generator running on biomass
The generator produces 100 kilowatts electricity from weeds
An ancient tractor dumps a trailer load of plant material next to a battered looking shed. Surprising as it may seem, this unremarkable event may hold the key to ending chronic power shortages in rural India.

Inside the shed is a noisy, little, green generator that runs on gas produced from rotting biomass. That is where the pile of plant matter dumped by the tractor comes in.

The generator produces 100 kilowatts of electricity, enough to service the modest needs of four or five typical Indian villages.

However in this particular case it drives a mini-industrial complex that currently provides 130 jobs in an area where employment is hard to find.

The location is a rural site about 15km from the city of Jhansi in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

The initiative is called Desi Power (local power).

It aims to provide a model for generating low-cost electricity from renewable resources that can easily be copied elsewhere in the vast swathes of rural India that have no connection to the mains grid.

"This really is a viable solution for remote India", says Dr Arun Kumar, director of the Development Alternatives NGO, which runs the Jhansi project.

He goes on to explain that the generator runs on methane created from a widely available local plant that previously had no economic value.

'Political will'

The plant is the ipunia bush, which grows in marshy land not suitable for agriculture.

Dr Arun Kumar
Dr Kumar says biomass power will solve more than one problem

But there is nothing special about ipunia. The generator would work just as well on gas from many other plants.

"There is a huge amount of unused land in remote parts of India, which means biomass is either available or could easily be made available", says Dr Kumar.

He reckons it would take a network of 100,000 or so Jhansi-style biomass generators to really make a dent in India's rural electricity shortages.

"The technology is proven, the main issue is now political will," he insists.

The scale of the problem is not in doubt; a third of India's half million or so villages have no connection to the mains grid. In those that do, the power supply is often erratic and unreliable.

Dr Kumar believes his project holds part of the solution to two distinct problems.

The first is "access" to electricity. It provides a way for people in neglected localities to take matters into their own hands.

"No conceivable extension of the mains grid would be comprehensive enough to bring power to all the far flung parts of India that don't already have it," he says.

But by setting up biomass generators, he believes, people in rural areas could in a sense create their own power from plant material or even waste that is easily to hand.

The second issue is "exclusion". Without electricity, large parts of India have no chance of participating in the economic boom that is bringing prosperity to many people living in cities.

Generating employment

Dr Kumar reckons biomass generators have a practical role to play in tackling the growing inequalities between the urban elites, who have made India a global force in areas like computer software, and India's rural poor.

A paper-making factory running on biomass power
Local paper-making divisions is generating employment

Many of them do not even have the power needed to turn on a light let alone run a laptop or a factory providing jobs.

But the Jhansi project is not just about electricity. It also has wider development aims.

"There was nothing here, not even a blade of grass, when we set up the project 10 years ago", explains Dr Kumar. The presence of the generator has been a catalyst for all sorts of income generating opportunities in a poor area.

For a start local people make money by collecting ipunia - the biomass used to create electricity - and selling it to the Desi Power project. What for centuries had been regarded locally as a useless weed is now an important source of employment.

In addition to that, power from the generator is used to drive industrial processes. The main one is paper-making.

A ramshackle complex of buildings near the generator houses vats and presses used to convert recycled cotton rags into high quality paper for diaries, greeting cards, art projects and other uses that command a premium price.

An onsite shop sells some of these products to tourists.

Dr Kumar claims that over 10 years the project has created something like 10,000 employment opportunities.

Many of the jobs have gone to tribal people, who are widely seen as the poorest, most vulnerable section of the community in what is generally a deprived area.

'Ultra mega' power projects

Dr Kumar, of course, sees the Jhansi project as providing a widely applicable model for bringing both electricity and economic opportunity to rural areas.

Tractor carries ipunia weeds to be processed
India is promoting big power plants rather than biomass power

But are India's energy planners listening? Could the concept of Desi Power make a significant impact in this vast nation?

The answer to these questions seems to be... well, maybe... up to a point.

You would not find many in India saying that decentralised provision of power using simple technology is actually a bad thing.

This after all is probably the only country in the world that has an entire government ministry devoted to promoting "non-conventional" energy sources.

But the dominant strand in India's energy thinking is in the opposite direction - that biggest is best rather than small is beautiful.

To cater for an expected sevenfold increase in power consumption over the next 25 years or so, India's policy makers are planning a series of what are described as "ultra mega" power projects.

These are huge new power stations located next to mines and energy ports. The electricity they generate will be taken to where it is needed by a network of as yet largely un-built massive transmission cables.

The nuclear co-operation deal with the United States agreed in President Bush's recent visit to India is another sign of this approach to energy policy.

The focus on building power plants as big as possible and as quickly as possible is hardly surprising.

Demand for electricity is expected to rise faster in India than anywhere else in the world, apart from China in coming decades. Power cuts are already a regular feature of life in many Indian cities.

Sceptics

Dr Kumar of Desi Power does not believe building big power stations is wrong, but he does think it will not be enough.

Women workers at the paper-making plant in Jhansi
Biomass electricity may become important for rural areas

If the Indian government is serious about its stated aim of bringing electricity to all rural areas that do not have it, he says, then locally based biomass generators have an important part to play.

Desi Power has already made some limited progress. It has established a further 18 rural biomass power projects based on the experience at Jhansi.

Whether these become a credible national model depends partly on the cost of the electricity they produce.

Dr Kumar maintains the cost of power generated at Jhansi is currently about the same as that supplied to rural areas by conventional means.

He accepts that consumers may often perceive biomass power to be more expensive. But he argues that where mains power is available in rural India, it is often highly subsidised.

The big hope for supporters of biomass power is that the economic argument will swing in their favour as a result of rising conventional energy prices.

The price of oil is already above $60 a barrel. Gas prices have also risen sharply.

If traditional fuel prices carry on going up, as many expect, then the case for renewable energy such as power from biomass will become much stronger. The world may be running out of oil and gas, or so the argument goes, but there is no shortage of ipunia bushes.

Biomass power in fact has its critics even among environmentalists. Some argue that growing bio fuels on a large scale in developing nations will use up land that poor people currently rely on to produce food.

Dr Kumar insists this is not an issue for Desi Power in Jhansi as the project is powered by weeds grown on land not suitable for farming.

He claims the same is true for other potential biomass sources in remote parts of India. No doubt this aspect of the debate will continue.




SEE ALSO:
India struggles with power theft
15 Mar 06 |  Business
Indian budget pushes for growth
28 Feb 06 |  Business
India's poor seek budget relief
27 Feb 06 |  Business
Bangladesh power deal in balance
08 Feb 06 |  Business
Mumbai commuters hit by power cut
16 Jun 05 |  South Asia


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