Self Reliant and Sustainable through Biomass
Gandhiji wrote and spoke extensively about his dream village but somehow was never able to give a concrete plan or shape to his dreams. However intuitively he rightly realized that it will be a unit where all the things needed by villagers will be manufactured from the locally available resources. His village would therefore be self sufficient and sustainable. In those times of primitive technology his dream village was supposed to depend on human labor and hence his insistence on very simple and rudimentary technologies which could be made by villagers themselves.
However modern high technology allows for the first time to bring into reality the dream village of Gandhiji. Such a village will be high tech, self reliant, sustainable and will provide its residents a high quality life.
Our villages have not changed very much since Gandhiji's times. Thus about 55-60% of India's rural population has no electricity, very poor drinking water supply and majority of rural population uses 180 million tons of biomass every year as fuel for cooking through very primitive, inefficient and smoky chulhas. In states like U.P., Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh etc. some of the villages still exist in stone ages.
India cannot become the 3rd most prosperous country in the world, as some of our national leaders are taking about, unless and until we bring 60% of our rural population into mainstream of development and provide a quantum jump to their quality of life. One of the best ways to do so is by providing adequate electricity to these areas. This is an electricity age. Adequate and uninterrupted supply of electricity for lighting, agriculture, communication, entertainment and whole horde of other activities can transform the lives of rural population and bring in tremendous wealth to these areas. Modern high technology together with locally available resources, can provide a mechanism to do so.
The most abundant local resource in rural areas is biomass (agricultural residues, weeds and other plant material). India produces in these areas about 600 million tons of agricultural residues/year, which can theoretically produce 70,000 MW of electric power.
However all these residues should go back to the soil to nurture it so that farm productivity increases. If it is used for power generation than the soil will suffer. A much better way to both nurture the soil and produce power is to produce biogas from these residues. A high tech biogas producer can produce biogas with energy of about 13 MJ per kg of biomass, which is similar to that produced by burning these residues via a power plant. Besides the slurry from the biogas reactor produces excellent fertilizer and soil conditioner. This is also the genesis of organic agriculture.
Farmers have realized that organic foods fetch good price. Hence there is a major movement towards organic farming. Organic farming is environmentally sound and sustainable way of producing food, since it incorporates integrated method of management which maintains the health of soil and its productivity. Farmers in developing countries who switch to organic agriculture also achieve higher earnings and a better standard of living. This was shown by a series of studies conducted in China, India and six Latin American countries by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The study concluded that organic food production could provide a way out of poverty for many small farmers in developing countries and recommended ways of integrating organic agriculture into development programs.
In 2003, India's organic exports stood at $15.5 million. Since organically farmed produce fetches good price there are lots of farmers who claim that their produce is organically grow when sometimes it is not. Also often so-called organic inputs are spurious and ineffective. Thus there is a need to set up an independent agency which can certify whether the food was organically grown or not and monitor the authenticity of input products.
Our Institute Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) has developed a strategy whereby biogas powered diesel gensets can also produce clean drinking water as a by-product. Thus the strategy of using locally available agricultural residues based biogas gensets will produce electric power, excellent fertilizer and clean drinking water for the village. Besides the excess biogas can also be used to provide clean cooking fuel for villagers. This is true sustainability and may lead to Gandhiji's dream villages.
Thus a village level utility company can set up a 500 kW biogas powered diesel genset which can supply enough electricity for an average village with a population of 2000-3000.
In addition, the high temperature exhaust gases from these plants can easily distill or boil water via a suitably designed unit, which can be attached to the genset. A 500 kW power plant can therefore produce about one lakh litres of clean drinking water every day. In producing both electricity and clean water; the power plant efficiency will jump from the existing 35% to around 65%. Most of the energy of these gensets is lost in exhaust gases and cooling the engine. This energy can easily be utilized for distillation or boiling water. The micro-utility company could own the plant, whose shares in turn could be owned by villagers, and be managed professionally, without the political pit-falls of a cooperative society. The micro-utility could also lease village-level transmission lines and infrastructure from the local State Electricity Boards (SEBs) at a 'social cost', based on the cost of electricity most SEBs charge farmers.
In order for this strategy to succeed it a necessary to set up a national biogas technology mission so as to help research institutes do R&D for high tech biogas reactors, provide soft loans for entrepreneurs to set up such micro-utilities and to encourage government, corporate sector and NGO partnership in this area.