India’s “miracle” energy: How biogas reduces carbon emissions and helps the poor
Villages across India are looking at new and sustainable energy sources with many using natural resources like cow manure to create energy.
By Ashleigh Whitehill
OUTSIDE the home of Mahendra Pingulkar, leader of Nivaje village, three men are digging. Deeper and deeper they burrow into the fertile south Indian soil, creating a hole the size of a baby elephant.
On ground level a sweaty, shirtless man expertly weaves pieces of wire as if he were born for the role.
In a corner of the yard, a fifth man combines a mixture of cement, rock and water, his skinny arms making light work of the task.
These men will work tirelessly for days under the sweltering hot Indian sun to construct a bio-digester, an underground concrete chamber where clean energy is produced.
Their hard work will result in Mr Pingulkar and his family having their own environmentally friendly, cost effective and reliable energy source: biogas.
Until then, the women of Mr Pingulkar’s family will continue to cook over a small fire made of wood and dried plant material.
In a tiny room with little ventilation, the women spend up to three hours each day squatting over the fire, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner while inhaling the same smoke that will go on to pollute village air.
Mr Pingulkar’s wife, mother and sister also regularly walk the three kilometres to the nearby jungle to gather materials to build this fire.
The biogas system will provide these women with a sustainable alternative. With gas available on demand, cooking times will be reduced by up to two hours each day and smoke inhalation will be eliminated.
Dr Prasad Dedhvar from Bhagirath Gramvikas Pratisthan, an NGO based in southern Maharasthra, says biogas solves many problems for villagers in rural India.
“Biogas is a miracle thing for farmers because everything is present. [Using] cow dung [they can produce] clean fuel and that fuel will solve many problems… Their whole situation is changed 360 degrees,” says Dr Dedhvar.
So what is biogas?
Biogas uses the methane created by organic waste to produce energy.
Waste, including animal faeces, food scraps and other natural material, is shovelled into the bio-digester where it is deprived of oxygen and left to ferment and develop into a significant methane store.
Energy Developments (EDL) Business Development Manager, Christopher Male, says the availability of natural material in rural communities makes them ideal users of biogas.
“Biomass comes from a variety of sources which include wood from natural forests; agricultural and livestock residues; sewage wastes; sugar and grain grown to make alcohol for use as a fuel; and grains and oil seeds grown for the production of biodiesel.”
“The abundance of these sources of biomass in rural developing country communities, makes biogas a logical energy source,” he says.
In rural India biomass is generally provided by the household cow or cows. The women in each home must knead a smooth mixture of cow dung and water, which is then placed into the bio-digester where it can develop and be used for fuel.
Mr Male explains that when cow dung and other material within the biodigester is deprived of oxygen, it develops into a form of methane gas that can be used by villagers.
“Biogas is produced when organic matter rots without oxygen, [which is] an anaerobic process… This process creates mostly methane, which can be used to make electricity and to produce heat for businesses and homes.”
Installing the biogas system
Roughly one kilometre from Mr Pingulkar’s home in Nivaje, Dattatray Sawaant’s family regularly use biogas. Their underground biodigester was the first to be built in the village, after Mr Sawaant learned about the technology through Bhagirath.
The NGO was installing biogas in villages across the state when Mr Sawaant became involved with the organisation. They suggested Nivaje trial the system.
“I decided I needed to do some social work with this NGO because they do really good work. So I took up the initiative of biogas along with three other people in the village,” says Mr Sawaant.
After installing biogas in his home, Mr Sawaant became an advocate for the technology, convincing many other families in Nivaje to try the alternative energy source as well.
“I started talking to people, the Sarpanch [Mr Pingulkar] and others, telling them all the benefits and how easy it was to go through the process,” he says.
It didn’t take long for biogas to gain popularity in Nivaje; currently there are 42 biogas systems in use across the village, while an additional 22 are in the installation phase.
Many families have been able to afford the installation of the alternative energy source because of Bhagirath.
Dr Prasad Dedvhar, says working closely with local banks to ensure funding is available remains a key part of Bhagirath’s role.
“A major problem of any construction process is financial support, so we arrange a loan from district cooperative banks because if a loan is available then the developmental process remains very easy,” he says.
It costs about 22,000 rupees (AUD$430), including labour, to install a biogas system in one home.
A rural development subsidy offers villagers 9,000 rupees to go toward this, while local banks provide a 20,000 rupee loan.
In India, access to bank loans is often difficult, so Bhagirath work as a buffer between community and bank, making the loan process quick and relatively easy for villagers.
While social welfare NGOs are common throughout India, village leader, Mr Pingulkar says Bhagirath is different to others.
“We have come across many organisations but Bhagirath is the only one we think puts farmers first, not their own interests. So we completely support whatever Bhagirath is suggesting that we should try.”
Bhagirath also provide training for local people so they can operate and maintain the technology themselves. In the village of Nivaje, Mr Sawaant is the head biogas technician.
“I have been trained to repair anything, like spare pieces for the stove or any such thing. Bhagirath have completely trained me to go to people’s houses and help them repair their biogas systems,” says Mr Sawaant.
In addition to creating jobs, this training and work also empowers local people, which is particularly important in farming villages like Nivaje during the off-season.
Petra Stock from the Climate Council adds that biogas also provides energy to people who may not otherwise have access to it.
“Millions of biogas plants across India are bringing critical energy access to people in rural India who would otherwise not have access to energy, or risk being locked into power supply from new-built expensive, polluting coal plants.”
Biogas and climate change
In addition to being a clean energy source, biogas also provides a way of disposing of methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, 25 per cent of human induced climate change is caused by the emission of this toxic gas.
Christopher Male says methane is far more harmful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, but systems like biogas can help to reduce its impact on the world.
“Methane is 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. Burning the gas for power generation still creates emissions, however the emissions are significantly less.”
Petra Stock, Energy and Climate Solutions Analyst at the Climate Council, says biogas may even be considered carbon neural.
“Burning biogas, like natural gas, produces carbon dioxide. However biogas is usually produced from plant matter, which, when living, originally took in the same amount of carbon dioxide from the air.
“Overall, the total carbon dioxide taken in by the plants and then emitted when burning the gas is the same, which is why it is sometimes referred to as carbon neutral,” she explains.
The cleanliness of biogas as a technology has seen non-government organisations like Bhagirath establish biogas plants across India in recent years.
While rural areas have been targeted, many metropolitan areas are also starting to embrace biogas as an alternative energy source, particularly in the wake of the climate crisis.
Biogas also plays an important role in the progressive reduction of India’s carbon footprint over the next five years. In October 2015, the government announced an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), which aims to double the use of biomass energy across the country by 2020.
Ms Stock says biogas will play a key role in achieving this goal and helping India reduce its significant contribution to climate change.
“Biogas is one of a range of renewable energy technologies which will need to be scaled up as the world acts on climate change and transitions away from fossil fuels like coal.”
Bhagirath is helping to work toward this, continuing to develop and install biogas energy in homes across India.
While the intricacies of global warming may be less known on a local level, the perks of using biogas to help improve daily life are widely acknowledged.
Women in farming villages like Nivaje now spend less time gathering wood, cooking over a low fire and inhaling smoke, and more time working on the farm and helping their families.
Dr. Dedhvar is confident this trend will continue.
“We can replace up to 80 per cent [of traditional energy] with biogas and slowly people will learn that biogas is the supreme,” he says.
[Feature photo by Lisa Cheeseman.]