India faces a potentially grim energy outlook, with the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) predicting that by 2020, oil will cost about US$100 a barrel and the country will emerge as the world’s third largest energy spender. Oil accounted for 30% of India’s total imports of US$280 billion last year, and a staggering 85% of its trade deficit.

One way to reduce dependence on oil would be to generate more fuel from biomass, such as forest waste, cow dung and molasses. Those and other biological materials already supply a third of the country’s primary energy needs, providing cooking and heating fuel especially in electricity-starved rural areas. But burning traditional biomass can be harmful to human health and the environment, and is not particularly energy-efficient. But the Indian government is banking on biomass, installing safer and more environmentally friendly biogas plants across the country. More help is on the way from new technologies that promise to produce energy from nonfood crops and forest waste that have previously been difficult to convert. However, the biomass promise calls for prudent energy pricing and buy-in at the village level, India Knowledge at Wharton learns from experts.

Some 412 million people in mostly rural India, or 36% of the country’s population, do not have access to electricity, according to the IEA. For many of those Indians, biomass powers their kitchens or provides heating. At first sight, adopting those techniques on a broader scale seems like a great foil for high oil prices. “Nothing is left to waste. Fruits, stalks of cane or wheat, anything that’s got caloric content is just not discarded or left to rot; it’s used,” says Paul R. Kleindorfer, professor emeritus of management science at the Wharton School and professor of sustainable development at INSEAD in Paris. “What is truly incredible about both China and India is the percentage of people who depend on biomass for heating and cooking.” Adds Eric Lam, professor of plant biology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and an expert in biofuels, “In the developing world, people use anything they can get their hands on that can burn.”

An Unhealthy Triumph

But biomass has huge downsides in the way it is used in India and elsewhere in the developing world. “Not all the things that are burned are good things to burn,” notes Kleindorfer, alluding to the lung damage that kitchen fumes from firewood and dung cakes can inflict. “Biomass energy use is associated with low quality of life for women and the family,” says N.H. Ravindranath, professor at the Indian Institute of Science’s Centre for Sustainable Technologies in Bangalore and an expert in sustainable biomass and energy. “There is an urgent need to provide access to quality fuels for cooking and other needs.”

Ravindranath describes of an “energy ladder,” where the poorest in India use cattle dung for fuel and switch to wood when they are slightly better off economically, while the urban poor move further up to kerosene. As a population’s economic well-being improves, they graduate to liquefied petroleum gas and electricity. Use of biomass and waste materials as an energy source in India is expected to begin tapering off due to economic growth in 2030, according to the IEA, when it would make up about a tenth of India’s primary energy demand. Primary energy refers to raw fuels including coal, oil, gas, nuclear, and renewable sources such as hydro; secondary energy is primarily electricity and refined fuels.

Biomass use in India has gotten safer in the last decade with the introduction of briquettes that are used in smokeless chullahs (stoves), notes Pramod Chaudhari, chairman of Praj Industries in Pune, a prominent manufacturer and exporter of biofuels machinery. Research is under way to convert biomass into lignite (a type of coal) after removing impurities and volatile gases, which will increase energy efficiency and produce less smoke, he says, adding that technology to convert biomass into gas that can run small engines and produce power is becoming more popular.

India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has focused on biomass as a huge, untapped resource. The potential exists to generate biogas of 16,880 megawatts of power, compared with existing capacity of 1,160 megawatts, the ministry reported in its 2009-10 annual report. The ministry envisions setting up a network of biomass depots to coordinate the collection and supply of fuels. It is forming farmers’ cooperatives, involving village-level governments, and developing a cadre of local biomass supply entrepreneurs, according to an April 2010 bid document for research. “The availability of clean energy mitigates drudgery of rural women, reduces pressure on forests and accentuates social benefits,” the ministry said in a policy paper.

Food vs. Fuel

Even as it promotes safer and cleaner biomass, the Indian government wants to avoid threatening food availability. Molasses from sugarcane, for example, cannot be used for biofuels in years when the country’s sugar crop is inadequate, says H.L. Sharma, director of biofuels policy in the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. “We don’t want to create a food vs. fuel controversy,” he says. “Our approach is different from that of the U.S. or European countries. We use nonfood feedstock for production of biofuels. We can’t use edible oils for production of biofuels. We can’t afford to use maize or wheat to produce ethanol like in the U.S. or sugarcane as in Brazil.”

China “is also sensitive about food vs. fuel because of its large population,” Rutgers University’s Lam points out. That has led both India and China to “second-generation” biofuels, which are produced with newer and superior technology to extract fuel from crops and materials where it has previously been difficult to break down the sugars and ferment them. China has programs to grow nonfood plants such as sorghum, jatropha and cassava, and is promoting rice, wheat and corn stalks as biofuel raw materials, Lam says. Jatropha, in particular, is touted as a good crop for biofuels because of its oil-rich seed. “The major advantage is it is able to grow on marginal land, on hillsides and other places that have low water,” Lam adds, though poor yields on such terrain can hamper its economic viability.

According to Sharma, India too is promoting jatropha as a biofuel crop. Jatropha has a gestation period of two or three years, compared with pongamia, another biofuel crop, which takes seven to eight years for fruiting and flowering. Sharma sees a huge resource in forest waste that could be used as second-generation biofuels. “In India, we produce 550 million tons of agricultural residue, and of that 150 million tons is surplus,” he notes. “If we have second-generation technology, that surplus can be used.”

Technology for producing the next generation of biofuels is close to commercialization, Praj Industries’ Chaudhari says. “Biomass as direct fuel for running a furnace or a boiler has been used for hundreds of years and is a no-brainer. But technology to convert this biomass into value-added convenient fuel, to make liquid transport fuel or to make biofuels is yet to take off.” Praj, which had 2009-10 sales of US$131 million, is in an advanced stage of developing technology to process the “bad biomass” (or lignocellulose materials) that has so far proved difficult to process into biofuels, he says.

First-generation biofuels such as ethanol are sugar-based, derived from materials such as molasses and starchy grains or tubers. Leading users are the United States, Brazil and Argentina. “Bio-energy is the largest renewable energy contributor to global primary energy today and has the highest technical potential of all renewable energy sources,” the IEA reported. Yet two-thirds of current biomass demand in India is used inefficiently for traditional domestic cooking and space heating, the agency says. Chaudhari says biofuels could be significantly cheaper than oil and gas, especially after considering their “full cost,” or when taking into account indirect results such as those associated with greenhouse gases and other environmental impacts. First-generation biofuels are competitive at an oil equivalent of US$50 or US$60 a barrel, and Praj’s technology will help produce them below US$50, Chaudhari says. The cost of producing second-generation biofuels based on cellulosic materials is currently between US$80 and US$100 a barrel, but “they will become cheaper as time passes, with scale economies and as technology becomes more established.”

Local Power to the Fore

Meanwhile, India is finding other ways to generate enthusiasm for bioenergy. As providing connections to electricity grids remains a challenge, especially in rural areas, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy is promoting decentralized local power generation with what it calls “family-based biogas plants.” It has put together a biogas and manure management program, and works with state and local agencies to train workers and entrepreneurs. The ministry has set up a dozen training centers in universities, the Indian Institutes of Technology and other technical institutes.

About 4.1 million family-based biogas plants have been installed so far. The potential is for 12 million units, which would be able to generate an estimated 17,340 million cubic meters of biogas, the ministry stated in its annual report. Each unit would serve the cooking and lighting needs of a family of four. Vandana Shiva, a physicist turned environmental activist based in Dehradun, supports decentralized power systems as the sustainable way forward for rural India. Farmers get much of their fuel such as plant stalks from their fields, and “the cow dung-straw combination is very sustainable,” she says.

Ravindranath of the Indian Institute of Science points to two pilot biomass projects of 20 kilowatt electric units each in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh that his center has been involved with as successful demonstrations. The units use so-called gasification technology, which helps produce energy from organic materials. One is in Kasai village in Madhya Pradesh, which has a mostly tribal population of 392 people in 55 households. The community’s gasifier provides energy for home and street lighting, supplies drinking water, and each household is equipped with an improved cook stove. A few households also started using music systems and color TVs, while a flour mill was energized. Future plans include a water pump and a milk-chilling unit, according to the center’s report on the project.

The second project, in Hosahalli village in Karnataka, transformed life for the 218 people in 35 families after it was installed in 1998, according to the report. Agriculture was the main occupation in Hosahalli. Farmers depended entirely on rains, and were vulnerable to the vagaries of the monsoon and low crop yields. Women carried water from a polluted open water tank a kilometer away, and lit their homes with kerosene in traditional wick lamps. But the biomass gasifier ensured power availability in excess of 90% in most of the years it operated. Basic services such as home and street lighting and piped water supply were provided on most days, “again a unique achievement for a village in India,” the report said. And the women no longer needed to trek long distances for water.

Though the project had no technical issues, it ended in 2004. Additional investments would have been needed to make the energy from biomass price-competitive with that from the electricity grid, and villagers couldn’t agree on the project’s direction. After the project ended, the village got a connection to the local electricity grid.

“You need to convincingly prove the economic viability of biomass gasifiers,” Ravindranath says. “Even though it is theoretically proven, it is difficult to prove on the ground.” Also, biomass gasifiers are viable only as clusters of 50 or 100 units because overheads are shared, he says. “Standalone decentralized biomass gasifier systems will never succeed.” When governments provide incentives to farmers such as free or subsidized electricity, they hurt the case for biomass gasifiers, he adds. “There is a need for rational pricing of electricity. Without that, no renewable energy system will succeed.”