India is likely to include a “national bio-energy mission” in the 12th five-year plan to boost power generation from biomass, says Farooq Abdullah, minister of new and renewable energy. According to him, the country has a total installed capacity of 3,000 MW bioenergy-based power generation and the government is working on doubling this capacity during the 12th plan period (2012-17).

Bioenergy is renewable energy generated from materials derived from biological sources (also called biomass). Biomass is any organic material that stores sunlight in the form of chemical energy. As a fuel, it may include wood, wood waste, straw, manure, sugarcane and byproducts from a variety of other agricultural processes. There are also agricultural products being grown specifically for bioenergy production. These include corn and soybeans in the US; sugarcane in Brazil; sorghum and cassava in China; and, a plant called ‘jatropha’ grown in India. By 2010, there was 35 GW of installed bioenergy capacity for electricity generation globally, out of which approximately 7 gw was in the US alone.

The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) in a report on bioenergy in India estimated that out of all the non-commercial energy sources, fuel wood, chips and dung cakes predominantly contribute around 30 per cent of the total primary energy consumed in the country, which is second to the energy derived from coal. As many as 46 per cent of households using firewood and chips in rural India obtain these fuels at zero cash outlay. About 21.14 per cent of households depend on homegrown stock; and 23.7 per cent make cash purchases. In comparison, two-thirds of urban households using firewood need to purchase the same.

Yet, bioenergy does not figure in most energy analyses, as it is confined to “non-commercial” energy category. Given that most of the biomass used in households is not transacted in the market, bioenergy data is “inadequate and not up-to-date.” Yet if one were to go by the studies by Teri and others, biomass delivers nearly 90 per cent of energy used in rural households and about 40 per cent of energy used in urban households. However, the largest use of biomass energy in India is characterised by low efficiency and environmental degradation. Acco­rding to research estimates, unpro­cessed biomass is used mostly in traditional stoves and furnaces that have low efficiencies, of the order of 10 per cent to 15 per cent.

The first main use of bioenergy in India is as a cooking fuel in rural areas. Bioenergy has 10-15 per cent efficiency compared with 60 per cent efficiency in case of LPG. According to the 2007-2008 National Sample Survey (NSS) data, the primary source of cooking fuel in rural India is firewood, followed by LPG. During 2007-08, 77.6 per cent of India’s 159 million rural households used firewood/chips while only 9.1 per cent used LPG. Dung cake and kerosene is used by 7.4 per cent and 0.6 per cent of households, respectively. This consumption is in stark contrast to the use of LPG in urban areas and cities. For example, according to Teri, LPG is the primary cooking fuel in urban India, where 62 per cent of 63 million urban households use it as primary cooking fuel. Firewood and kerosene are used as primary cooking fuel by 20 per cent and 8 per cent of urban households, respectively. Only one per cent of urban population use dung cake as primary cooking fuel.

The next main use of bioenergy in India is in biogas, which can be burnt in a specially designed burner for clean cooking without indoor air pollution. According to Teri, a biogas plant of two cubic metre capacity is sufficient to provide cooking fuel to a family of five (standard family size in India as per Census of India, 2001).

It can also power gas lamps. For example, a gas lamp with equivalent power of 60 W needs 0.13 cubic metre of gas every hour. However, according to Teri, a significant percentage of the total 4.2 million biogas plants in India are non-functional. A study done at the IITs in 2002 estimated that only 77 per cent of total installed biogas plants were fully functional.

Another use of bioenergy is in biomass gasification, which involves incomplete combustion of biomass resulting in production of combustible gases consisting of carbon mono­xide, hydro­gen and tra­ces of methane. This mixture, also known as producer gas, could be used to run internal combustion engines and in generating power.

The essence of sustainability of bio­energy projects lies in how a community benefits from the project activity. According to Teri, the primary driving force for acceptance of such project activity from society’s viewpoint will most probably be job creation, contribution to regional economy and improvement of incomes. Recent research predicts that bioenergy is possibly the most labour-intensive energy source and there is little doubt that bioenergy development will bring about significant job creation for unskilled and semi-skilled labour in India, depending on the scale of production and degree of mechanisation. There is job creation potential in biogas as well. For example, according to Teri, the installation of a two cubic metre biogas plant requires 10 skilled and 40 semi-skilled mandays of labour.

However, bioenergy technology could also have potential drawbacks in India as well as abroad. For example, researchers have raised concern that rapid biofuel growth, mono-cropping practices and assured buyback of preferred energy crop varieties may lead to a reduction in agricultural biodiversity with negative repercussions on food security.

For example, biomass production could compete with food production on a local/regional scale and lead to regional food supply shortage in developing countries such as India. At present, India’s total land area is 328.7 Mha, out of which 42.5 Mha is not available for cultivation. The area not available for cultivation could be used for generating bioenergy. However, Teri says even the concept of “biofuel cultivation in wasteland” has been questioned in India because of the heavy reliance of rural people on these lands for collecting fuel wood, food, fodder, timber and thatch. However, such concerns are not applicable in the context of biogas and biomass gasification technology dissemination. Still, the provision of bioenergy needs planning so that our increasing dependence bioenergy does not lead to food shortages.

In addition, there are growing doubts on the efficacy of biofuels in reducing carbon emissions that directly affect climate change. One could assume that burning biomass merely returns the carbon dioxide that was absorbed as the plants grew, and as long as the cycle of growth and harvest is sustained, biomass burning is carbon-neutral. But this is not applicable as the universal truth for all forms of bioenergy and its varied production and usage mechanisms.

A recent research lists some factors that determine the carbon-neutrality (or otherwise) of bioenergy in comparison to fossil fuels, which are purported to be replaced by them. According to Teri, the lifecycle of carbon balance critically depends on the choice of feedstock, management of land resources when growing the feedstock, the kind of land use changes induced by cultivation, conversion and processing methods used in bioenergy production, the type of fossil energy carrier replaced by biomass and the efficiency of energy end-use.

Also, according to Teri, the efficiency in harvesting and combustion plays a role in determining the carbon implications of biomass burning. Hence, potential impacts of efficient (often translated to “intensive”) land usage will have direct impact on biodiversity, greenhouse gas emission, and degradation of soil and water bodies. Land usage has very high impact on carbon dioxide emissions.

Conversion of forest land, pastures and savannah-type land for bioenergy cultivation can cause higher carbon dioxide emission than what is abated by carbon dioxide emissions. Thus, there is a need to investigate the potential climate impact of adopting bioenergy as a sustainable option.

Finally, for the bioenergy option to become feasible in India in the long term, it is paramount that we attend to the current public knowledge, understanding and awareness of bioenergy technology and its potential. At present, there seems to be little or no research in this area. Also, it would be worthwhile to assess public perceptions of the risks of bioenergy technology to climate change in India and abroad. Improving public understanding about the benefits and risks of bioenergy technology will go a long way in shaping appropriate public policy on the use and adoption of bioenergy world over.

(The writer is on the faculty of Indian Institute of Technology, Mandi, and knowledge editor of Financial Chronicle)