Switch on biomass

Power crisis spurs market for renewables in rural Bihar

by Alok Gupta, Saran

Until a year ago, T N Pandit, a pathologist in Bihar’s Saran district would juggle four different power supplies to keep his lab operational. The sources included inverter, generator, solar cell and state power grid. Voltage fluctuation had caused faults in his gadgets till he decided to install one more switch on his already overcrowded switchboard.

“It supplies power from a biogas-fired power plant and offers steady supply for eight hours a day,” said Pandit from Raipura village.

Set up in 2006 by Vivek Gupta, a fresh management graduate, the biogas plant in Garkha village is a lifeline for many like Pandit in the power-starved district.

Now, in its first year of operation, the plant, called Saran Renewable Energy, generates 120kW and meets the demand of Garkha and Raipura villages.

The biomass is available easily—corncobs and twigs of sesbania, a leafy plant called dhencha in Bihar. The plant, used for firewood, thrives on waterlogged soil. “About 2,000 hectares (ha) of low-lying farmland in Saran remains waterlogged throughout the year, making them unsuitable for most crops. So when we gave the farmers free seeds to grow dhencha and assured them to buy back at Rs 2 per kg, they accepted,” Gupta said. The dhencha grows in six-eight months and farmers can earn up to Rs 5,000 on a fourth of an acre of fallow land a year. Dhencha is fast gaining community support.

Gupta plans to expand the existing plant’s capacity to 2MW soon and establish another plant in nearby Sitalpur village. He is also in talks with Bihar Energy Regulatory Commission to supply power directly to the grid. “Nothing has been finalized yet as the commission wants to purchase renewable energy at Rs 3.30 a unit whereas in other states the price is in the band of Rs 4-4.50,” said Gupta.

The current production cost of Saran Renewable is Rs 7-8 a unit. People are ready to pay the price because power from a genset costs Rs 15-18 per unit. Gupta promised he would bring down the cost further. Meanwhile, Airtel telecom has asked Gupta to supply power to its 300 mobile towers in the district.

Saran Renewable is the first in the state to produce renewable energy on commercial scale. In doing so, it has set an example. A cold storage in Hajipur in Vaishali district, a three-hour drive from Saran, has also switched to biogas-fired power plant after frequent power cuts rendered it ineffective.

In 2007, the Bilandur Cooperative Society decided to install a rice husk gasifier and produce its own power. It procures rice husk from farmers at Rs 2 a kg and produces 150kW a day, which is sufficient to run the cold storage, said Rekha Singh, the cooperative’s chairperson. It has repaid the bank loan of Rs 15 lakh for the gasifier and made a profit this year. Singh now plans to set up a rice mill for supply of rice husk.

Its success has inspired others: two private cold storages in Hajipur—Bajrang and Aradhana—have also switched to rice husk power.

CSE/Down To Earth Feature Service
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