Monday, November 27, 2006

Small is Beautiful: ARTI

This is the first post in the "Small is Beautiful" series.

The first initiative I would like to cover is Appropriate Rural Technology Institute (ARTI) based in my home city, Pune. Started in 1996 by Dr. Anand Karve, ARTI has become a leading research center for developing innovative products and technology for rural India and fostering small scale village enterprises.

Majority of Indians (more than 70%) still live in villages and are dependent on agriculture and related industries for their livelihood. One could say that the world is not quite flat yet for a lot of Indians. Lack of adequate basic infrastructure in villages and lack of education are the two biggest impediments to India realizing its true potential. One of the ways to bring development is to give the tools and training necessary to earn a good livelihood in the hands of people and give them opportunity to participate fully in the economy. Over the last decade ARTI has made this its primary mission and has completed over 50 different projects in appropriate rural technology. ARTI has also started a center to foster rural enterprises based on the technology it has developed. Here is a snapshot of it's objectives from its website.

ARTI undertakes research to study, develop, standardise, implement, commercialise and popularise innovative appropriate rural technologies with special emphasis on making traditional rural businesses more profitable and also on generating novel employment opportunities in rural areas. We have now nearly 25 standardised and field-tested technologies to offer to rural entrepreneurs through our Rural Entrepreneurship Development Centre (REDC). Our sphere of activities is no longer restricted to Maharashtra, but has spread to other states including Goa, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pardesh, Sikkim, Tripura and Kerala. Some of our technologies are also being tried out in other developing countries in Asia and Africa. (read more...)
At Oorjaa we are more interested in the energy related projects. Both of the rural energy related project by ARTI have won the Ashden award for sustainable energy. The latest project is a compact biogas system that can operate on household raw vegetable and food waste. This is especially relevant because of its application to individual households in urban and semi-urban as well as rural areas. Biogas is not new in India. There have been attempts by central and state governments to popularize biogas in rural areas since 1950. In my childhood I remember there used to be signs in Marathi saying: "गाव तिथे गोबर गॅस " (A biogas plants in every village). The initial plants were focused on cattle dung (गोबर) as the source. In India the dung is traditionally dried into flat patties (called शेण्या in Marathi) and used as fuel. The initial plants needed skilled monitoring of the dung input to the digester to ensure continuous operation. Lack of adequate training in the use of these plants led to failure. Many of these plants either did not perform to standards or fell into disuse. Even today India has a national program for promotion of biogas [::MNES link]. Inspite of the mixed success record there are around 3.5 million biogas plants in operation in India according the ministry of non-conventional energy sources [MNES].

The compact biogas plant developed by ARTI is significantly different than the models developed by the national program. It uses considerably less amount of input waste, can operate on domestic household waste (as opposed to cattle dung), costs less to install and is much more efficient at producing biogas than the conventional designs. To quote from ARTI website...
Dr. Anand Karve (President of ARTI) developed a compact biogas system that uses starchy or sugary feedstock. Just 2 kg of such feedstock produces about 500 g of methane, and the reaction is completed with 24 hours. The conventional biogas systems, using cattle dung, sewerage, etc. use about 40 kg feedstock to produce the same quantity of methane, and require about 40 days to complete the reaction. Thus, from the point of view of conversion of feedstock into methane, the system developed by Dr. Anand Karve is 20 times as efficient as the conventional system, and from the point of view of reaction time, it is 40 times as efficient. Thus, overall, the new system is 800 times as efficient as the conventional biogas system. (read more...)
Dr. Karve with the compact biogas plantDr. Karve with the compact biogas system

ARTI is now being funded by the US-EPA to commercialize this technology. Under this project ARTI provides training to rural entrepreneurs to build these plants and sell them on a purely commercial basis. Between 2003 and 2006 ARTI has installed 800 such plants.

The other rural energy project by ARTI is the technology to generate briquetted charcoal from sugarcane waste and the associated Sarai cooking system. This project received the Ashden award in 2002. The Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur districts in Maharashtra are popularly known as the "sugar belt". Large amount of sugarcane is cultivated in these areas. After sugarcane is harvested large amount of thrash (roughly 4 million tons) mainly consisting of the leaves is burnt on the field itself. This practice has been going on for ages. ARTI has come up with a novel technique to convert the leaf thrash into briquetted charcoal. ARTI has also developed a stove called "Sarai" that can efficiently burn these briquettes. This stove can be used for cooking and replaces the traditional wood burning stove (चूल in Marathi) used in many rural households.

You can have a look at other rural technologies developed by ARTI by visiting their website. One common thread you will find in all of them is that they fit very well in the "simple, sustainable, low-cost, high impact" model. All of these technologies use local resources, supplement or improve activities traditionally practiced in the area and hence are easy to adopt for the target population. This makes integration of the technology in the rural areas much easier. I believe that this is the direction to achieve development in the most efficient and sustainable way.

Here at Oorjaa we will keep a keen watch on future technologies developed by ARTI, so do keep checking back.

Link List:
[1] ARTI website
[2] Ashden Awards website
[3] Ashden Awards press releases for the 2006 award (Compact biogas system) and 2002 award (Briquetted charcoal system)
[4] India Together article about ARTI
[6] MNES link for national biogas program
[7] An interesting thesis about integration of biogas technology in India (PDF file)

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Small is Beautiful: New Oorjaa Series

After months of inactivity I am bringing this blog out of the freezer. In order to keep it alive and growing I am planning a series of new initiatives for Oorjaa. "Small is Beautiful" is one of these initiatives.

In this series I would like to cover small grass-roots efforts related to renewable, sustainable energy in India. While big investments and big renewable energy projects get a lot of attention in the media, the small, grass-roots efforts are often neglected or given scant coverage. So one of the primary aims of this series is to highlight such projects. More often than not, these small projects are initiated by local efforts and hence reflect the desire of the community to seek solutions to their energy problems; often after a pathetic performance by the local government bodies in tackling the issue. The community involvement ensures that the solutions sought are tailored specifically to suit the needs of the people in the community. This bottom-up approach to development is in my opinion what is needed to truly tackle the problems that India faces today. So without further adieu... the first post of the small is beautiful series:

Keep this page bookmarked and check back for future posts in the "Small is Beautiful" series.

Monday, April 17, 2006

FutureGen and India

In March '06 India signed an agreement with the US to participate in the FutureGen project. FutureGen is a $1 billion initiative to build world's first zero emission fossil fuel (coal) power plant. You read that right... COAL POWER PLANT!! According to the DOE press release, India is the first country to join this project. This news item in The Hindu reports that India will contribute $10 million towards the project. So what is FutureGen?

The DOE webpage about the project touts it as "Tomorrow's Pollution-Free Power Plant"

The initiative is a response to President Bush's directive to draw upon the best scientific research to address the issue of global climate change. The production of hydrogen will support the President's call to create a hydrogen economy and fuel pollution free vehicles; and the use of coal will help ensure America's energy security by developing technologies that utilize a plentiful domestic resource. (read more)
A feature story in the March'06 issue of National Geog. Magazine reported that US has the largest reserves of coal in the world (~27% of Global reserves) and 50% of the electricity in the US comes from coal. So it makes sense to try to develop clean coal technology. The reason for India joining the project are pretty obvious too. India has ~10 % of world's coal and with the growing energy demand in India coal consumption is going up.

How does FutureGen plan to use coal and be "clean" (zero/low GHG emission) at the same time. The FutureGen website actually has a pretty good writeup on the technologies that they plan to use...
Researchers and industry have made great progress advancing technologies to support coal gasification, electricity generation, emissions control, carbon dioxide capture and storage, and hydrogen production. While these technologies exist today, they have yet to be integrated and tested at a single plant, which is essential for such plants to be technically and commercially viable.
This schematic from the FutureGen website is also helpful (click to enlarge)

(source US-DOE)

Actually, the commercial viability of many of these technologies is already proven. Coal gasification to produce Syngas is a decently known technology. It is easier to remove pollutants such as sulfur from the Syngas rather than scrub then out of the exhaust gases, as many of the coal power plants today do. CO2 separation from the Syngas is also understood fairly well. In the US there are coal-gasification based power plants in Indiana and Florida but they don't carry out CO2 separation and sequestration. A chemical plant in North Dakota produces Syngas and some other products from gasified coal. It also separates CO2 and pumps it 325 km North to Weyburn oil fields in Canada to sequester it inside the depleted oil-field. I am not sure how developed and tested the CO2 sequestration technology is. In most cases the CO2 is stored in depleted oil-wells. But does it stay there or does it leak out into the atmosphere? How safe is the technology? I don't know much about it right now and I plan to look into these questions in future. For now, check out this website if you want to learn more.

So FutureGen is not at all a "giant leap forward" in terms of technology as it may seem at first look. It is only going to bring together all these technologies in a single power plant. The project is still in its "siting, Environmental review and Permitting " phase and is not supposed to start full scale operations till 2013. All this is well and good. But over all, how much environmental and social sense does this whole project make? In future all these technologies can make using coal environmentally safe, but to use it we need to get it out of the ground first and there in lies the root of another problem.

Coal mining itself takes a very large environmental and social toll. The Nat. Geographic article mentioned above had a follow-up feature article titled "When mountains move". It was about "mountain top removal" (MTR) or "valley fill" mining, a practice which is being increasingly used by coal companies in the US. In this type of mining, mountaintop (or rather, whole mountains) are cleared of vegetation and then they are removed totally to reach the coal seams underneath. The tons of earth that is generated as a result of mountain top removal is filled into a valley. This practice has a devastating impact on the environment. In the US, groups like Mountain Justice Summer (MJS) and Ohio Valley Environmental coalition (OVEC) are actively involved in campaigns against this type of mining. The MJS fact sheet on this mining practice says..
...Mountaintop removal /valley fill mining annihilates ecosystems, transforming some of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world into biologically barren moonscapes.
It is a sad truth that whatever the big mining corporations can easily do here in the US, it is even more easier for them to do it in India. Environmental regulations are not very strictly enforced in India, the bureaucracy is corrupt and can be easily bribed, justice system is slow. The system of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is seriously flawed and incorporates very limited room for public hearings. Coal mining industry has been largely publicly owned until now. Since 2003 the government has opened some areas to private investments. The US (indirectly through the World Bank in most cases) is funding many mining projects in India. There have been cases where the government owned company, Coal India has illegally encroached upon lands owned by indigenous people and failed to provide them with adequate compensation. Mine safety is also very lax and there have been numerous accidents involving many casualties in coal mines in India. (To read more about mining related issues in India and elsewhere see this website).

I guess my point is, even though clean energy generation from coal is possible - after it is mined - the process of mining itself involves huge and devastating impact on the natural environment. The government (here in US as well as in India) has largely sided with the coal industry and the cause of environmental justice has been forwarded largely by people's movements and NGOs. In India particularly, the sad state of environmental laws, regulation and enforcement means more environmental damage if India decides to give coal a greater role in providing for the energy needs. Technologies like gasification can be used with biomass fuel sources too which are largely carbon neutral (if they are grown specifically for the purpose of generating energy). It would be wiser in my opinion to invest heavily in such alternative/renewable technologies, decentralized generation etc. Opting for coal may lead to a dark future for many communities who, as far as the record shows till date, have hardly benefited from the "development" that the energy is supposed to bring about.

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Sunday, April 02, 2006

DESI Power

"Desi" is Hindi word for "from the country" or "from the homeland" (Des = country or homeland). It is often used (by Indians) as a slang for other Indians in the US. DESI Power is a company back home in India, that has given another meaning to the word Desi.

DESI stands for "Decentralized Energy Systems India" Pvt. Ltd. The company provides decentralized power to remote villages and semi-urban areas using biomass fueled power plants. Currently the company targets two different markets:

  • Small scale industries in semi-urban areas which depend on diesel generators for power (due to unreliable grid electricity supply)
  • Remote villages which have not been electrified or lack reliable supply.
For the small scale industries the company provides services to retrofit existing diesel generator sets to run on dual fuel mode using biomass gasification. The incentives for the company are reduced fuel costs due to low cost of biomass, reliable supply and increased productivity.

I find the second part of the company's mission more interesting. While targeting the remote rural market, the company has adopted a socially responsible approach which makes very good business sense too. It aims to establish Independent Rural Power Producers (IRPPs) which will be small scale power generation plants based on biomass gasification (for now) and other alternative energy sources such as solar and wind in future. Read more...
... DesiPower's business model for Independent Rural Power Producers involves building, operating and later on transferring decentralized power stations to the villagers. The building of IRPPs is integrated with the establishment of profitable local small scale industries, businesses and agro-forestry owned by the villagers. For commercial success, the power plant has to sell as much electricity as it can generate and the villagers have to produce and sell as much of their products as they can in the village and at neighbouring market places. The mutual dependence is further strengthened through, on the one hand, the generation of additional income from the supply of agro-residues and other biomass to the power plant and, on the other, by the continuing extension services and training provided by DesiPower's cluster centre. (Read more about their business model)
To develop this business model, the company seeks partnerships with local organizations such as NGOs operating in the area. The local partners help in promoting small scale industries in the rural area. With the help of reliable power supply provided by DESI power, these industries can become a source of employment and income to the rural community. The rural community also benefits from the sale of biomass to DESI power.

So far DESI power has built 10 such plants operating on biomass gasification. Out of them, three are of the IRPP model and are based in villages in Bihar, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh states. The plant in Madhya Pradesh is based in near Orchaa. At this location, the NGO - Development Alternatives - has started a center which runs small scale industries and provides training and employment to the rural community. The center utilizes the power generated by the 100kW biomass gasifier based power plant operated by DESI power. The biomass fuel is a locally available grass - "Ipunia", which previously had no economic value and grows in marshy land not suitable for agriculture. The center runs a paper making unit and low cost building materials (briquettes) unit and provides employment for 130 people. Here is a BBC article about the Orchaa plant.

The IRPP model adopted by DESI power is a sustainable and socially-ecologically responsible approach. Furthermore, these small renewable energy power plants can also sell Certified Emission Reductions under the Clean Development Mechanism put in place by the Kyoto protocol. In January 2005 DESI power sold 3150 tonnes of certified CO2 reductions to the Davos Climate Alliance (to partly compensate for the emission of greenhouse gases caused by dignitaries and world leaders who attended the Davos World Economic Forum). The proceeds from the sale contributed towards cost of a power plant based on the IRPP model in Bihar.

A significant portion of Indian population is based in rural areas and many of these areas don't have access to reliable power. I had written a post on Transmogrified about decentralized energy production in India. In that post I had argued that there is a huge market for such systems based on renewable alternative sources, which remains largely untapped. At the end of the post I had wondered that if such a market is "money lying on the sidewalk", why isn't someone picking it up?. With companies like DESI power, I guess I we know that someone is picking it up.

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Sunday, February 26, 2006

What is Oorjaa?

Oorjaa (ऊर्जा)= Energy
The Sanskrit word Oorjaa (ऊर्जा) literally means "energy".
This is the first post on this blog and I want to address the following questions:
  1. Why another blog about energy?
  2. How is this blog going to be different?
As an engineer and as an individual concerned about the state of the environment, I feel that the one area in which I can apply my professional knowledge is "sustainable and renewable energy sources". I feel a direct connection to it and I can try to make some concrete contributions to it. This blog is a humble start in my efforts for doing just that: "A concrete contribution". I am going to use this blog as a place to develop my own understanding about energy related issues, sustainable and renewable energy sources and applications, the impact of such solutions on society and economy and a host of other things connected with it. I am going to use individual or series of posts to develop my own knowledge about particular topics such as "peak oil theory" or "coal gasification". Since I am doing this apart from my studies/work, the posting frequency is not going to be very high. I am going to try to have at least one post per week.

Another focus of this blog is going to be energy issues in the context of India. As a rapidly growing economy Indian energy demand is going to increase substantially in the coming years. India has the unique opportunity for implementing novel energy solutions which are sustainable and renewable to meet this demand. It is going to be interesting to see how India tackles the energy issue and also as an Indian, I would like to figure out how I can participate in this process.

The joy of blogging is enhanced many-fold if you can have a dialogue with other people and form a community, with the blog as the meeting place of ideas. I hope that over the course of time, people who find this blog useful will contribute to such dialogue and together our understanding of these issues will develop.

The history of human species can be told through it's quest for energy sources. The control of energy sources has been the source of many conflicts. As the major oil sources are depleted on one hand and global energy demand soars on the other hand, humanity is faced with finding yet another solution to its energy need. Whether the solution will lead to more conflict or whether it will be a solution which will help us sort out our conflicts and truly form a "global village" or a "global community" is the million dollar question. My hope and prayer is for the latter.

For now I leave you with this hymn that begins the Kathopanishada.
ॐ सह नाववतु । सह नौ भुनक्तु ।
सहवीर्यं करवावहै । तेजस्वि नावधीतमस्तु ।
मा विद्विषावहै ॥
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥
OM, may (Brahman) protect (both of) us. May we enjoy the fruits of our efforts. May (Brahman) bestow the energy to acquire knowledge upon us. May we study to reveal the glorious Truth. May there be no discord between us.
OM, peace peace peace!
Be well, do good work and keep in touch.