Will industrial-scale biomass power provide employment for the rural poor, or will it absorb resources that can be used locally?
Power generation from biomass is recent development in India. During a supervision mission of the Convergence of Agricultural Interventions in Maharashtra (CAIM) I visited a newly constructed 15 MW electric powerplant. The daily fuel requirement will be 440 tons, of which 400 tons is biomass and the rest coal. The plan is to source biomass within a 50 km radius, including cotton stalks, soybean and pigeon pea residue, together with invasive shrubs. A survey of CAIM villages shows that only around half of the potential fuel biomass is now used, and much crop residue is burnt as waste in the field.
The total installed capacity of biomass power plants (excluding sugar mills) is 999 MW. The economics look good – about 4 to 5 kg of biomass produces the same thermal energy as 1 litre of furnace oil. Even assuming the cost of biomass is Rs. 4 per kg, it would mean a cost of Rs. 20 as against Rs. 40 or more for one litre of furnace oil. This saving has made it attractive for industries such as soya oil extraction to convert their boilers to run on agricultural waste – I also saw one of these, burning 60 tons of biomass per day to generate steam (and soon electric power as well).
Such biomass power schemes have the following advantages: (i) contributes to climate change mitigation, using waste that would be otherwise burnt in fields; (ii) encourage clearance of inedible and invasive shrubs; (iii) employment creation in biomass collection, a potential SHG enterprise; (iv) biomass sales provide a new income option for farmers; and (v) specially grown energy crops could provide farmers with another cash crop.
Disadvantages include: (i) biomass could be used for small scale briquetting, which could generate even more employment and employment for SHG (but economics of this are uncertain and it may not happen on the scale envisaged by one industrial power plant); (ii) an increased amount of biomass could be used for feeding animals, composting and as a crop mulch. Farmers may be encouraged to adopt “no-till” conservation agriculture which would require all residue from crops such as soybean to be used as mulch; (iii) the poorest households may be scavenging waste material to use as fuel – which may no longer be available if sold to power stations; and (iv) energy crops would absorb land and water that would otherwise be used to grow food (but cotton also does this).
So how should we balance the economic opportunity and environmental benefits of industrial biomass power with the potential loss of biomass for local use by farmers and the landless poor? Will industrial-scale biomass power provide employment for the rural poor, or will it absorb resources that can be used locally?
Photograph of boilers buring soybean crop residue at a soya oil extraction plant (Narmada Solvex Ltd) in Maharashtra.