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  Biomass as an energy source
   
Author: Appropriate Technology Team, Pragya
   
Source: Pragya
   
Year: 2010
 

Availability of energy has long being recognised as a precondition to growth & poverty reduction and major efforts are underway to improve per capita availability and access in developing countries including India and Nepal in particular. This task assumes particular urgency in the mountainous regions due to geographic, demographic and lack of adequate communication and delivery factors among others. The forests provided the necessary requirements for the local populace and there was a degree of harmony between needs and availability. Traditionally wood has been directly used as an energy source in the hills both for cooking and heating purposes due to ample availability and relative ease of access to the local communities.  The continuing depletion of these resources and a rising awareness of the environmental costs of unchecked deforestation have led to a heightened perception of the need to look for alternative solutions. Also, the increasing distances that have to be travelled daily to access firewood by women is a major factor in depriving women of their desire and right to a more meaningful and productive life style. The related negative health impacts from open stoves and poor ventilation leading to pulmonary diseases are well documented. Current thinking at the policy level seems to indicate that as a nation, India is moving towards electrification as a major national priority for meeting the energy requirements of the large rural population and is looking to reduce dependency on biomass across the board. State agencies are now actively looking at off-grid solutions for electrification of many far-flung and difficult to access areas. The increased outlays under the Solar Mission in India suggest that renewable energy would form a key plank in achieving a low carbon growth model without sacrificing the development and economic upliftment needs and aspiration of a vast majority of people. It is in this context that a few of the efforts undertaken are described.

Gasifiers [bio gas]

A lot of work has been carried out in the plains in using biomass as fuel for gasifiers in the last decades and the use of ‘cow-pats’ as a supplement to wood is a centuries old tradition in the plains. A tried and tested mechanism, promoted with vigour and adequate support by State agencies in India, has had a mixed fate overall. It has been particularly challenging in the hills due to the twin effects of low temperatures and low availability of suitable biomass due to low land holding patterns and slow growth rate of many plant species. While efforts to improve design and efficiency levels continue, data suggests that this may not be the way forward in the long term in the context of the Himalayas.

Briquetting

The local communities usually set pine needles, which carpet the ground and stop any grass from growing and hence act as an impediment to use of the land for pasture purposes, on fire. Stopping this loss of bio mass and converting it to productive use has been tried on a relatively small scale by various bodies and briquetting plants have been set up in the western Himalayas. More efforts to covert this to a viable livelihood option need encouragement from all concerned agencies.

Social Forestry

Plant species like poplar, willow and others specific to various areas have been identified and planting material is being made available to communities on an ongoing basis by state agencies. This is reducing loads on forest areas and is a key element enabling increase in India’s green cover over the last five years and providing biomass to the communities for their energy needs. Given time and continued support this mechanism is likely to provide a sustainable biomass increase mechanism. The integration of efforts by the various state agencies including agriculture, forestry, environment, water, education etc.; adequate training and handholding at various levels; sensitisation among the bureaucracy; involvement of local youth, children and women would all go a long way to raise awareness and produce long lasting results.

Design improvements in Chulas [wood burning stoves]

A substantial amount of research has been carried in redesign of traditional wood burning stoves to reduce the biomass requirement per unit of energy output. A large number of civil society institutions have been involved in propagating various solutions in different states and districts. This has also had an impact on improving the pulmonary related health issues that have been a perennial scrounge in the hills especially among women, children and the elderly. There is an urgent need to consolidate and compile the various scattered results and roll out a set of easy to use technology packages, suitably costed, culturally appropriate across different regions for easy acceptability and wide use.

The way forward

A combination of rising energy needs, depleting biomass resources, a shift to a low carbon growth path mandated by climate change related issues and the need for inclusive growth in the mountains all combine to produce a fairly complex mix. This would demand careful and well thought out policy measures, duly supported by adequate research and competent roll out with the involvement of the local communities. Renewable energy sources in terms of small hydel, solar and wind would perhaps provide a medium and long term solution to the energy needs in the mountains; it is, however, likely that bio mass based solutions would continue to be the predominant means of meeting the energy needs of the people and urgent action from research institutions, policy makers, administration and civil society organisations are needed on an ongoing basis to address the rights and aspirations of the mountain communities.