There was a time when Govindaraju could have only dreamed of raising tomatoes in his farm’s red soil. That was before a biomass gasifier was built in his village of Kabbigere near Bangalore. When it began operating last year, agriculture pumps made new irrigation methods possible — like the drip irrigation system Govindaraju uses to water his tomato seedlings. Now, the 45-year-old farmer grows vegetables and flowers that are not rain-dependent like the ragi and groundnut he once raised. Since then, his income has tripled.
In an effort to provide decentralised power to rural areas in an environmentally clean manner, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) inaugurated the gasifier plant last January through its Biomass Energy for Rural India project. Located in the Tumkur district’s Koratagere cluster nearly 100 km from Bangalore, the project was funded by the UN Global Environment Facility, the Government of Karnataka and the India-Canada Environment Facility. The gasifier’s operations are now fully managed by the local gram panchayat.
The gasifier, which converts natural materials like wood and agriculture residues into a combustible gas mixture through a series of processes, supplies energy to four villages. Once granted six hours of sporadic power per day due to transmission and distribution inefficiencies with the grid, villagers now enjoy uninterrupted power whenever they need it.
And they are making a profit. The excess energy is sold to the Bangalore Electricity Supply Company. According to the UNDP, this arrangement is the first of its kind in India.
The power plant has enabled Kabbigere’s farmers like Govindaraju to plant species that would have been impossible to cultivate without the improved irrigation techniques. Instead of growing just one crop a year, most are tending three, said M.H. Swaminath, the project coordinator for BERI.
The growth of the biomass material — mainly eucalyptus and casuarinas — has also brought a new source of income to the farmers. Because the trees can thrive in soil that would not be suitable for food crops, farmers are able to produce biomass material on formerly unused land. Dhananjaya, a 24-year-old farmer who is harvesting the eucalyptus he planted two years ago, has seen his income double, enabling him to pay off much of the loan he took out to build a house.
Financial rewards are just part of the picture. “The new source of power removes the drudgery from everyday life,” said K. Jairaj, principal secretary of Karnataka’s energy department. A greater sense of security from lighting and cleaner water afforded by the water pumps were among the new comforts, he noted.
The success of the Kabbigere plant paved the way for another plant to be commissioned in Karnataka. While plans for a third plant are in the works, Swaminath said, private investors are showing an interest in developing additional projects. And with the experience gained from working on the first gasifier, which took five years to plan and implement, Jairaj said the task is to now replicate the model throughout the state. Though small in scale, Jairaj sees the efforts in Karnataka as a forerunner to the development of renewable energy elsewhere. “I see this as the future of energy for India and the world,” he said.
While alternative energy could never fully replace conventional sources like coal, wood and petroleum, he said, the biomass project shows that clean and reliable energy is possible. And it is the only way ahead.