Farmers like Amolak Singh in the farm rich state of Punjab are making money and also helping clean the air in cities like Delhi and Chandigarh just by selling agricultural waste.
Every year in November, farmers in the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan used to burn agricultural waste jacking air pollution levels in the national capital and neighbouring cities - home for over 25 million people.
Things have changed as Amolak, and other farmers like him, now sell the waste to Sukhbir Agro, a subsidiary of a company owning rice mills in the region, at a mutually negotiated price.
"No one believed the company guys when they came first about three years ago proposing to buy green waste lying in our fields," says Amolak, whose family owns huge tracks of paddy fields in Muktsar region.
There is not a single home in his village that does not sell paddy straw to the collection centre set up by the company a few kilometres away. "I get paid by the same company for both rice as well as the waste," an elated Amolak said, adding that the waste now generates enough money to partially pay for his annual farm labour cost.
It was easier for Sukhbir Singh to set up of one of Punjab's first agri-based biomass plants as his family owned rice mills in the region thereby providing a ready infrastructure to collect waste - the biggest hurdle in setting up these plants.
The company added to its 40 existing paddy centres to collect straw after the harvesting season and it provided them with the network to collect agriculture waste from the districts of Muktsar, Bathinda, Mansa and even from the neighbouring states.
Sukhbir said because the quality of paddy straw is good, its power load factor (efficiency) is about 80% - almost the same as that of thermal power and way above that of solar photovoltaic which ranges between 13% to 18%. It also means a good return for the investment.
The waste collected is enough for the company's biomass plant to generate green electricity around the clock which is then sold to the Punjab government at a price higher than thermal power.
At Punjab's renewable energy summit, its renewable energy minister Bikramjit Singh Majithia had said biomass plants, like the one started by Sukhbir Singh, have been awarded and the state has committed to buy electricity at an "attractive price".
Over a dozen such biomass plants will start operation in the state in the next few years generating around 200 MW of power and disbursing over Rs. 50,000 crore to farmers for waste on an annual basis.
Maharashtra shows the way
Sukhbir Agro, however, is an exception in the otherwise dismal biomass production in the country.
A 2012 IIT Kanpur study said since farmers do not find buyers for the waste they either burn it - which releases huge amount of emissions - or dump it leading to soil and water contamination because of high residue of toxic chemicals.
India generates about 350 million tonnes of agricultural waste every year and the ministry of new and renewable energy estimates this waste can generate more than 18,000 MW of power every year apart from generating green fertiliser for farms. The country so far failed to find its productive use in the absence of enough government push and business model to work for farmers.
Maharashtra's Sitara district has, however, shown how it can be done by processing sugarcane molasses for twin benefit - generate electricity for the grid and fertiliser for fields.
A unit, set up by a company in collaboration with Sugarcane Farmers' Cooperative and German federal technical agency GIZ, collects the waste from around 10,000 sugarcane farmers. The waste is then treated and fed into a boiler at the unit to generate electricity. And, the waste is then transported back to farmer fields free of cost.
Suresh Aklekar, chairperson of the cooperative, told HT it is a win-win situation for the farmers. "The productivity has improved since the fertiliser was used and the problem of dealing with the waste has also been taken care of," he said, adding many other cooperatives in Maharashtra have now started adopting the new sustainable development model.
Push for bio-fuel
The income of these farmers is likely to go up further and the slow and steady biomass revolution in the country will get an impetus as the government plans to introduce vehicles running fully on bio-fuel produced from the waste. Brazil, California, Paris and some Chinese cities have vehicles which use 100% bio-fuels.
The road transport ministry, earlier this month, notified draft rules providing basic ground for setting up facilities to manufacture vehicle engines than can run on 100% bio-diesel. These will be known as B100 vehicles like that of BS-III or BS-IV and will help in reducing toxic emissions.
Ministry officials said the draft will boost setting up of agri-waste based biomass plants across India and oil companies can collect the bio-fuel from these plants to purify and then blend them with diesel. Like petrol and diesel, bio-diesel can also be sold through the company outlets throughout the country.
A government official said a clear policy on integrating bio-fuels in the fuel supply chain will be formulated to provide clarity on the new business network.
Because of a poor network of oil companies for collecting sugarcane molasses, the government's decision to blend petrol with 5% ethanol has really not taken off. It is estimated that this blending can replace around 1.8 million barrels of crude oil.
Car manufacturers say that the government's intervention is necessary for the development as well as survival of these plants.
"There are no technological issues regarding manufacturing of the vehicles running fully on bio-fuel or bio-diesel in India. But, the cost of such vehicles are very high and they will not survive the highly competitive market without price subvention from the government," said an official with a car manufacturing company, which had tested a bio-fuel run vehicle a few years ago.
While Punjab and Maharashtra have taken a lead in setting up biomass plants with attractive power tariff, other major states like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh - which contribute half to India's annual agricultural waste worth Rs 50,000 crore - are lagging behind primarily because of low tariff.
According to a review by the ministry of new and renewable energy, the tariff is as low as Rs 2.2 in Kerala, Rs 3.3 in Madhya Pradesh, Rs 3.6 in Karnataka and Rs 4 in Uttar Pradesh. On the other hand for similar technical use to generate power, Punjab has fixed a tariff at Rs 5.05 per unit and Maharashtra at Rs 4.98 per unit, thus making them attractive destination for investors in the new-age green power.
To provide a level-playing field across the states and give them an incentive, the government had planned to set up a national biomass mission to harness 620 million tonnes of bio-resources.
The mission, which was to be announced in the 12th Five Year plan (2012-17), has been delayed and officials say that a lack of enough public resources to fund it is the main cause.