The power of pine

 Taslima Khan        Print Edition: Dec 23, 2012

Berinag is a sleepy little town about 100 km from Pithoragarh in hill state Uttarakhand. A small company based there is now changing lives of locals with a unique project - generating power from pine needles.

The company, Avani Bio Energy, was launched by the Haryana-born Rajnish Jain in May 2011. Jain had been running a non-governmental organisation called Avani in Berinag since 1999 along with wife Rashmi Bharti, teaching unemployed youth how to make and promote solar lighting products. The 12 years there gave Jain, a management graduate from Lucknow University, the smarts to produce electricity from pine needles.

Uttarakhand is home to more than 340,000 hectares of pine forests. Clubbed with stretches in western Nepal and Himachal Pradesh, pine forests cover about 1.5 million hectares. In the summer season, forest fires are common in these areas as pine needles, essentially needleshaped leaves which keep falling off trees from the middle of March till the onset of the rains in July, are highly inflammable. Even a half-burnt beedi carelessly thrown by a villager can cause fires that gut large forest areas. These fires destroy the local ecology, damaging the fertile top layer of the soil and destroying grazing grounds for cattle.

"Fires leave villagers struggling to find fodder for their cattle, apart from polluting the environment and natural resources," says Jain. The forest fires had been bothering Jain for several years and he wondered whether the pine needles could be put to good use, for cooking or heating. He wanted to experiment if pine needles could be used as biomass to generate electricity.

But that was difficult. Pine needles make for such a loose biomass that they cannot be run through gasifiers, which convert biomass into combustible gases such as carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane.

Jain then toyed with the idea of increasing the density of pine needles by converting them into woodlike briquettes. That process was highly energy-intensive and so not viable. But he did not give up, and finally succeeded in setting up a plant that generates nine kilowatt of electricity.

Jain set up a gasifier on a piece of land donated by the locals of Berinag. He employs villagers to collect pine needles and bring them to the plant. Villagers get Rs 1,000 for every tonne of needles collected.

The collection of pine needles ensures that the chances of forest fires are minimal. The needles are chopped into fine pieces to increase density, before being fed into the plant. The material is then burnt with limited oxygen supply. This generates producer gas (a mixture of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane) which, after cleaning and cooling, is fed into a generator to produce electricity. One-tenth of the pine needles used as biomass comes out as charcoal - a by-product which can be used in place of wood and kerosene as cooking fuel. It was a small start but enough to attract the attention of some investors.

In September, Avani Bio Energy received $250,000 in funding from Acumen Fund, a non-profit venture fund. The money, Jain says, will help him set up 20 power plants with a capacity of 100 to 150 kilowatt each in the next five years. The company has also received a grant of Rs 24 lakh from automotive giant Mahindra & Mahindra. B. Karthik, Senior General Manager for Corporate Strategy at Mahindra & Mahindra, says Jain's innovation promises to have positive impact on the local ecology as well. "Biological waste is being used to generate power for local people and the process even gives them employment," he adds.

Jain is already busy setting up a 120 kilowatt power plant in Chachret, a small village in Pithoragarh, home to 108 families. The power generated will be enough to light up 10 other villages, apart from Chachret, assuming each family consumes 100 watts of power, mainly for lighting and watching television. The plant will also generate enough cooking fuel for all the families in Chachret for the whole year.

"The power situation in Uttarakhand is not that bad with most villages connected to the grid and getting electric supply for more than 15 hours a day," says Jain. But he has his plan chalked out. The idea is to achieve a return on investment of 17 per cent by generating power at Rs 3 a unit and selling it at Rs 3.75 a unit. The company has signed an agreement to sell 750,000 units of electricity every year from the Chachret plant to Uttarakhand Power Corporation Ltd. The state utility benefits too, as the agreement will help it meet its target of procuring 10 per cent of its electricity from renewable energy sources.

A forest fire close to the Avani campus at Pithoragarh
A forest fire close to the Avani campus at Pithoragarh. Even a tiny spark holds a big risk.
Jain hopes to create more employment opportunities locally - each power plant needs more than 100 collectors of pine needles - apart from training villagers to operate the plants. "My business plan has global application across other pine belts which are prone to forest fires," he adds.

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