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Biomass, the forgotten option

According to reports, India is a biomass-rich country. It is said that availability of agro residues is to the tune of around 600-700 million tonnes. Traditionally, a lot of biomass is used in the country although in a very inefficient manner. Considering the appropriateness of biomass as an energy source, biomass energy was one of the cornerstones of India’s renewable energy programme.

Starting with the improved stoves, the country moved on to modern forms of biomass energy for energising irrigation pumpsets and then to rural electrification. TERI pioneered the development of technologies that use biomass for heat applications in small, micro, and rural enterprises; such enterprises occupy an important place in the country’s economy. It is evident that the range of biomass energy solutions is very wide, from small cook stoves to MW scale power plants to industrial process heating plants.

But progressively, as we moved up the ladder, first focussing on large-scale wind energy deployment and thereafter on solar energy through the Jawaharlal National Solar Mission, biomass energy was relegated to the background.

This is surprising because biomass-based energy solutions have the potential to become focal points of overall socio-economic development. This is an aspect that differentiates biomass-based solutions from other technological solutions. These systems are also used for the socio-economic uplift of the villages with livelihood activities woven around them.

There are a few other factors that strengthen the case for biomass energy. First, energy from biomass is cost-effective. Secondly, as far as electricity generation is concerned, biomass power provides ‘firm’ or non-intermittent electricity, just like conventional grid electricity. From the perspective of utilities, it can be scheduled easily for advance planning. And third, technologies for converting biomass into energy are indigenous and there is no import dependency. In fact, properly supported, this indigenous industry can be easily transformed into an export hub for other developing countries. And finally, it can be utilised to meet the energy needs of different strata of our economy. Recent developments such as biomass (biomass-solar hybrid) decentralised cold storage-cum-power generation systems are examples of this.

The need of the hour, thus, is to accord priority to biomass energy, similar to that given to wind and solar energy. There is no reason why incentives and tariffs similar to that given to solar and wind, cannot be provided to biomass energy. Moreover, for a long time this nationally important resource is languishing in terms of R&D and innovation.

To reap the full benefits of biomass energy, there is an urgent need to addressing challenges in terms of providing appropriate and convenient technological solutions and organising the biomass supply chain in a sustainable fashion.

The latter becomes even more daunting if we consider the very nature of availability of biomass, especially agro-residues, which are distributed widely and unevenly. It is time a holistic national biomass energy mission, with ambitious goals and appropriate means, is launched.

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