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India’s biomass power sector meets target but stares at a stagnant future

India has achieved the target of 10 gigawatts of biomass power before 2022 with the present installed capacity of 10.17 GW of biomass power. The country has also nearly achieved the 5 GW target from small hydropower projects with the present installed capacity of around 4.8 GW. However, unlike the solar and wind power targets, the central government has no plans to scale up the biomass power and cogeneration target for 2030, even as the sector has potential.

Whether India will achieve its solar and wind energy targets – an installed capacity of 100 gigawatts (GW) of solar power and 60 GW of wind power by 2022 – is yet to be seen. But there is one component of its target of an installed capacity of 175 GW of renewable power that has been achieved – biomass power and cogeneration.

In 2015, just before the Paris Climate Summit, India had announced its climate goals, which included a target of 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022 and of that, 15 GW was supposed to come from biomass power, small hydropower and waste-to-energy plants. Six years later, in 2021, the country has already achieved the 10 GW target of biomass power with the present installed capacity of biomass power at 10.17 GW compared to 4.4 GW in 2015.

According to the union ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE), biomass has always been an important energy source for the country as it is “renewable, widely available, carbon-neutral and has the potential to provide significant employment in the rural areas.” More than 70 percent of the country’s population depends on it for its energy needs, according to MNRE. To ensure its cleaner and efficient use, the Indian government had started bagasse-based cogeneration in sugar mills and biomass power generation for grid power generation.

The biomass materials used for power generation include bagasse, rice husk, straw, cotton stalk, coconut shells, soya husk, de-oiled cakes, coffee waste, jute wastes, groundnut shells, sawdust, etc.

Vivek P. Adhia, India country director of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, said, “Biomass-based power generation has been a silent hero, a solid anchor, as India shines on global energy transition pathways crossing 100 GW installed capacity and nearly meeting its NDC Goals of 40 percent non-fossil installed capacity.”

“The country has achieved its 10 GW energy generation target from biomass, largely due to abundant agro-waste availability all year round, proven scalable technologies and easy integration into the mainstream,” Adhia explained to Mongabay-India.

In fact, according to the official data, over the last 10 years, biomass power generation has achieved the yearly targets of new capacity addition several times. Over Rs. 4.6 billion have been spent by the central government in installing biomass power and waste to energy systems, in this past decade.

The sector is facing its own set of issues and future growth. According to the MNRE, non-signing of the power purchase agreements by DISCOMs (power distribution companies), lack of working capital and non-availability of biomass are among the major problems being faced by the sector and hampering the sector in achieving its full potential.

Is there any future for the growth of biomass power in India?
According to a study sponsored by the MNRE, biomass availability in India could translate to a potential of about 28 GW. In addition, about 14 GW additional power could be generated through bagasse-based cogeneration in the country’s 550 sugar mills, if they adopt technically and economically optimal levels of cogeneration for extracting power from the bagasse produced by them.

However, India has not scaled its ambition in the biomass sector, despite its potential and even as India is eyeing more from solar and wind power sectors. From the target of having 100 GW from solar and 60 GW from wind in 2022, India has an ambitious plan of 280 GW of solar and 140 GW from wind to reach 450 GW installed capacity of renewable energy by 2030. The share of biomass power by 2030, however, remains at 10 GW only due to factors such as seasonal fuel availability.

The lack of ambition and support for the sector is also visible in the words of India’s minister for power and new and renewable energy R.K. Singh who recently told the parliament that MNRE has been implementing a scheme to support the promotion of biomass-based cogeneration in sugar mills and other industries. “The scheme was applicable for projects set up across India. The scheme was notified on May 11, 2018 and was valid till March 31, 2021. The proposal for continuation of the scheme beyond March 31, 2021 is under consideration,” Singh told the parliament on August 5.

Under this scheme, the minister said, that central financial assistance at Rs 2.5 million per MW of surplus exportable capacity for bagasse cogeneration projects and Rs. five million per MW of installed capacity for non-bagasse cogeneration projects was being provided to plants utilising biomass like bagasse, agro-based industrial residue, crop residues, wood produced through energy plantations, weeds, wood waste produced in industrial operations, etc.

A sugar mill in Uttar Pradesh generating renewable energy from the waste bagasse left over from sugar processing. Photo by Land Rover Our Planet/Flickr.
A sugar mill in Uttar Pradesh generating renewable energy from the waste bagasse leftover from sugar processing. Photo by Land Rover Our Planet/Flickr.
Earlier this year, a parliamentary panel, while discussing the progress of India’s 175 GW target, had expressed satisfaction at achieving the biomass power target while noting down the problems being faced by the sector and asking for corrective action.

While Adhia said, “With consistent farm yields over a period of time and hence corresponding availability of agro-residue, biomass-based power generation capacities are expected to more or less remain stable unless we see a drastic improvement in technology, efficiencies or yields.”

He, however, noted, “One silver lining for biomass-based power generation could be in the distributed renewable energy space, where it can complement and advance limitations of solar-based solutions to roll-out more favourable productive-use applications on food processing, textiles and other rural SME sectors.”

“This does close in the loop with localised circular economies that encompass both waste availability, power generation and usage within visible boundaries,” he said.

Besides achieving the biomass power target, India has also almost achieved the target of 5 GW of installed capacity from the small hydropower projects. At present (till July 31), the installed capacity is about 4.8 GW. The identified potential in India for power generation from small hydropower projects is about 21.13 GW at 7133 sites. The rest of the target is also expected to be completed by the end of 2022 as many projects are in various stages of implementation.

In its report in March 2021, the parliamentary panel had recommended to the MNRE to “expedite the process of formulation of the Small Hydro Power Scheme on priority basis and get it approved”. “Targets may be set in a manner that would harness the available potential of 21.13 GW power in small hydropower sector in a given time frame,” it had said.

The committee had also discussed another small component of India’s renewable power capacity, waste-to-energy, which is yet to find large-scale acceptance. The MNRE had told the panel that in the previous 4 years, except for one year, the target for setting up waste-to-energy projects was met. The ministry also recounted steps taken to ensure the achievement of waste-to-energy projects. It said it has undertaken a revision of waste-to-energy programme to include support for municipal solid waste based power projects to promote the installation of such plants, development of online portal to accept applications of availing central finance assistance online in order to make procedure easy and regular follow-up with developers for submission of requisite documents.

Adhia said, “Waste-to-energy solutions need to scale down from large scale centralised approaches (as was the case a few years back with municipal solid waste treatment plants) to more localised RWA centric applications, given the distributed nature of urban and town planning promoted under the Smart Cities mission.”

“Technological advancements can make waste and/or sludge-to-energy solutions more attractive when applied from ground-up,” he said.

https://india.mongabay.com/2021/08/indias-biomass-power-sector-meets-target-but-stares-at-a-stagnant-future/

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