Turning Waste into Energy: India’s Biogas Revolution Gains Momentum

Featured & Cover Turning Waste into Energy India's Biogas Revolution Gains Momentum

Rukmini Baburao Kumbhar, a member of a spiritual community in Maharashtra, India, diligently gathers approximately 50kg of fresh cow dung every day. The cow dung serves a unique purpose in their small ashram: it’s utilized to produce biomethane, a sustainable fuel source. Ms. Kumbhar elaborates on their motivation, stating, “Fuel has become extremely expensive. Biogas was a good option. The only requirement was space and cows. We had both.” This initiative has replaced the monthly purchase of 20 liters of natural gas, significantly reducing their dependence on external energy sources.

Ms. Kumbhar’s daily routine involves collecting cow dung, a task she doesn’t find burdensome due to the prevalent agricultural lifestyle in rural India. She remarks, “In most of the rural parts of India, agriculture is the main occupation. So, touching the cow dung is not a big deal.” However, not all guests share her enthusiasm initially, particularly those from urban backgrounds. Ms. Kumbhar acknowledges their initial reluctance but notes that they gradually acclimate to the practice. She assures, “The cows are of good quality, so the cow dung does not smell.”

India’s abundant cattle population generates approximately three million tonnes of cow dung daily, according to NITI Aayog, the government’s policy body. Recognizing the potential of cow dung and agricultural waste, the government aims to harness them for methane production through biogas plants. These facilities employ anaerobic digestion, a process involving the breakdown of organic matter by bacteria in airtight containers, yielding primarily methane and carbon dioxide.

India’s heavy reliance on imported natural gas prompts governmental efforts to promote domestic energy production. Mandates have been issued to blend natural gas with biomethane, starting with 1% by 2025 and escalating to 5% by 2028. Beyond reducing gas imports, biogas production offers environmental benefits by curbing air pollution, particularly from agricultural residue burning, and providing a valuable fertilizer byproduct.

Government support has facilitated the construction of larger biogas facilities across the country. Notably, the largest compressed biogas (CBG) plant in Asia, located in Lehragaga, Punjab, converts paddy straw into biogas. Although the plant currently operates below its capacity due to limited demand, efforts continue to expand its reach. Similarly, in Ludhiana, Punjab, where cow dung disposal poses challenges, a significant portion is diverted to a biogas reactor, mitigating river pollution.

Rajiv Kumar, tasked with cow dung collection in Ludhiana, recalls initial skepticism from farmers regarding the waste’s value. However, with time, cow dung has evolved into a lucrative income source for them, fostering community benefit amidst the challenges of handling the malodorous substance. Baljit Singh, inspired by the burgeoning biogas industry, has built a thriving business by collecting agricultural residue for biogas production, offering economic opportunities for farmers across multiple villages.

Despite these successes, obstacles persist in mainstreaming biogas as a fuel source. Kiran Kumar Kudaravalli from SKG Sangha highlights challenges such as space constraints and odor issues in urban areas. Additionally, affordability remains a concern in impoverished rural regions where free fuel sources are readily available. Overcoming these barriers requires innovative solutions and sustained efforts to promote the adoption of biogas technology.

The utilization of cow dung and agricultural waste for biogas production represents a promising avenue for sustainable energy in India. While significant strides have been made, addressing logistical and economic challenges will be crucial in realizing the full potential of biogas as a mainstream fuel source.

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