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Biogas for the rural poor

By Mohsin Babbar

More than 67 per cent of our population lives in rural areas, the majority of whom is poor and worst hit by the ongoing electricity crisis. Of these, 80 per cent does not have piped gas supply as the urbanites do.

While Pakistan has one of the largest unexploited biogas and coal resources in the world, the majority of the rural population uses firewood, biomass fuels and kerosene for cooking, heating and lighting.

The well-off rural populace– around four per cent—uses LPG in their kitchens, while 33 per cent have no other way than to cut trees or purchase firewood. We remain a poor performer in exploiting alternative energy resources of solar, wind, domestic and industrial waste and bio-diesel etc, having made no serious efforts even to realise the full potential of animal dung use.

Based on the livestock availability, there is a potential to energise five million households with blue flame technology or biogas plants. About 56.89 million cattle and buffalos alone can produce about 228 million tonnes of animal dung on a daily basis. An experiment carried out in the Indian state of Gujarat proved that this amount of animal wealth has a potential of producing about 9.12 billion cubic metres of domestic biogas per day. As per latest official estimates, our natural gas production is around 31 billion cubic meters per annum.

A Pakistani study suggests that biogas can generate around 43000MWs of electricity per day against peak demand of 15000MWs in hot summer. Towns not within the piped natural gas network have access to LPG for cooking, although the high cost of this fuel, ranging between Rs70-80 per kg, limits its use to higher and middle income families.

An agriculturist and researcher from Sindh, engineer M.H. Panhwar built the country`s first biogas plant in 1959 at his farms in Tandojam, district Tando Allahyar which still remains in operation.

Apart from such isolated experiences, biogas usage mixed with biogas plants as constructed in the 1980s, is widely considered to be a failure.

Plants constructed in late 1990s proved to be technically sound and are generally functioning well. However, the number of plants has remained restricted to no more than a few hundreds being constructed each year. Programmes depend on government grants and no market mechanism is available for those interested in routine purchases.

The main barriers to large-scale adoption of biogas have been a) lack of an organised approach for scaling up; b) poor performance of previous biogas initiatives based on a variety of reasons; c)expectations of imminent government extension of piped natural gas to different urban and rural areas; d) high upfront investment cost for plants and limited availability of affordable credit due to unattractive market for credit products; e) lack of appreciation of full fertiliser value of bio slurry ; f) non-provision of after sales and services and; g) oversubsidisation, etc.

Domestic biogas, replacing conventional fuels like kerosene, dung cakes, firewood, allows for the conservation of environment. Biogas has the ability to substitute almost complete consumption of firewood in rural households along with promotion of dairy development. The facility is presently limited to households who own, at least, two or more adult animals. Household can manage to run a four cubic meter plant with three healthy buffalos/cows.

Getting rid of heavy smokes arising from firewood and dung cakes, a biogas plant can save more than four ton`s of firewood and 32 litres of kerosene annually. Deforestation can be reduced leading to a better and healthy environment.

Speaking technically, one unit of methane equals to 20 units of carbon dioxide. Thus, using stoves and lamps from biogas will contribute in reducing green house gas emissions. Slurry which comes out of biogas plant is very rich in nitrogen and contains potassium and phosphorus which can help reducing the use of chemical nitrogen fertiliser (urea).

The price of fuel wood ranges between Rs250-300 per 40 kg, while the monthly expenses for using LPG cylinders range between Rs600-2000 at household levels. By installing a biogas plant, a household can save between Rs7200-30,000 per year. Though the biogas technology is still in its infancy here, exploitation of biogas digesters technology can definitely minimise the the energy costs.

Metropolitans, urban and semi-urban settlements where the large livestock establishments are located, can benefit by installing small-scale electricity generation plants. The City District Government Karachi (CDGK) is in the process of installing a biogas-to-electricity generation plant in collaboration with a New Zealand firm, at an estimated cost of $135 million on a three-acre plot. The plant would have the capacity to generate 30-35MW electricity besides generating CNG gas and 15 tonnes of fertiliser per day.

In order to promote biogas technology afresh, the democratic government should announce a new national biogas policy with right incentives after consulting stakeholders including civil society representatives and the users.

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