Monday, April 11, 2011

Bioenergy and Sustainable Living in Rural Karnataka

A big part of my focus back in Appalachia has been sustainable distributed bioenergy systems, and I've been hoping to make that a focus of my time in India as well. I was finally able to make a solid contact with BERI (BioEnergy for Rural India), and after leaving Gudalur I was on my way to the Tumkur district of Karnataka, about a 3 hour bus ride away from the software megacity of Bangalore. BERI has received some big grants from the UN, the state of Karnataka, and a few others to show what a model distributed renewable energy system could look like for the rural parts of India, and I wanted to see how this framework could be relevant for back home. I could tell from their website that the technology (gasification of locally harvested wood) and scale (0.25-1MW) was roughly inline with my past research, and soon I was being greeted at the bus stand by a fellow who would give me a ride on the back of a motorbike to the area where I'd be staying for a few days.

This was the first of what has now become a trend of being treated to tours of rural sustainability projects on the backs of motorbikes through windy roads that range from falling apart pavement, dirt roads, or foot/animal paths. Needless to say it is a very awesome way to travel and the photo opportunities are endless. I did in fact get to see a few biomass gasification plants which were way lower-tech than the places I saw in Austria but also much more affordable and better suited to local conditions and feedstocks. Also this technology results in about 10-15% leftover biochar as a co-product after gasification, which to me is a big advantage over the Austrian model that completely gasifies the biomass and therefore release all of the CO2 to the atmosphere. The biochar here was apparently being used by local blacksmiths, but it could just as easily be used for improving agricultural land and sequestering carbon.

The BERI project had a few other facets that I wasn't initially aware of and which definitely worthwhile components of an overall rural sustainability model. First, several dozen bore wells have been drilled and connected to the power supplied by these plants; the water is then pumped into holding tanks that supply drip irrigation lines for small-scale organic farming. In a country where rainfall only really occurs from June-September, this has enabled very poor villagers to produce nutritious vegetables for their families and local markets at times that wouldn't have been possible before. Second, several multi-family cooperatively run biogas digesters have been established, wherein the families put cow manure into the system and then get clean gas for cooking (displacing traditional indoor wood-fired cooking which is terrible for respiratory health and depletes nearby forests) and organic fertilizer for their fields. Finally, many of these villages now have vermicomposting systems and composting toilets to better process waste and give nutrients back to the lands that they depend on for survival.

I definitely appreciated the time they took to show me around, and all of this without charging me a single rupee. But for the sake of balance I should include some critique. The main problem I saw was that the feedstock for the bioenergy plants is coming from non-native eucalyptus and acacia trees. They're growing short-rotation "energy forests" on land which is too rocky, uneven, or distant from villages to b used for farming, which in theory can be a good model if using native and ideally multipurpose trees. Also, I have to wonder how replicable this model would be without inputs from agencies like the UN and state government. But the counterpoint to that would be the massive expenditures the Indian government is already making on huge centralized coal and nuclear fired power plants, and in my opinion it would be much more cost-effective, reliable, and environmentally friendly to have a network of small-scale renewable energy power plants than to rely on megalithic installations that displace thousands of people and put this rapidly developing country on a fast track to ecological destruction and which provide only about 2-4 hours of electricity per day to the rural poor. In short I think this could be an excellent model for the entire country if the feedstock was from native species and if the government had the best interest of the people at heart, which I'm pretty sure it doesn't.

A friend in Wales had told me about a place called Navadarshanam, just a few kilometers past the Karnataka border into Tamil Nadu near Bangalore. They had a very nice website and I decided to pay them a visit as it was apparently an "intentional community" dedicated to sustainable living and Ghandian (as in the Ghandi that led the movement for independence from the British) philosophy and spirituality. I only spent a couple of days there, and while it wasn't exactly a groundbreaking experience, they did have a nice collection of good ideas. They had some solar panels, a wind turbine, a biogas digester, a couple acres of organic gardens, buildings mostly made from compressed earth blocks (CEBs), and a value-added food processing center that employed about 35 local villagers. The latter two were of the most interest to me as I had never seen these CEB buildings before and they were very, very nice. Cool and comfortable in the heat of the afternoon sun, and they had an attractive and conventional appearance (as opposed to many of the hobbit-looking natural buildings found in the US). There was one building dedicated solely to making chutneys, pickles, peanut butter, jams, and other nice things from organic and mostly local ingredients, and it ran on a cooperative management model employing mostly women from nearby villages.

I ended up my time in Karnataka by meeting with the head gasification scientist at the Indian Institute of Science, a world-renowned technology development university. I still don't know why top guys like him are willing to meet with my uncredentialed self. As I've been thinking about getting projects going in Appalachia, I'm always on the lookout for potential partners and I was mainly interested to make a connection on the chance that it might make sense to work with these folks to do a pilot installation back home in the case that I can't find anyone with suitable expertise or in the right price range in the US. Of course there's the logic that it's always better to use domestic resources than outsourcing, but to be honest I think there's a good chance that US companies will be far too expensive for an initial small-scale installation and the Indian technology seemed much more simple and adjustable than the highly automated systems typically found in Western countries.

Next stop will be Auroville, arguably one of the weirdest places in India and somewhere I definitely wouldn't go if not for its reputation for innovative renewable energy, organic farming, and reforestation projects.

PS for more pictures click here


  1. Hi all ,Nice blog .This summer im planing to visit bandipur resorts and
    br hills resort for wildlife safari its very near to bangalore too

  2. This winter planing to spend my weekends at bandipur resorts hope il have a good weekend.