Our Perspectives


With improvements, biomass can contribute further to combatting climate change

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As demand for biomass energy continues to increase, the challenge is to help these plants supply and use the biomass in a sustainable fashion. Our work at UNDP focuses on doing exactly that.

“Biomass” is any organic material that is derived from plants, animals or agricultural waste. Across the world, biomass play a key role in meeting daily energy demands. In fact, 80 percent of all heating is powered by biomass.

Here in India, 66 percent of the population, some 815 million people, rely on traditional biomass for cooking. Since 2000, the number of biomass-fuelled power plants has mushroomed throughout Indian states.

Although practices vary from one country to another, the open burning of crop residues is common among farmers in many Asian countries. This practice is used to prepare the field for the next crop, remove residues, control weeds and release nutrients for the next crop cycle.

But when biomass residue is burned, it can release harmful gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen, methane (CH4), non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC), and carbon monoxide, among others.

What many people don’t know is that biomass residues can also be used to generate electricity and heating, with farmers earning additional revenue by selling their residues to biomass power plants.

Now, power plants often contribute significantly to air, water and soil pollution via particulate matter and other pollutants. Even biomass-fuelled power plants release particulate matter. Yet the energy that they create is crucial to India’s development, and the challenge is to find a way for them to both increase efficiency while reducing unwarranted emissions. Stringent environmental standards already exist to force power plant developers to adapt advanced pollution control technologies, but we’ve found that biomass residues could help to decrease emissions even further.

We have focused on increasing power plants’ collection, processing, transport, and storage of field-based residue from crops (such as stalks, branches and straw) and process-based residues (such as sugar cane scraps and leaves). The benefits are twofold: the biomass collected helps to increase the power plants’ efficiency while also generating new jobs for local communities, as well as generating additional income for farmers via the sale of crop residues.

At the Malwa Power Private Limited (MPPL) in Mukstar, Mr. B.S. Jangra, Head of the Biomass Division, said that our efforts to improve the collection, proper storage, and increased efficiency of biomasses used by the plant helped MPPL realize savings of about 10 percent of the biomass it used. This amounts to a savings of INR 1.5 crores (roughly US $250,000) per year.

The increased collection of residues from the field will also reduce open field burning of residues, and thereby reduce air pollution. The monetary savings will help lower the cost of electricity generation and increase profitability of biomass power plants.

With our support, the Universal Biomass Energy plant in Punjab generated jobs for about 1,000 people in supply and processing and for another 200 people who work directly in the plant. Likewise, MPPL has created jobs for 400 people per collection centre—including farmers, workers, dry leaf collection families and transporters. An additional 10,000 jobs were created by 25 biomass collection centres that supply biomass residues to MPPL. Among those employed, about 40% are women.

Challenges remain. The machinery required to collect, compact, bale and transport field-based biomass residues are yet to be commercialized in India. That means it’s too expensive to be economical for most farmers.

And biomass power developers are now faced with another challenge: a race between the increasing costs of biomass fuel and the cost of electricity generation. That’s why our project is currently working with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy and State Electricity Regulatory Commissions to revise the feed-in-tariff for electricity generation from biomass power plants.

Even with so many challenges still ahead, projects like ours are already making it clear that addressing India’s development needs does not have to be at odds with efforts to reduce emissions, and that sustainable development practices can lead to serious benefits for companies and communities alike.  

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