Niche market for biomass power

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In the last week of December, the Punjab government added a new dimension to agri-business when it signed a memorandum of understanding for 15MW biomass power plant with Universal Biomass Energy Limited of India.

According to the MoU, the Indian company will be responsible for installation and efficient working of the plant, and relevant technical training to the local staff. It would hand over the plant to the Punjab government after two years of successful operation. The province is now hunting for a location to install the plant, probably somewhere in its southern parts.First of its kind in the public sector, the province wants to set an example for private investors to take the process further and help assign agriculture a role in solving national power crisis. According to initial calculations, out of over 70 million tonnes of agriculture waste that Punjab produces every year, it can spare 11 million tonnes for generation, which, considering the Indian example should be sufficient to produce over 1,200MW. The provincial planners hope that once the plant is up and running, more private investment would flow into the sector and create a win-win business model for agriculture and power sectors. A noble cause indeed!

Given the depth of national power crisis, the planners, no doubt, would have to look for every niche to produce electricity and given the apparent quantity (over 70 million tonnes) and quality (cotton sticks with high BTU content), the agriculture waste shrubs, herbs, rice husk and wheat straws should be able to play a role. In fact some of the plants working in private sector already use biomass as one of the many options to run their plants.

However, the experiment in private sector is not hassle free. The problem that private plants around 40MW in captive generation are facing is that of sustained supply of biomass. Two issues bedevil usage of waste as fuel; all crops, which produce waste, are seasonal (robbing the plant of assured supply) and people in the rural settings are heavily, if not fully dependent on it for cooking and heating.

That is precisely why none of the plants installed in captivity have so far been able to fully operate on biomass alone. Apart from the massive domestic usage, there are few industries (papers, cardboard and rice shellers) that use this waste as raw material or drying.

The sustained supply of bio-mass thus assumes central role and boils down to three main variables: its production is seasonal and geographically uneven, domestic dependence is very heavy and existing industry hogs supplies in the areas of surplus. There has been no study so far that answers these basic questions about steady supply, like, what is total production of waste, how weather affects its production, which industries consumes it, what is its domestic usage, what are the surpluses and where are they located. All these questions need to be answered before private money starts flowing in the biomass generation sector.

Even the provincial planners concede that most of the figures being considered so far are general estimates.

The Indian example, which has become the driving force behind the initiative, also needs some careful considerations. Most of its biomass plants are concentrated in one particular area of the East Punjab (Bathinda). Whether the plantation and its pattern on our side of the border is the same that allowed East Punjab to experiment with biomass generation?

The Indians have not allowed such plants as captive power. All their plants supply power to national grid. Supplying electricity to national grid creates its own complications for new projects. The supply of power has to be sustained round the year and ensure a certain level of efficiency because as the national grid has to plan for the entire year, not for a particular season. It has to create backup in case of any kind of failure. The management factor thus matters in biomass plants more than any other sector because neither generation plant nor national grid can be switched off.

Considering these compulsions, Punjab is considering some kind of zoning for biomass plants and future investment.

But apart from some question marks, Punjab has huge agricultural base and there is no reason why it should not be able to generate power with its leftover biomass.

An added attraction is that it is much cheaper as well. The Indian investors have been able to sell power at Rs6 (around PKR10) per unit to their national grid against up to Rs25 per unit in Pakistan. It is certainly worth looking at the option, especially if it can benefit farmers as well.

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