Firing Up Dreams

01 Dec,2012 05:02 IST

Firing Up Dreams

Pine needles have caught the fancy of one pioneer who has shown that the fire hazard can be harnessed usefully

Chhavi Tyagi

Firing Up Dreams

ROLE MODEL Avani’s 9 kw captive pine power plant at its Berinag HQ

If you are looking for a getaway in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, chances are that you may not take note of Berinag, a sleepy hill station, located about 102 km from Pithoragarh, the eponymous district headquarter town.

But if you are from the renewable energy sector, you may perhaps already be aware of both Berinag and Pithoragarh, thanks to Rajnish Jain and his Avani Bio Energy, which has developed the technology for producing electricity from pine needles, a biomass that is not just abundantly available in the state but also wreaks great devastation there because of its tendency to catch fire easily.

Today, a 9 kilowatt power plant fuelled by pine needles is in operation at the Avani campus at Berinag; the campus is not yet connected to the grid. The plant serves the captive needs of a textile unit run by the organisation, mainly running heat rollers, welding machines and a small mechanical workshop.

“We have applied for a patent on the technology which is pending,” says Jain, 52, and an MBA. In January, Jain will join the ranks of renewable energy entrepreneurs in the country such as Gyanesh Pandey of Husk Power Systems (HPS) when Avani will commission a 120 kilowatt plant connected to the grid in the district. HPS uses rice husk to fire small power plants in north Bihar villages that are not yet connected to the grid (BW tracked the journey of Pandey and HPS so far in its story The Rice Husk Power Experiment in its 14 May 2012 issue). Avani Bio Energy has already signed a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the Uttarakhand Power Corporation (UPCL) at a base price of Rs 3.70 a unit. The PPA stands valid for 20 years.

To start with, Jain and his wife Rashmi did not start Avani, a not-for-profit organisation, with the intention of providing electricity to villages in Pithoragarh. Unlike most of Bihar, villages in Uttarakhand, on average, get 12 hours of electricity from the grid now.

“We realised that pine needles were a big problem in this area as they cause a lot of fires. We stared exploring what we could do, looking at technologies which could harness the destructive energy,” says Jain, adding, “the initial idea was to use it for thermal energy (heating).”

In fact, Avani had begun operations by providing solar power systems (water heaters, lighting, driers) to villages which had very low grid connectivity then. Over the years, as more and more villages got connected to the grid, solar power systems are now used as a supplementary energy source. As of 2011-12, the state had a power deficit of just 305 million units (2.9 per cent) against a requirement of 10,513 million units.

The not-for-profit organisation also set up a textile unit to provide livelihood to women by making contemporary products using their traditional weaving styles. For this purpose, it brought in new colours, dyes, technology and design. The finished products are now marketed in other states of India and even abroad.

Jain’s preoccupation with pine needles came much later. He recalls meeting a couple of people who were trying to find some use for pine needles. “They were making charcoal from pine needles and briquetting it for use as cooking fuel but were using soil as a binder. It wasn’t a very practical solution,” he says.

It was at a conference on renewable energy, where someone spoke about using pine needles as a feedstock for gasifiers, that Jain got his inspiration for his current mission. But that was more than four years ago. It has been an arduous journey since.

The search for a workable solution to run a gasifier on pine needles took him to many more conferences on biomass technologies and research institutes, without much success. Jain recalls asking at a conference attended by representatives of Ankur Scientific, an organisation which had been working on the same lines: “My first question was how to run a gasifier on pine needles after which they asked me to send a sample and promised to call back. After not receiving any word from them for a month I called back. The representative told me that he hadn’t called me as he didn’t want to discourage me,” says Jain. Speaking to the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore had proved equally unproductive.
IN HARM’S WAY: Pine needles are a trigger for forest fires in Uttarakhand

While pine needles have a calorific value as high as the best quality wood, their low density makes it difficult to use them as a source of energy. Determined to come up with a solution, Jain began looking for ways to increase their density. “One day, I sat with a flour grinder and started grinding. After labouring for two hours, I had a kilo of ground pine needles with increased density,” says Jain.

Today, the power plant on the Avani campus uses pine needles in gasifiers after cutting them into fine pieces. It requires 1.2 kg of pine needles to generate one unit of electricity. The Avani innovation has won many business competitions, including Mahindra Rise where it was voted the second best idea. The initial seed capital requirement was met through an investment of Rs 6-7 lakh by Volkart, a Swiss foundation. 

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