Niche market for biomass power
AHMAD FRAZ KHAN
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
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
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
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
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
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.