Winnowing cumin to separate seeds from the waste which will be used to make biomass pellets.

In Gujarat, one of India’s most industrialised states, factories spew out black smoke and farmers traditionally burn their crop waste to clear the land, thus further polluting the air. 

The founders of Abellon CleanEnergy saw the opportunity to tackle both of these problems, by replacing the coal and lignite used in factories with a fuel made from the farmers’ crop waste.

This is a green fuel. The pellets burn cleanly and well, they’ve got a high calorific value, and there’s no SO2. They’re better for the workers’ health.

Joshy Vargesse, Deputy General Manager, Anil Products, Ahmedabad

Background

The state of Gujarat in North West India is the richest and one of the most industrialised in the country, producing about 16% of India’s industrial output. Major industrial products include cement, petroleum products, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. This industry is heavily dependent on lignite and coal, the most polluting fossil fuel.

The land is relatively flat and fertile, so the state has a strong agricultural base with over half of its land area under crops. Major agricultural products include cotton, groundnuts, dates, sugar cane and milk products. However, the use of groundwater irrigation has contributed to a significant fall in the water table, leading to saltwater intrusion and increased salinity of soils. This, along with erratic rainfall patterns widely attributed to climate change, makes production and therefore incomes less reliable for small farms.

Agricultural residues are shredded at the local collection point.

The founders of Abellon CleanEnergy saw the potential of using local agricultural residues from small farms to substitute for lignite and coal in local industries. They also wanted to help farmers use more sustainable techniques, in order to adapt to the changing pressures on agriculture and improve yields, thus helping to ensure a long term supply base of crop residues.

The organisation

Abellon CleanEnergy is a for-profit company, founded in 2008 by Aditya Handa. Its principal activity is the manufacture and sale of biomass pellets made from crop and sawmill residues. The crop residues are sourced from local farmers, in partnership with Poornakumbha, an NGO established by Abellon in 2008. The key role of Poornakumbha is to help farmers create value from waste, where ‘waste’ refers not just to crop residues but also to under-utilised land and other natural resources.

The programme

Poornakumbha provides agricultural advice and training to more than 8,500 farmers in about 100 panchayats (village committees) within a 50 km radius of the pellet plants. It negotiates agreements for the supply of crop residues, and sets up contracts with the panchayats.

Farmers gather the raw material (including cotton stalks, cumin waste, castor bean husks, mustard stalks and sugar cane bagasse: the mix varies with season) and take it to a Poornakumba collection centre. Here it is shredded and transported in trucks to the pellet plants.

Farmers gather raw material (including cotton stalks).

Abellon currently has two pellet plants that convert loose biomass into small, dense pellets. The plant in Changodar started operation in 2009 and uses mainly crop waste. The plant in Gandhidam started in 2010 and uses 80% sawmill waste from a nearby sawmill, and 20% crop waste.

Abellon sells the pellets under the brand name ‘Pellexo Green’, principally to factories in Ahmedabad and neighbouring industrial areas. They are used as a boiler fuel to replace lignite and sometimes black coal, or else used in combination with them. No boiler modification is required to burn pellets.

The technology

How does it work?

In the pellet plant the loose biomass is sieved to remove debris, and then dried. The dry biomass is compressed between rollers to a temperature that melts the lignin in the woody material. The pressure extrudes the hot material through dies at a controlled rate. As the pressure decreases, the lignin cools and re-solidifies, binding the biomass powder into solid rods, 8mm in diameter. These rods are cut into pellets between 10 and 40mm long. The pellets are cooled and air-dried, then put into bags and sealed.

Pellets are made from crop residues.

The process yields about 500 kg pellets per tonne of raw material, mainly because of moisture removal. About 80 kWh of grid electricity is used in the plant per tonne of pellets produced.

The ash residue from the pellet plant is reclaimed and used for various purposes, including in brick manufacturing and soil improvers.

How much does it cost and how do users pay?

US$1 = INR 45 (Indian Rupees) [April 2011]

Abellon pays farmers INR 500 (US$11) per tonne for the raw material. It sells pellets at around INR 4,100 (US$90) per tonne to its industrial customers, under standard commercial supply contracts.

Pellets cost slightly more than the fuel they replace, but for many users the price difference is offset by their advantages in operation: they are ready-to-use, don’t retain moisture and burn more cleanly and efficiently.

Training and support

Abellon technical advisers talk to boiler operators; check how pellets are being used; and advise on maintenance routines and operational details such as reducing stack temperature to improve efficiency. They can also link users up with potential customers for pellet ash.

We need advice on what to plant and when, because the weather doesn’t tell us any more.

Farmer from meeting

Poornakumba starts work with a group of villages about one year before crop waste collection begins. Its advisers give farmers one-to-one or communal advice on topics such as improving soil fertility; introducing cheap and efficient natural pest control; intercropping (e.g wheat and cotton); and some agroforestry (including planting bamboo and drumstick tree, both of which are drought and salt-resistant). Farmers are also supplied with seedlings. Emphasis is placed on developing a relationship of trust with farmers, listening to their concerns and trying to meet their needs in the most appropriate way.

Poornakumbha has a contract with Anand Agricultural University to train its advisers, who in turn advise and train farmers. Experts from the University also provide direct over-the phone advice to farmers, and receive three or four calls a day.

Benefits

100 panchayats representing about 8,500 farmers have signed long-term agreements to supply Abellon with crop residues, and one sawmill supplies sawdust. The two pellet plants currently in operation have a combined output capacity of 240 tonnes/day. A third plant using crop residue is due to open in 2011, with a capacity of 200 tonnes/day, and a fourth is at the planning stage.

Pellets are sold to 14 industrial customers. By the end of February 2011, a total of over 88,000 tonnes of pellets had been produced, including 65,000 tonnes in 2010 - 2011.

Environmental and social benefits

Pellets replace lignite and coal which are high carbon fuels. A Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) assessment of greenhouse gas emissions found a net saving of 1.70 tonnes CO2e per tonne of pellets used. Thus the 65,000 tonnes of pellets sold in 2010 cut greenhouse gas emissions by 110,000 tonnes/year of CO2e.

We used to burn the waste in the open fields; it was useless to us. Now we collect it and get some money from it. It’s better than before.

Farmer from meeting

There are other environmental and health benefits associated with pellet use. For industrial customers, pellets are much easier to handle than lignite. They are stored cleanly and kept dry in bags, and fed straight into the furnace with no crushing required. This saves time, reduces dust and cuts electricity use. Pellets have a more uniform calorific value and they burn more cleanly, producing less smoke and dust. This results in less nuisance to neighbours and fewer breathing problems for workers. It also helps factories to meet their obligations to control air pollution.

The crop residues used to make pellets are mostly woody and were often previously burned in the field, so pelleting reduces air pollution in agricultural areas as well.

Economic and employment benefits

Selling crop waste helps clear the fields and provides farmers with a small increase in income (around 2%). However, the more significant benefit from working with Abellon is the agricultural advice provided by Poornakumbha. With the increasing salinity and changing weather patterns in Gujarat, farmers cannot rely on their traditional knowledge for what to plant and when, so expert advice is particularly valued.

Abellon has created jobs for 215 people, and Poornakumbha has 20 employees and about 200 part time extension workers.

Poornakumba agricultural advisers hold a meeting with farmers. They provide advice on using sustainable farming practices to increase yields.

Potential for growth and replication

The future potential for biomass pellet production in Gujarat is substantial: the raw material is widely available and cheap; and industrial demand for pellets is strong and growing. At present Abellon does not have sufficient capacity to meet the demand, but this will change when the two additional pellet plants come on stream.

The company is also keen to expand into international markets, both by exporting pellets and setting up operations overseas. It is currently in discussion with companies in Ghana, Italy, Canada and the USA.

Abellon is in the process of applying for carbon finance via the Clean Development Mechanism, as an additional income stream for both the company itself and its customers.

In addition to biomass from crop and timber waste, Abellon is also investigating the potential of biofuel crops, including R&D on algae as a fuel source.