Uttarakhand, the ‘Land of Gods’ also known as ‘Dev Bhoomi’ due to its many pilgrimage spots has a very unique eco-system with snow-clad mountains, rivers, lakes, and very diverse flora and fauna. During the British Colonial rule, pine forests were planted in large part of this region, it covers nearly 1,540 sq miles in Uttarakhand which is a major contributing factor to other problems.
Pine needles shed by the trees between March to June cover the hill slopes, which are prone to fire. The fire renders the forest floor inhospitable to the region’s some 1,800 plants used as medicinal herbs, as well as indigenous grasses and broadleaf species such as Himalayan oak. “Indigenous plants and trees are valuable ecologically and socially as they conserve soil and water, thus allowing rich biodiversity of wild edibles and minor forest produce that are used by locals,” says Negi. “The loss of natural wealth translates into much more than a monetary one for our socio-cultural fabric,” he adds.
Rashmi, a graphic designer, and her husband Rajnish Jain, a management consultant with a background in solar irrigation, set up ‘Avani’ at Berinag, in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand in 1999. After seeing forest fires endanger lives and cause destruction year on year, they wanted to do something about it. Rajnish began to explore the idea of harnessing energy from the abundant pine needles.
He realised that it could be a way to fix several problems at once. Reducing the damage from fires, electricity produced from the needles could supplement or replace cooking fuel, which had to be bought in. He hoped it could even help to prevent migration away from the region, as a lack of reliable income from agriculture had forced people from the village to seek more lucrative employment in towns and cities.
An engineer from Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, S Dasappa had started this technology in India back in 1994, in collaborations with a Swiz engineering company, Dasag. They experimented with agricultural waste such as, rice husks, leaves and coconut shells. Dasappa’s design has since been improved further and patented. There are currently about 30 units operating in villages of Karnataka, India.
When Rajnesh made the suggestion to use pine needles, the density of pine needles was argued to not have enough potential to be used as an energy source for gasification. It was met with resistance and rejection from government officials and researchers at the time in 2007.
The idea, however, intrigued the Volkart Foundation, set up by Swiss brothers in 1953 to support NGOs working for poor communities, and they invested in the pine needle experiment. A few trials later, Rajnish struck on the idea of chopping the pine needles into smaller pieces to increase the density before feeding to the gasifier – and it worked. In 2009, he succeeded in setting up the world’s first 9 kWh pine needle power plant. Today, the electricity generated by the small plant is used to power the Avani workshop, while leftover carbon powder produced is bound together with locally made glue and made into briquettes to burn as a sustainable form of cooking fuel. It led to the setting up of Avani Bio Energy, a for-profit social enterprise, in 2011.
But there were hurdles to rolling the project out on a large scale. The mountainous terrain in the region makes it challenging to collect pine needles. With unmotorable slopes, pine needles could only be collected manually. For every 1 kWh generated, 1.5 kilos of pine needles are required. An ambitious 120 kWh plant would require a huge amount of feedstock. So, they thought again and decided instead to install smaller decentralised power plants of 10-25 kWh each, so the volume of pine needles needed could be met with manual collection.
The village women, who Rajnish approached to collect needles, were initially hesitant. But each kilo of needles brought to the plant fetched 2 rupees (3 cents/2 pence), which over 6-7 hours’ work amounted to double the typical minimum daily wage for the state. “It is convenient as I finish my house chores before I go for needle collection,” says Asha Devi a needle collector from Hasyudi village.
There are now seven 25 kWh power plants up and running at different villages, with five of those owned by village-based entrepreneurs, and a further five 10 kWh plants in other villages. They have forty more projects on the horizon. This year, the shoots of the kafal, or bay berry, have been seen emerging in Tripuradevi. The golden Himalayan raspberry and the Himalayan oak are also cropping up. They are a sign of what can happen when something seen as little more than a nuisance and a fire risk is put to good use, rejuvenating the forest floor and bringing hope to the local community.
Read more: Top 10 Online Fitness Experts