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Pellets & Solid Fuels

India set to become the world’s largest pellet market?

India set to become the world’s largest pellet market?
Despite a strong focus on fossil fuels, India has set ambitious goals for bioenergy.

India's growing economy demands substantial energy resources. Despite a strong focus on fossil fuels, the country has set ambitious goals for bioenergy. Notably, it has made strides in liquid biofuels and compressed biogas, covering nearly a fifth of its transport fuel needs today. Could India soon lead the world in bioenergy production and consumption?

In early February 2024, India hosted the Energy Week in Goa. Attended by the World Bioenergy Association (WBA), the event drew over 35,000 participants and was inaugurated by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi, emphasizing the nation’s quest for energy solutions.

Cofiring mandate

A driving force for solid biomass use is the cofiring mandate issued by the Ministry of Power in 2021. This mandate coming into force in the FY 2024-25 requires thermal power plants to cofire with 5 percent biomass. In 2023 the mandate was modified to increase to 7 percent biomass cofiring in the FY 2025-26.

Taking into account that thermal power plants in India are currently using approximately 700 million tonnes of coal per year the enormity of the challenge is apparent. Compliance with the mandate would make India the single largest producer and user of biomass for power generation worldwide.

The 2024 Argus Biomass Industry Lifetime Achievement Award winner Dr Christian Rakos, President of the World Bioenergy Association (WBA).

Translated into biomass pellets, India would require around 50 million tonnes of pellets to fulfill the targets.

The reality of solid biomass use in India is very different from the ambitious plans. The Ministry has published current numbers of cofiring that amount to no more than 165,000 tonnes of biomass that have been cofired in total by May 2023.

While 46 thermal power plants have been doing their first trials of cofiring, only three plants have been using more than 10,000 tonnes. Many have reported volumes of tested biomass pellets below 100 tonnes. A 1.2 GW power plant reported cofiring five tonnes of biomass, suggesting a certain lack of ambition.

At a dinner hosted by the World Bioenergy Association during the India Energy Week, the general manager of a technology multinational disclosed that the company has established a total of 27 pellet mills in India with a combined annual production capacity of 500,000 tonnes – about 0.01 percent of 50 million tonnes needed for the mandate.

All are producing wood pellets and they were established in the woodworking region of India, where mainly imported sawlogs are being processed in around 6,000 sawmills.

The source also reported that major new projects were under negotiation with production capacities of over 1 million tonnes annually based on bamboo as a raw material. The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) reported a national daily pellet production capacity of 7,000 tonnes for 2022-23, which means a national annual production capacity of slightly over 2 million tonnes.

A logistical challenge

The driving motivation behind biomass cofiring in India is related to the tremendous air pollution caused by straw burning in the fields. The biomass potential that would be available for energy use is well beyond 200 million tonnes of various sorts of residues.

Stubble burning is a serious environmental and health issue and a waste of resources.

The specific challenge of utilizing these resources is the logistics. As soon as farmers have harvested their fields, they are in a hurry to put seeds into the ground for the next harvest. This leaves little time for collecting straw and burning it in the fields immediately solves the problem of getting rid of the straw.

Significant investments would be necessary, to establish capacities for baling and collecting the residues and storing them in a dry place.

At the same time power plant operators want to keep the price of biomass as low as possible and a model contract for long-term biomass supply issued by the Ministry of Power suggests a pellet price of around EUR 100 per tonne ex-works, which can be achieved only by hardly paying anything for the raw material.

The intention seems to be to force farmers by legal requirements to refrain from straw burning and deliver the straw at almost no cost, rather than creating an economic incentive to do so. It remains to be seen, if this approach will be successful.

Clean green cooking with biomass pellets

The domestic use of biomass in India as fuel for cooking is still predominant. Cooking over an open fire is widely used with catastrophic health implications for women and children, especially if cooking takes place indoors during the cooler periods of the year.

A small-scale biomass pelletizer at work in India.

Atul Joshi, Director at Earthfith, an Indian producer of improved cookstoves, confirmed that pellet cooking would by far be the best way to improve the cooking situation.

However, the century-old habit of collecting firewood and any rubbish that can be found for cooking fuel is very hard to overcome. Hence, he sells only improved firewood stoves and remains skeptical that pellet cooking will become more successful if pellets become widely available due to ramping up biomass cofiring.

Ashwin Patil, director of Biofuels Junction PVT Ltd reported that his company is successfully producing pellets and briquettes and offering energy service contracts to industries needing process steam.

While the client invests in the boiler, Biofuels Junction supplies it with fuel and remains responsible for boiler operation and maintenance. Industries are willing to pay more for the fuel than power plants, especially if pellets replace oil or gas.

International opportunity

It should be said that the Government of India is aware of the current huge gap between the ambition and reality of solid biomass use in India.

World Bioenergy Association has offered the Ministry of Power and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energies to establish close cooperation to make the experiences gained during the expansion of the European pellet sector available for developing biomass supply chains in India.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) is currently being negotiated and could become the foundation of a fruitful international cooperation creating significant economic opportunities for the wider pellet industry value chain.

An upcoming WBA webinar “Solutions for reducing India’s coal use in power today – The role of biomass” will convene policymakers and industries including biomass producers, traders, and utilities to share experiences on biomass co-firing on May 23, 2024.

This article was first published in Bioenergy International no. 2-2024. Note that as a magazine subscriber, you gain access to the e-magazine and articles like this before the print edition reaches your desk!

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