Real life hero: MBA burns pine needles light up 1000 homes

In the summer of 2012, a series of forest fires ravaged the woodlands of Uttarakhand causing mass destruction of life and property. According to newspaper reports, 2,808 hectares of forests were burnt down — more than 80 per cent due to the dry and easily inflammable pine needles that helped the fire spread rapidly. A year later, the entire Kumaon region of the state is bristling with hope and excitement. Why? Rajnish Jain’s master plan of using pine needles to generate electricity and charcoal and thereby cleanse the forest floor of the pine cones and reduce chances of forest fires, finally seems underway.

Imaging/ Dharmesh Rathod

Life in the mountains
Jain, who moved to the Pittoragarh district of Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region with his wife in 1997, set up a voluntary organisation Avani two years later, to help the backward and impoverished villagers and the society at large. “When we moved here, most villages in the region were not connected to the power grid. So, solar power was a good option for household lighting. As we wanted people to participate in the programme financially, we realised that increasing per capita income was the only solution to bring affordable lighting to their doorstep, which sent us in the direction of working with textiles, a traditional skill in the area,” says Jain who did his MBA from Lucknow.

Rajnish Jain

It wasn’t long before he realised though, that something had to be done about the menace of the annual forest fires that wrecked havoc in the lives of the villagers. “The recurrent fires spread by pine needles littered during dry summer months were destroying the biodiversity of the area, and affecting the supply of fuel wood, water, fodder, herbs and timber,” says the 52-year-old. The fires incidentally affect the lives of over 12 million people in the central Himalayas alone, which ultimately has an impact on several commodity prices, hurting the pockets of even affluent urban citizens. “This combined with the lack of dependable electricity is seriously inhibiting the development of facilities and economic growth, forcing young men to migrate to earn cash incomes, fragmenting families and burdening urban centres,” Jain elucidates. 

He tells us the story of Basanti Devi, who lives in Balta village with her husband and three children. She walks four miles every day to collect fuel wood, before she can cook a meal for her family. Her family does not have a permanent source of income and their very existence is at stake. “Ditto for the over 10 million others in the central Himalayan region,” says Jain.  While, the fire destroys the life around her, Basanti Devi wonders whether all this energy could be used to meet her family’s energy needs, her woes would come to an end. But she knows that she can’t do this on her own, as pine needles are highly flammable. This is where Jain’s innovative use of the gasifier, could change her life. 

Dry pine needles, which cover the forest in summer, are one of the main causes of the annual forest fires in the Central Himalayan region of Kumaon. Some nights the fire gets so bad that   community members must make fire lines to stop it from spreading. pics courtesy/ Rajnish Jain

Let’s stop the fire
Jain had his lightbulb moment at a renewable energy conference he attended in 2005. Listening to one expert deliberate on alternative sources of energy, it suddenly struck him: why not conserve biodiversity of the forests by using the energy from pine needles to create electricity and power villages.  “I had been exploring the use of pine needles for meeting energy needs such as cooking, but the idea of electricity came when I saw a presentation on gasification,” he recalls.  But the path to the pine trees was ridden with thorns! The biggest obstacle, Jain says was the mindset of people. “Technology providers believed that pine needles could not be used in gasification. Until, of course, we challenged that.”

Villagers clear the forest of dry pine needles

Initially, people dissuaded and even smirked at Jain. Some experts claimed the density of the needles was too low for cones to be gasified (to convert the carbonaceous materials into carbon monoxide, hydrogen and carbon dioxide and create renewable energy). It took Jain a couple of years to realise that the solution was really quite simple. All it took to gasify the pine needles was to crush them and reduce their size before the final process of gasification.

Last year, with funding from Swiss foundation Volkart and technical aid from D-Lab at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), he set up his first nine KW pine needle gasifier system at the Avani campus. Not only does the pilot project generate electricity for 100 people in a small village, but enough charcoal for them to use for cooking as well.

Charcoal briquettes, which can be used for cooking, are a byproduct of the process

Power to the people
Jain reveals that thanks to the pilot project, the forest around Tripuradevi (where the Avani campus is located) has already seen a change in terms of regeneration of native species. Currently Jain and his team are working to set up a gasifier in Chachret village of Pithoragarh district, which will provide power for 1200 families across a cluster of villages in the Kumaon. It should be operational by March this year.

“The real impact of this project will happen in four to five years, but changes will be visible within in one year.” His long term goal is to set up 20 such power stations in the next five years, generating a total power of 2.5 MW, he reveals.  The plan is to set up small-scale power plants that will generate electricity and charcoal in many villages. This will generate employment among the rural youth who will be responsible for operating and maintaining these plants. Over 200 people will be trained for setting up these power plants in a phased manner. “We will also employ the local population for the collection of pine needles before they catch fire,” Jain says, the missionary zeal evident in his voice. 

The sale of electricity to the local power utility will bring necessary revenue, enabling people to earn cash for their other needs apart from buying charcoal for cooking. Use of the by-product to make cooking charcoal will save the local women from the drudgery of collecting fuel. “Savings on carbon emissions will also allow us to sell credits to organisations looking for projects to offset their carbon footprints,” he adds. For this long-term goal to be a success, the organisation needs funding from the government. “The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has a standard scheme of funding such power projects. They have given us a letter of comfort, but the funding comes only after the project is commissioned,”  he explains. 

Solution in sight
According to Jain, the gasification of pine needles to create electricity is adaptable across the world. “Large tracts of similar forests exist in many countries. Roughly 165 million hectares are accessible for power generation, where this technology could foster development and generate 100,000 MW of clean power, while enhancing ecosystem services,” he says.

Using the pine needles of trees spread over 3.5 lakh hectares in Uttarakhand to generate power for several dozen villages is no mean task. But Jain says he is not propagating this over the use of hydro or solar power. “No one option is better than the other. At best, they are complementing each other,” he states. “Hydro power has a limited potential, so does solar and pine power. Pine needles are available only during summer, and need to be collected for round the year use. The whole idea of using pine needles is to conserve biodiversity by removing the major cause of forest fires.”

For now what Jain needs more than anything else is support from both the government as well as from private agencies that are also working to save our bio diversity, preserve our forests and of course those looking to fund projects that lead to alternate sources of energy. With a little help, this could well be the next big thing the world will talk about. Who knows!

Pine to power: How it’s done
The pine needles are crushed and reduced to 10-20 mm, when they are ready for use in the gasifiers. Part of the biomass is combusted in the gasifiers at regulated oxygen supply to increase the temperature of the rest to about 800ºC, at which the biomass volatises and produces gas — a mixture of CO, H2, CH3, which are all combustible gases. These gases are then cleaned for use in internal combustion engines to generate power. The clean energy generated through the gasifier can be used in off and on grid situations, providing electricity to the villagers. Every 1.2 kg of pine needles can generate 1kW of electricity. In the process, 10 per cent pine needles come out as residue, which is high-quality powdery bio-char. Jain’s firm has also developed the process of using a locally available root tuber as a binder for briquetting this charcoal into high-quality fuel briquettes for cooking. One meal for a family of five people can be cooked using 700 gms of these fuel briquettes. 

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