Pakistan's Punjab eyes biogas bonanza amid power crisis

by Aamir Saeed | @AamirSaeed_ | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 1 October 2013 09:34 GMT

Baz Khan, a farmer in the Chakwal district of Pakistan's Punjab province, stands by his biogas plant. TRF/Aamir Saeed

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Provincial government is providing subsidies to help farmers and rural families equip their homes with small-scale biogas plants

ISLAMABAD (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As Pakistan struggles with a growing energy crisis, the authorities in Punjab province are planning to exploit biogas as an alternative energy source to overcome power shortages.

Hundreds of families in villages and remote areas of the eastern province have set up small-scale biogas plants with government support, providing fuel for use in their kitchens.

Baz Khan, a 46-year-old farmer in Chakwal district, has installed a 4 cubic-metre biogas plant to cater for the energy needs of his eight-member family. “It used to take a lot of time and money to collect wood from the forest for cooking in our kitchen before we put in the biogas plant,” said Khan, who keeps more than two dozen cattle. “Biogas has made my family’s life easy and comfortable.”

As his farm is located outside the village, Khan’s house is not connected to the national grid. He is planning to install a bigger biogas plant with financial assistance from the Punjab government, to provide power for running other equipment. “I can also set up a tube well to irrigate my land if the biogas helps me run a small engine,” he said.

The Punjab government converted some 50 tube wells from diesel to biogas last year in a successful experiment. Around 1,500 family-size biogas plants were also set up in rural areas through a balloting process, with the government paying 30 percent of the cost of each plant.

Punjab’s Agriculture Department now intends to convert 50,000 tube wells to biogas in the next three years. “Each farmer who runs a tube-well engine of 16 horsepower to irrigate his land can save around $3,000 and 2.88 tonnes of fuel annually if the engine is converted to biogas,” said Punjab agriculture secretary Ijaz Munir.

Biogas is generated by putting biomass - including animal or human faeces, and organic waste from forestry, industry, hospitals or hotels - into a digester. Under anaerobic conditions, micro-organisms convert the biomass into methane gas, which can be used to heat cooking stoves, drive engines or produce electricity.

PLENTIFUL DUNG SUPPLY

Iftikhar Ahmad Randhawa, chief power engineer for the Punjab Power Development Board, said the province has huge potential to generate biogas. The livestock census of 2006-07 showed there were 34.5 million animals in Punjab. Their daily dung amounts to an average of 690 million kilogrammes, he said.

“Each house with two cows can be provided with a biogas digester that would give cooking gas for a family of four to five people,” he said.

A small-size digester that can produce 2 to 15 cubic metres of gas per day costs around $650. The Pakistan Council of Renewable Energy Technologies is providing $200 as a subsidy to help families in Punjab install the plants.

Even if Punjab collects only half of its animal dung, it could produce 17.25 million cubic metres of gas per day through the installation of 5 million family-size biogas plants, Randhawa said. “This can meet the cooking needs of around 30 million people,” he added.

Alternatively, 27,600 megawatt-hours of electricity could be generated from this gas each day by installing small or medium-sized power plants, he said. “At the moment, the biogas is being used at domestic level only, but we are planning to use it on a commercial and industrial level as well,” he explained.

The renewable energy source could help Punjab eliminate load-shedding if village biogas power generation plants were installed and people trained to make productive use of them, experts say.

Aamir Anjum, an engineering consultant for a private power company, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that a village with 1,000 cows could easily generate 200 kilowatts, which would be sufficient to meet its electricity needs.

Poultry farms and rice, vegetable oil and paper mills could be disconnected from the national grid as they could provide all their own power from their waste, Anjum said. “If the government fully exploits all the potential available for biogas, it can meet around 13 percent of the country’s total energy consumption,” he added.

The government could also generate millions of dollars in revenue each year if biogas were stored and sold in bottles and cylinders, as in many other countries, Anjum said.

NATURAL GAS DEPLETING

Biogas has become a popular source of energy in numerous developed and developing economies, including the United States, Germany, Austria, Britain, China, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Compressed biogas is also being used to run vehicles in Switzerland and Sweden.

Experts say Pakistan should focus on expanding its production of biogas urgently because its natural gas reserves are fast depleting.

Arshad H. Abbasi, an adviser on water and energy at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, an independent research organisation in Islamabad, said Pakistan is in dire need of biogas as an alternative energy source.

Pakistan’s total of 63 trillion cubic feet of explored natural gas reserves now stands at only 21 trillion cubic feet, he noted. “The available natural gas reserves are likely to end in the next 10 to 12 years if we can’t find alternative energy resources to meet growing demand,” he said.

Abbasi said the country is facing worse gas shortages because of a large gap between supply and demand. “The total production of natural gas is 4.24 billion cubic feet (per year), while demand varies between 6 to 6.75 billion cubic feet,” he said.

Pakistan lacks a federal-level policy on biogas, meaning little headway can be expected in the next couple of years, despite the initiative in Punjab, Abbasi said.

Pakistan has nearly 8,000 biogas plants, while Bangladesh, a smaller and less-resourced country, is home to more than 2.4 million such plants, he emphasised.

Aamir Saeed is a journalist based in Islamabad. He can be reached at aamirsaeed@ymail.com

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