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By Amit Saraogi

 Oorja will help off grid rural communities to turn biomass into energy

In rural India, 45 percent of households are off grid and lack access to modern energy. They rely on fossil fuels such as kerosene for household light, firewood for cooking, and diesel generators for irrigation and commercial power. All of these are expensive, and harmful to health and environment due to large amounts of CO2 emission.

Nearly 75 percent of people depend on agriculture for livelihood, and most farmers own less than 2 ha of land. A major cause of poverty in the country is crop failure due to soil degradation resulting from frequent droughts and floods, and further exacerbated by the pernicious effects of climate change. Soil degradation results in decline in crop yields, thereby, threatening food security and adversely impacting incomes of farmers with small holdings.

At the same time, India generates 24 mn tonne of rice husk every year, which is a waste disposal problem for farmers. With no competing use, it is burned by them, resulting in further CO2 emissions, as it can’t be used as fodder for livestock with its high silica content and low digestibility.

Powering Rural Communities

“Each plant will have an installed capacity of 40- 75 kW of energy and will produce up to 70 tonne of biochar per year, serving 4-5 villages within a radius of 2- 5 km. Oorja will provide savings of over 500 tonne of CO2 per village per year”

Oorja is a social enterprise offering a comprehensive technological solution, training and technical assistance to deploy off-grid decentralised biomass-to-energy plants in India. Its mission is to sustainably utilise agricultural waste of rice husk to co-produce reliable and affordable energy, as well as, a natural soil amendment product called biochar, in a decentralised and easy-to-operate, biomass-to-energy plant for off grid communities in rural India. The social enterprise will simultaneously address the challenges of energy poverty, soil fertility and global warming.

Biochar is a soil enhancer that helps restore degraded agricultural soils by improving its water and nutrient retention capacity and sequestering soil contaminants. It stores 80 per cent of organic carbon by mass permanently and safely in the soil, thereby, providing negative carbon emissions.

Our proprietary hybrid technology will be deployed to power rural communities and improve soil fertility in order to increase crop yields for farmers, thus, leveraging a scalable micro franchise business model. Oorja will build, install and maintain these decentralised plants that will be owned/leased and operated by local micro entrepreneurs and women’s self help groups. Our model relies on their local knowledge and existing network and trust with local communities. They will help establish the last mile linkage by providing electricity to households and small businesses as a pay-for-use service and selling biochar to farmers.

Each plant built with locally available components will have an installed capacity of 40 to 75 kW of energy and will produce up to 70 tonne of biochar per year, serving 4 to 5 villages within a radius of 2 to 5 km. Electricity will be transmitted through a microgrid. Oorja will provide regular plant maintenance, repairs, safety inspections and training of staff that run the plant. It will also provide farmers with tillage tools, soil testing and other necessary training in farming techniques to correctly apply biochar.

We will pilot our solution in Uttar Pradesh, a densely populated state of 200 mn inhabitants and the third largest producer of rice, where rice husk is available locally in abundant quantities at little cost. The state has 6,000 off grid villages; given that 80 percent of rural households lack access to electricity and 75 percent depend on agriculture for their livelihood, our market size is 120 mn.

Impact

We expect our disruptive solution to have tangible impact as it tackles social, economic and environmental challenges of education, health, women’s empowerment, food security, livelihoods, poverty alleviation and CO2 emissions simultaneously. Reliable electricity will help increase the time children can study, facilitate use of computers, extend business hours beyond daylight, reduce the time women spend collecting firewood and reduce health hazards caused by indoor pollution from kerosene.

Biochar will help improve soil fertility, thus, resulting in higher agricultural productivity, while farmers will gain new organic farming techniques. It will spur economic development through creation of new jobs, small enterprise development and increase in farmers’ income, which will, in turn, help alleviate poverty. With Oorja power, farmers will be able to lower costs by replacing diesel generators used for irrigation and households, and will typically save Rs 150/month. We will help build climate-resilient communities by displacing fossil-derived fuels and fertilisers and carbon sequestration, and in turn, providing savings of over 500 tonne of CO2 per village per year.

In 10 years’ time, we envision Oorja’s market reach to be 500 biomass-to-energy plants covering more than 2,500 off grid villages. By turning locally available crop by-products into a resource, we expect to provide critical products and services to 2.5 mn rural community members and smallholding farmers. We would also have saved more than 5 mn tonne of CO2 emissions.

Pre Incubation Stage

We are currently in the prototyping phase and a proof of concept is being developed at Imperial College, London, under the supervision of my co founder Clementine Chambon, technical lead and Biofuels Expert from France. We are being pre-incubated at the Climate-KIC Greenhouse in London, the EU’s largest climate entrepreneurship initiative. We’ve also recently won the Echoing Green Climate Fellowship 2015, which provides us $90,000 (Rs 5,92,8341) in seed funding, mentoring and leadership opportunities.

As co founder and CEO of Oorja, I am engaged in business plan development, building the go-to market strategy, fundraising and fostering strategic partnerships with investors, suppliers, government agencies and other stakeholders to deploy our decentralised waste-to-energy technology in agrarian rural communities.

Inspiration behind Oorja

The decision to pursue this project stems in part from my life experiences, the resulting sensitivity to concerns of community development, and the desire to leverage my prior education and diverse work experience in a meaningful pursuit professionally. I grew up alongside a large population living in extreme poverty, without access to basic infrastructure and services of quality education, healthcare, clean energy, safe drinking water, sanitation and livelihood opportunities.

To me it is unacceptable that despite rapid economic growth nearly one-third of the Indian population at the bottom of the pyramid subsists on less than $2 (Rs 132), a day, enduring serious and multiple deprivations. Such widespread economic inequality and social exclusion has often caused me deep distress, ingraining in me a strong sense of socially aware citizenry and a keen desire to be a social change agent.

I also recognise climate change as humankind’s one of many critical challenges. Its effects are seriously threatening livelihoods, food and energy security, health and water supply, and increasing the risks of violent conflicts and political instability. There is inextricable link between global warming and poverty. Thus, to me, climate change is a development and equality issue, as the poorest in the global South are also the most vulnerable, share its burden disproportionately, and are least equipped to withstand its devastating impacts. The scale of the predicament is enormous and there is need for immediate and urgent action. This compels me to find sustainable solutions to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and build climate resilient communities.

 

The author is Co Founder and CEO, Oorja, a social enterprising offering technological solutions, training and assistance to deploy off-grid decentralised biomass-to-energy plants in India


This article appeared in the October 2015 issue of Pure & Eco India

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