- Compressed Biogas (CBG) plants produce bio-manure as a by-product, a rich source of organic fertiliser.
- A recent parliamentary standing committee report sought the government’s intervention to make bio-manure a source of revenue to make CBG plants financially viable.
- India is keen on 5,000 CBG plants by 2023-24, but till now, only 40 such plants are operational on the ground.
Sanjeev Nagpal owns one of the oldest biogas plants in Chandigarh, where his company converts paddy straw to biogas. He uses this gas to produce power that he sells to the local power distribution company. This is a better alternative to use the agricultural waste and prevent stubble burning which is a common but more polluting way of paddy straw management. During the production of biogas, he also ends up producing bio-manure, a by-product of biogas or its more purified form, compressed biogas (CBG), production.
However, he does not find many takers for the bio-manure, which is, in fact, a good organic fertiliser. It is rich in carbon and methane and a good alternative to chemical fertilisers.
“If you produce biogas or CBG, bio-manure comes as a by-product. This is irrespective of what kind of feedstock you use for CBG production,” Nagpal, the founder of Sampurn Agri Ventures Pvt. Ltd, told Mongabay-India. “All the biogas and CBG plants are struggling to dispose of their bio-manure. These plants are forced to store bio-manure for longer periods, unless they are sold, leading to storage issues in the plant. There is no assured market for their offtake. We try to give it to the farmers at a nominal rate in nearby places who use it in their farms.”
Similar is the tale of Mohan Rao, a CBG producer from Maharashtra’s Kolhapur district who also sells the bio-manure slurry, a by-product from his CBG plant, to farmers nearby, at a rate of Rs. 100 for 5,000 litres of the bio-manure. He, however, said that he had to pursue farmers as they were initially reluctant to shun chemical fertilisers.
Many CBG plant owners in India are now facing the same challenge of disposing of bio-manure and making it a source of revenue.
This challenge was also underlined in a December 2022 report of the parliamentary standing committee in which the Committee evaluated the progress of the Sustainable Alternative Towards Affordable Transportation (SATAT) scheme and made several recommendations.
CBG plants and government aid
In 2018, the union government launched a dedicated scheme, SATAT, to encourage entrepreneurs to set up CBG plants across the country. It aimed at 5,000 such plants by the end of 2023-24. Currently though, India has only 40 CBG plants – less than 1% of the target.
CBG, also referred to as bio-CNG or bio-methane, is produced from biogas after removing impurities like hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide and maintaining more than 90 percent methane. CBG is used as a transport fuel for CNG vehicles and as a cooking gas, besides its utility in other industries.
In its recent report, the parliamentary standing committee highlighted challenges restricting the growth of CBG plants in the countries.
It noted that the National Biofuel Coordination Committee (NBCC), which consists of various ministries’ representatives, is supposed to ensure end-to-end implementation and monitoring of biofuels but has held only one meeting which shows a lack of seriousness.
It also noted that the implementation of CBG (SATAT) has been delayed because multiple agencies are involved in granting clearances and permissions. The standing committee recommended that a Biofuel Infrastructure Fund be developed, along the lines of the Agriculture Infrastructure Fund, to give a push to the sector.
The standing committee also noted that market development assistance for bio-manure was paramount for the growth of CBG plants and recommended the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas consider bio-manure as a revenue stream. The Ministry must support incentivising and giving assured market support to bio-manure, it said. “The CBG plants cannot sustain themselves solely through production and marketing of bio-gas and hence the sale of bio manure will enhance the financial viability of CBG plants,” the report read.
The Committee also asked the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers to revive the now-discontinued scheme under the Swachh Bharat Mission that gives market development assistance for promoting the consumption of city compost as this component could help in marketing the bio-manure produced at the CBG plants.
Other hurdles in the growth of bio-manure
Experts from the sector claimed that using bio-manure is a sustainable option for improving soil health. Aparna Sundaresan, a biomass expert working with the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), told Mongabay-India that bio-manure is produced from pre-treated waste and under anaerobic conditions. This bio-manure is as clean as it comes, unlike compost-produced manure, she said.
“They (biomanures) are much better for the environment than chemical fertilisers since they enrich the soil – which is currently a major concern across the globe – as they are highly carbon-rich. On the other hand, chemical fertilisers leach into the soil, reducing its fertility over time. It reinforces the vicious cycle of using more and more fertilisers,” she added.
However, cost-related issues have halted its growth and adaptability among the farmers, she says.
“Biomanures are much more expensive than the highly subsidised chemical fertilisers available in the market. It is still unclear whether they can compete with the yields provided by chemical fertilisers. Competition from organic farmers might be a reason, but the cost of such manures is a stronger hurdle,” she said.
Sanjeev Nagpal, however, said that the goal of bio-manure is not to reduce cost but to improve soil and increase yield accordingly. “The main aim of using bio-manure is not to reduce costs or replace urea and chemical fertilisers but to improve the soil. After their field trials, even the agricultural universities recommend using a mixture of fertilisers and bio-manure to improve the soil conditions,” he said.
Meanwhile, farmers who have used bio-manure from these CBG plants claim that now bio-manure is also available at a lower cost from these plants, which helped them shift towards organic farming.
Atish Kekare is a 35-year-old sugarcane farmer from Kodoli village in Kolhapur district who is using bio-manure over the last six years and claims to have benefitted from it in terms of improved soil health and better yield of sugarcane crop.
“Initially, I started using 50 percent bio-manure and 50 percent chemical manure. Today I use 90 percent of bio-manure and 10 percent of chemical fertiliser. The changes are visible if I compare my fields with farmers who aggressively use chemical fertilisers. I can see better soil conditions where earthworms are thriving, and my yield has also improved by around 20 percent,” he told Mongabay-India.
He claimed that while the cost of urea comes anywhere between Rs 310-Rs 340 per a bag of 50 kg for the same amount of bio-manure it would come more than this in the market. He however claimed that from the local CBG plant he gets the bio-manure in slurry form in a tanker at Rs 50 per litre and in solid form at Rs 40 per kilogram which helped him to shift to organic farming.
Banner image: Asia’s largest Compressed Biogas (CBG) plant. The plant with a total capacity of 33.23 tons CBG per day has been operationalised at Bhuttal Kalan (Sangrur) in April 2022. Photo by Invest Punjab/Government of Punjab.