Can biogas spark a revolution on India's farms?
One farmer in India shows how turning the gases emitted by cow dung can become a clean, renewable fuel that saves him money, increases his productivity, and boosts his profits.
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The affordability and reliability of biogas means Patel finally has the freedom to make the most of his land. In 2011 he took out a bank loan of 180,000 rupees ($3,330) to install a drip irrigation system, for which the government paid 50 percent. Now the half of his farm that is on the drip system – using a network of narrow pipes to deliver water directly to the base of individual plants – takes just an hour to water.Skip to next paragraph
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With water at his beck and call, Patel has ventured into high-value cash crops like tomatoes, watermelon, onions, and flowers. Today he can earn 200,000 rupees ($3,700) from the same three hectares that five years ago, without the biogas plant, fetched him just a quarter of that.
“I can repay the bank loan in 18 months, where earlier it would have taken me five long years to do so,” he says.
It used to be that his main concern was to grow enough grain to feed his family of six and his two farm hands. Now he has plenty to spare and enough cash to buy other food he needs.
And the biogas isn't the only money producer. The fermentation process that produces the gas also leaves behind a fertilizer that Patel can use and sell. He goes through 20 tractor loads of organic compost each season. For most farmers, that compost would cost 1,000 rupees ($19) per load. For Patel, it's free.
While Patel enjoys the higher income and savings his biogas plant generates, it's the environmental benefits that have activists and policymakers encouraging the use of biogas as an energy source in the developing world. Not only does it dispense with the need for fossil fuels and petroleum-based chemical fertilizers, it also uses up methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
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Biomass such as firewood, charcoal, animal dung, and agricultural residue are the main energy resource for the poor in the developing world, making up 17 percent of total energy used, compared to 3 percent in the developed world, according to 2007 figures from the International Energy Agency. But biomass is mostly used for cooking, with few farmers harnessing its power for irrigation.
“Parshottambhai Patel shows the way to save on irrigation costs and be environmentally benign too,” says Tushaar Shah, who leads the IWMI-TATA Water Policy Research Program, a partnership between the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), based in Colombo, Sir Lanka, and the grant foundation the Sir Ratan Tata Trust.
Patel says farmers from faraway districts have come to see his biogas plant, with the aim of replicating it back home. He hopes more of his fellow villagers will follow him in his move to biogas – and take their farms’ futures into their own hands.
• Manipadma Jena is an environmental journalist based in India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.