Grassroots Energy’s modular BioCNG plants can solve energy poverty in rural India

Its clean energy solution, BioCNG, will bring down energy costs for minigrids by replacing diesel and creating additional scope for power generation, while reducing dependence on solar batteries. BioCNG also serves as cooking fuel as an alternative to LPG, expanding the clean fuel options for end users.

The growing demand for universal access to energy is powered, in no small measure, by the clean energy revolution sweeping through India. While the government’s rural electrification and LPG distribution programmes have met with considerable success, ensuring sustainability of electricity supply down to the last mile continues to face daunting challenges.

It’s startups like Grassroots Energy (GRE) that have overcome institutional and logistical barriers to further clean energy access in rural India. Based in Bangalore, the firm has been generating BioCNG in the villages of Bihar to feed into the solar minigrids, replacing fossil fuels in the process.

Mateen Abdul, co-founder of GRE, says that the firm’s activities benefit marginal farmers

Four years ago, GRE began operations transforming dairy waste into energy. Now the focus has shifted to energy-rich agri-waste. “We follow a circular economic model, targeting small and marginal farmers who stand to gain the most from our activities. The symbiotic relationship we share with farmers ensures a steady supply of feedstock,” says Mateen Abdul, co-founder of GRE, who has over 15 years of experience in the automotive sector and the energy-startup space.

Low-cost energy in rural India

BioCNG is an interesting fuel because of its multipurpose usage. It can be utilized for cooking, power generation and heating in diverse segments.

GRE’s plug-flow community-level digesters are easy to deploy and low on operating expenses. The material used for the digesters is tough, durable and capable of withstanding extreme temperatures. GRE uses minigrid as an anchor customer to enter a community. The minigrid commits an assured offtake of the clean fuel. The surplus clean fuel is distributed for cooking, an alternate option for LPG. One BioCNG plant can cater to 10–15 solar minigrids. “Each minigrid can serve 70–80 families, which means 1 plant can power nearly 1000 households. BioCNG being a clean and economical substitute of diesel, is instrumental in bringing down the cost of energy generation by at least 20–30%, the benefits of which are then passed onto the consumers, says Mateen. The on demand high calorific fuel reduces the need for storing solar energy in expensive batteries which needs frequent replacements.

GRE’s BioCNG plant in Saran district, Bihar. Each plant can cater to 10–15 solar minigrids

The clean cooking fuel serves about 80–100 households and 15–20 commercial entities. As the clean fuel is locally generated, there are no distribution challenges. BioCNG costs the same as subsidized LPG for households and saves 30% for commercial entities and non-subsidy users.

Thriving on innovations

However, since biogas production is closely dependent on atmospheric temperature, the harsh winter of North India sees a drastic fall in output. To circumvent this problem, GRE uses greenhouse covering material on top of the digesters. Additionally, the startup traps the waste heat from on-site generators and redirects it to the digesters.

GRE’s other process innovation involves a unique set of microbes that decomposes agricultural waste in such a way that it can be used in the firm’s modular and ready-to-deploy digesters. The firm, arguably, uses the world’s smallest biogas enrichment system, having repurposed IIT-B’s water-cooling technology to remove carbon dioxide and oxygen from the gas.

The wide usage of BioCNG is constrained by distributed generation, transportation and lack of low-cost debt. This is where GRE’s patent pending Distributed Biomethane technology and Adsorption storage technology comes into play. “The firm uses an engineered material that soaks up gas three times more than a standard cylinder at the same pressure widely used for bottling,” says Mateen.

Mateen claims that the quality of BioCNG produced by his startup is comparable to LPG and regular CNG, except for the fact that the renewable option is a cleaner and lower-carbon fuel. GRE is lining up investments to deploy 200 plants over the next three years in Bihar and UP.

Awards and acknowledgements

GRE won the Energy Access Booster award in 2020 for developing “affordable biogas production and treatment systems” and distributing BioCNG bottles for cooking requirements. The Mission Innovation Net-Zero Compatible Innovations Framework, a global platform that assesses the impact of clean energy innovations, has ascertained the high environmental impact GRE’s technology can potentially have by 2030. GRE’s Distributed Biomethane technology and Adsorption storage has been awarded and labelled as one of the most energy efficient solutions in the world by Solar Impulse, a European Foundation providing a platform for clean tech innovators, corporations and investors.

Creating jobs, fighting climate crisis

The startup’s waste-to-energy business aims at solving energy poverty and creating employment in rural India. Each of their biogas installations will create 8–10 jobs across the value chain, thus generating livelihood opportunities for locals. By removing waste from the farms, the firm is promoting hygiene and helping to keep diseases at bay. GRE supplies nutrients-rich slurry to these farmers which improves crop yield and regenerates soil while saving costs on chemical fertilizers. Saving on chemical fertilizers has an additional benefit of carbon offset, the fertilizer industry being one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions.

Scaling up

“GRE is in discussions with multiple mini grid operators who are considering alternatives to diesel usage and additional generation sources at affordable prices. Wherever the mini grids are concentrated, we will install BioCNG plants to serve the cluster. The surplus gas will be sold in the community,” says Mateen.

Our partnership with mini grid operators will help to provide clean energy and drive down the cost for end consumers, he adds.

GRE supplies nutrients-rich slurry to farmers which improves crop yield while saving costs on chemical fertilizers

GRE is contributing significantly to help India meet its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Sustainable energy is one of the 17 goals that comprise the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Role of Social Alpha

Grassroots Energy has been a part of Social Alpha’s second energy cohort. “Startups need industry connections to commercialise their technologies to accelerate wider deployment. Social Alpha provides the platform to demonstrate and explore synergies for scale-up with Industry partners. Social Alpha and its Clean Energy International Incubation Centre’s support for energy startups is unparalleled in India,” says Mateen.

“We decided to support GRE looking at the multi-layered impact potential of their solution on the agriculture value chain and rural energy access, as well as on the climate, which fits right into Social Alpha’s impact vision,” says Smita Rakesh, Portfolio Director, Clean Energy and Climate Action, Social Alpha. Apart from innovation, GRE’s USP also lies in their comprehensive approach, designed to support end-to-end operations of the biogas value chain, ensuring sustainability of the plants in the longer run, she says. “Social Alpha has engaged with partner Tata Power to provide GRE opportunities to demonstrate their part as a supplementary energy generation solution for Tata Power’s mini-grids plants. SA is also exploring opportunities to extend its platform for GRE to scale up their operations in Bihar and UP. We are also working with GRE on unlocking blended finance (grants, debt, equity as well as climate finance) by demonstrating financial viability through their business model,” says Smita.