Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
September 16, 2020 ·  5 min read

The Himalayan invention powered by pine needles

So much of green energy is all about using the resources that are abundant locally. Most often people think of things like wind, water, and solar power. This new Himalayan invention, however, is using something far less “conventional”: Pine needles.

Himalayan Invention Uses Pine Needles for Power

A large portion of the Indian state of Uttarakhand, aka Dev Bhoomi or “Land of Gods”, is made up of chir pine forests. These forests were planted by British colonists and were used later on by governments for resin and timber. All-told, these forests cover almost 400,000 hectares of land (1,540 square miles). (1)

As with most foreign things brought into a new ecosystem by humans, this has caused some problems. As the trees shed their pine needles, which yield 1.3 million tonnes annually, they completely cover the forest floor in highly flammable kindling. (1)

The forest fires that ensue from these needles cause extreme damage to the forest floor and the natural ecosystem. The charred ground leftover is not conducive to the indigenous grasses and broadleaf oak trees, as well as the 1,800 plants used as medicinal herbs. (1)

“Indigenous plants and trees are valuable ecologically and socially as they conserve soil and water, thus allowing rich biodiversity of wild edibles and minor forest produce that are used by locals,” says Negi, head of the Centre for Socioeconomic Development at the GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment. “The loss of natural wealth translates into much more than a monetary one for our socio-cultural fabric.” (1)

A Green Energy Solution

Rajnish Jain, a management consultant who has a background in solar irrigation, says the pine needles could be used to solve several problems including (1):

  •  Forest fires
  • A reliable source of green energy
  • Replace cooking fuel, which has to be brought into the region
  • Provide a reliable income from agriculture to prevent people from moving away in search of work.

In 1999, he and his wife Rashmi set up Avani at Berinag and began researching how to use pine needles for biomass gasification. (1)

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What is Biomass Gasification?

Biomass gasification is a technology that uses heat, steam, and oxygen to convert biomass into hydrogen and other products for energy without using combustion. Biomass refers to a renewable organic resource, in this case, pine needles. (2)

If coupled with carbon capture, utilization, and storage, this can be a carbon net-zero form of energy, because the growing of biomass actively removes carbon from the atmosphere. (2)

The History of Biomass Gasification in India

Rajnish and Rashmi aren’t the first to experiment with this type of energy production in India. In 1994, engineers from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore began working with Swiss engineering company Dasag to improve existing biomass gasifiers. (1)

In their experiments, the biomass they used was agricultural waste like coconut shells, leaves, and rice husks.

The biomass was heated to over 1,000 degrees celsius in an oxygen-reduced environment. (1) This causes it to give off various gases, including, carbon monoxide, methane, and hydrogen.

The gases are then cleaned and burned to power an electric generator. They improved on this design and patented it, and now have 30 functioning units in the villages of Karnataka, India. It’s also being used in parts of The United States, Japan, and Switzerland. (1)

Initial Rejection

Despite its history of use in India, when Rajnish brought his idea of using the pine needles to other researchers and government officials, he was met with much resistance. They argued that the pine needles weren’t dense enough. (1) 

He also had trouble getting the villagers onboard.

“The villagers thought I was out of my mind,” recalls Rajnish. “They did not know about biomass gasification, and generating electricity from pine needles seemed an alien concept.” (1)

The Volkart Foundation

Established in 1953 by a pair of Swiss brothers, The Volkart Foundation is one that supports NGOs working in poor communities. They found Rajnish’s idea interesting and invested, allowing Rajnish to conduct trials. After a few experiments, they finally found one that worked: Increasing the density of the needles by chopping them into smaller pieces before putting them in the gasifier. (1)

Finally in 2009, ten years after his initial idea, he set up a 9 kWh pine needle power plant. This plant powers the Avani workshop. The leftover carbon powder produced by the process is bound together using a local glue to form briquettes, which are then burned as a sustainable source of cooking fuel. (1)

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Avani Bio Energy

For-profit social enterprise Avani Bio Energy was established in 2011. They then signed a deal with the state electrical facility that made it a national policy for a percentage of its energy to come from renewable sources. (1)

In 2014, the Uttarakhand Renewable Energy Development Agency brought into effect a policy on the commercial use of pine needles. This included using them for biomass gasification. (1)

Not an Easy Feat

There were several challenges to using pine needle biomass gasification on a large scale.

Firstly, the mountains can not be navigated by motorized vehicles, so instead the needles must be collected by hand. (1)

Secondly, the generators need 1.5 kilos of pine needles per 1 kWh of power produced. This means they are limited to small power plants of 10-25 kWh each rather than one big plant, to keep manual collection do-able. (1)

Thirdly, the needle collectors, mostly women, were hesitant to join the project at the beginning. However, when they learned they could make double the typical minimum daily wage, they gave it a try. (1)

A Successful Project

So far, there are 17 plants in various villages in the region, with another 40 in the works. Many of these plants are owned by local entrepreneurs. (1)

This Himalayan invention of pine needle plants has been markedly beneficial to the villages. It’s helped to boost the local economy, lower the incidence of fire, and helped revive the use of indigenous medicinal plants. Let’s hope the progress continues.