According to an estimate, 44 per cent of India's population still lives without electricity, making this biomass-based power generation technology indispensable in energy-starved states like Bihar.
Though this technology has been in use for the past 50 years in India, Husk Power Systems (HPS), a rural electrification company, has modified it to create a cost-effective operational model.
Today, HPS supplies power to 50 off-grid villages in the state. Each village has a population between 2,000 and 4,000. By 2012, HPS plans to cover 2,000 villages in the state.
Rice husk is traditionally discarded in India. However, when it is heated, it releases a gas that HPS uses to run modified diesel engines to generate electricity.
"We heat rice husk to a point at which they turn into gas and that gas runs an engine," said Chip Ransler, chief strategy officer of HPS. The power is supplied through a grid that HPS operates.
The rice husk is procured from farmers and mill owners, and each biomass gasification plant is run by trained mechanics.
"Roughly 1.5 kg of rice husk yields 1 KWh (kilowatt-hour) of electricity," Ransler said.
"We set up grids that are specially suited according to the size of the villages. The set-up is completely decentralised," he added.
The villages that have benefited include Tamkuha, Dhanaha, Rupahi, Madhubani, Inarawa, Sarisawa and Majhoulia. All are located in West Champaran district.
Rates kept confidential
However, the company wants to keep its electricity rates confidential.
"We don't share the price. But villagers save 50 per cent of what they were spending on kerosene and diesel, and they're getting much larger output from the investments in HPS," Ransler said.
Simon Desjardins, an analyst with Shell Foundation, a Britain-based non-governmental organisation that provides financial and technical aid to HPS, said electricity shortages can directly impede the economic development of a village, apart from the environmental pollution caused by the use of diesel and kerosene.
"Today, Bihar represents a viable market for modern energy services. The rural communities are willing to pay for reliable electricity," he said. Ransler said HPS initially provided electricity to 15 villages with support from the Shell Foundation. Now it has 10 biomass plants with capacity ranging from 35-100 KW. It has also created jobs opportunities for the locals.
Biomass gasification plants are eco-friendly as they replace diesel and kerosene with carbon-neutral biomass-derived electricity.
Ransler said each HPS plant offsets roughly 80-100 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year.