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Giant Indian company Tata is developing an engine that will convert waste to electricity in predominantly rural areas, providing a cheaper substitute to diesel and kerosene used in homes and farms.

The firm is working on the so-called gasifier engine to convert farm and food waste into gas-based power and supply it to off-grid applications with the help of local grid networks, said executives from Tata Power Co. Ltd and Tata Motors Ltd — both Tata group companies.

“We are in early stages of this study, as joint teams have identified various work streams and milestones for the project with regular evaluations at the apex levels,”

“Tata Motors has carried out technical studies to assess feasibility of undertaking a producer gas-based engine development by leveraging its strength on its CNG engine portfolio,” a Tata Motors spokesperson said in an email.

The company said there were “significant” technological challenges involved for an engine to operate on producer gas (waste gas in this context). “Producer gas has significantly low energy content and the gasifier needs to ensure high quality of producer gas with good control on calorific value, tar, dust and particulates,” the spokesperson said.

Tata Power is working on an integrated model to form a self-sustaining cooperative among the local population. This society will be responsible for gathering, sorting, arranging and transporting the waste material needed to generate power, said S. Padmanabhan, executive director, Tata Power. It will also help in creating employment in these areas.

“We are following the same cooperative model of creating local village communities for solar home lighting in Maharashtra,” Padmanabhan said.

Many stand-alone ventures have tried similar models in the past, but these haven’t become significant as none has been able to get the ecosystem of waste gathering to power generation to be commercially viable, said Arvind Mahajan, executive director at consulting firm KPMG in India.

One of the challenges, Mahajan said, is to gather sufficient waste to ensure optimum level of power generation.

Tata Power hopes to benefit from the relationships it has in rural pockets of India, either through the presence of a manufacturing unit or sales and distribution set-up. Some of the first pilots in the venture will be carried out in and around areas where the group has industrial projects on the ground. Tata Power recently attempted to generate power from bamboo waste on the outskirts of Mumbai. The project wasn’t successful as it was difficult to get sufficient land in the island city.

Tata Power has, therefore, decided to focus its attention on rural areas since installation of the gasifier engine and the local grid along with the waste collection system will need around five hectares of land, Padmanabhan said.

Both the Tata companies want to make this a commercial viable project.

Padmanabhan said if Tata Power can supply power derived from such waste gas at Rs.4-5 per unit, then the project could be successful.

“In areas where there is no grid connectivity, it will cost around Rs.1.5-2 crore to lay the grid. Though this power may be a little more expensive than the cost of thermal power, there will still be demand since the other alternative that is being used at present are diesel or kerosene, which is quite expensive,” Padmanabhan said.

The potential for power generation from this mechanism could be around 3,000MW, according to the Tata executive, who pegged the latent demand for power in India at 150,000-160,000MW.

The profits this business can yield aren’t meagre either.

Padmanabhan said it was possible for the company to make 50 paise to a rupee per unit of power after recovering all costs. If this happens and if Tata Power can generate 3,000MW of waste gas-based power, profits could be in range of Rs.1,500-3,000 crore.

“This will be a very interesting initiative if successful and will be keenly watched,” KPMG’s Mahajan said. “On the one hand, it fits in with the strategy that companies are adopting of abating climate change through the use of non-thermal power, and on the other it addresses the issues of off-grid areas of rural India.”

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