What is common between luxury hotel chain J W Marriot’s Delhi property, Intel’s Bengaluru Campus, IIT Bombay and glass manufacturer Saint Gobain? Diverse as they may appear, all these institutions have installed biogas plants, helping the environment by in-house processing of biodegradable waste as well as cutting down on energy expenses.
A tonne of food waste generates 70 kg of biogas, equivalent to five LPG gas cylinders besides doing away with costs associated with waste disposal. Not surprisingly, Taj Hotels, TVS Motor, Manipal University Cummins and Sumadhura Group are among entities that have installed BioUrja installations developed by GPS Renewables.
Co-founded by Mainak Chakraborty and Sreekrishna Sankar, GPS has combined chemistry, electronics, programming and artificial intelligence (AI), to create an automated process of operating and maintaining these plants. And the simplicity of the process has made it a partner of choice for companies, educational institutions, hotels and even community set-ups even though bio gas plants have never been successful at household and village levels in India.
“Any biogas plant is a biological system. It needs proper bio-maintenance because it is prone to digestive breakdowns like human body. We need to track any digestive issues early on and take action. And we do it using our bot (a software application that runs automated tasks),” says Mr Chakraborty.
Biogas is a renewable fuel produced when bacteria degrade biological material in the absence of oxygen. Efficient generation of biogas is dependent on optimal temperature for growth of bacteria and varies according to the type of waste as well.
“We check the health of each plant using our bot, which is like a basic chemistry lab that can sit on a table. It can be operated by any unskilled person,” he says.
Like a blood test is done, the operator who feeds the waste has to take a sample and the bot performs tests. The data is emailed to the company and fed into a statistical model. “We have built a low-cost way of evaluating complex chemistry results that determine what action is required at each plant,” he says.
Rahul Prabhakar, chief engineer, ITC Maurya, New Delhi, which installed the plant in June 2016, says the failure rate of BioUrja plants is zero. “Operator control and minimum manual intervention is the key to the success of this plant,” he says.
Robin Banerjee, Director of Engineering, Taj Diplomatic Enclave, New Delhi, says the plant is helpful in multiple ways. “One, we are not throwing out our wet garbage for further treatment. And the LPG goes directly to our kitchen and is used by our chefs. And it is not increasing pollution,” he says.
While biogas plants can be for households, inside institutions, or large ones on a city scale, the most successful have been the institutional category. “For most bulk waste generators, waste generation lies between 100 kg per day to 2 tonnes per day. That’s the common band and for us the sweet spot is between 500 and 1000 kg per day,” he says.
Most of GPS plants are 500 kg and above and can replaces 30 to 35 kg of LPG every day. “The payback period is about three years,” says Mr Prabhakar of ITC Maurya.
After the government revised solid waste management rules in 2016, making it tougher to dump waste, institutions as well as residential societies have been looking for ways to minimise as well as utilize waste. “Illegal dumping of waste is not easy. Disposal has a cost and today, when we calculate pay back we also count the savings client makes on waste disposal. Accounting for waste disposal costs, the payback period would come to two to three years,” says Mr Chakraborty.
While the cost of plants and installation varies from site to site, a typical set up with the capacity to process 500 kg waste starts at Rs 25 lakh. GPS pre-fabricates the units at its Bengaluru facility.
“Some require customisation like where plant is spread over multiple floors due to space constraints. In such cases while the units is pre-fabricated, we do customisation,” he says.
Not surprisingly, GPS has projects overseas too. “We have operational plants in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. And we have projects coming up in Sweden, Maldives and Columbia. These will be up and running in 2020,” Mr Chakraborty adds.
What makes GPS a preferred choice outside India is low costs – ranging from half to one-third of other countries. “When we talk of Scandinavia, one has to engineer the plant as per climatic conditions. So costs may be higher but even after redesigning our plants, it will be half of the cost of similar plants because we have economies of scale and there are hardly any plants at institutional levels,” he says.
For now, team GPS is busy exporting its Indian biogas model overseas. It’s time more institutions install biogas plant to save the environment and also, their money.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)