Harnessing the Power of Pine Needles to Create Clean Energy in Uttarakhand, India
Jamuna Devi lives in Chachret, a remote village in the Central Himalayan Region of India, with her husband and three children. She walks four miles every day to collect wood for fuel in order to cook meals for her family.
Every year, Jamuna Devi has been forced to walk farther and farther for fuel as the forests around her shrink. The basic resources Jamuna's family needs, from access to clean water to fodder for cattle, are increasingly scarce. This, combined with no permanent source of income, has put the family's very survival at stake.
In the Central Himalayan region of India, also known as Kumaon, stories like Jamuna Devi's are common place.
Despite the immense natural beauty around them, families in Kumaon have struggled as environmental degradation threaten their livelihoods, culture, and traditional way of life. Perhaps nowhere is this struggle as clear as in the forest.
Across Kumaon, the native oak forests are central to local communities' lives. Women have long climbed the native oak trees to collect firewood.
They use this firewood for cooking and heating the home, a method many local communities continue to prefer over gas.
The forests are also an important source of fodder for cattle.
Many years ago, the forests of Kumaon were dense with oak trees. In addition to providing ample natural habitat for a range of animals, including leopards and monkeys, these forests also provided valuable natural resources for local communities, including firewood and fodder. Yet over time, these oak trees began to gradually be replaced by the invasive Chir Pine. Today, chir pines make up approximately 16% of Uttarakhand's forests.
Although the pines are indisputably beautiful, they have a dark underside-- forest fires. As pines have overtaken the Kumaon hillsides, forest fires have become a regular, destructive occurrence. While the pines themselves are resistant to fire, pine needles, which cover the forest floor in a thick carpet, are highly flammable.
The result is an increasingly mono-cultural, desert-like environment, where the native species of oak are almost entirely absent from some hillsides. As the Chir Pine ecosystem has limited ability to retain water, their growth has resulted in the drying up of springs and rivers, while the lack of canopy has left mountain slopes exposed to erosion by rain and wind.
These environmental changes have put immense pressure on families like Jamuna's: water has become scarcer, the land less fertile, and women have had to walk longer and longer distances to collect firewood. These factors, along with the general lack of non-agrarian economic activity in the region, have led to high levels of outmigration, particularly among men.
Clearly, something needed to be done. In 2005, Rajnish Jain, director of the project and co-founder of Avani, began experimenting with pine needles to see if their destructive power could be harnessed as biomass to generate electricity. After some trial and error, Rajnish was able to settle on a method which converts the pine needles into reliable electricity.
Local villagers, including Jamuna Devi and her family, are employed to collect needles and bring them to the plant. They get 1,000 rupees for every ton of needles collected. The collection of needles helps to minimize the risk of forest fires in the area while bringing an additional source of income to rural communities.
Once collected, the needles are chopped into small pieces and fed into the plant, where they are burnt with a limited oxygen supply. This burning produces a mixture of carbon monoxide, hydrogen, and methane, which is cleaned, cooled, and fed into a generator to produce electricity.
In addition to creating electricity, 10% of the pine needles is made into charcoal, which can be used in place of wood and kerosene as clean cooking fuel.
So far, Avani has started small. With the generator on its main campus, Avani produces 9 kW of energy. Since then, Avani expanded to set up two additional plants in neighboring villages.
Ultimately, Rajnish has big plans for the project, which he hopes will not only help to address Uttarakhand’s forest fire challenges, but also create opportunities for local employment by recruiting more villagers to gather pine needles and training villagers in the technical skills required to operate the plants.
Looking forward, Rajnish sees opportunities to expand to other forest fire-prone regions, bringing the benefits of this innovation to more rural communities around the globe.
Text: Camille Parker
Photos: Avani Society