Straw can generate power, if available

A 10-mw power plant based on rice straw, the first of its kind in the world, will'become operational in Jal Kheri village in Patiala district of Punjab in November this year.

The plant will work on a very effective method of converting waste into electricity, according to M C Upreti of the Department of Nonconventional Energy Sources (DNES). "It is possible to generate about 1,000 mw of electricity from the rice straw and husk available in Punjab alone," he elaborates.

jointly financed by the DNES and the Punjab State Electricity Board (PSEB), the plant will require 70,000 tonnes of rice straw a year. When the project was conceived in 1986, five to six million tonnes of rice straw were going waste every year in Punjab, posing serious disposal problems for farmers. Unlike in the southern and eastern parts of the country, rice straw is seldom used as fodder in Punjab and Haryana because the more popular wheat straw and green fodder are available in plenty.

But the plant could face serious problems if the state's agricultural and industrial seene continues to change, as it has in the past few years. Diversion of cultivated areas from wheat and paddy to high value crops would naturally mean less straw in the future.

Competition for rice straw is already increasing, thanks to the straw-based paper mills that have come up in several parts of the state. With the mills offering higher prices than the PSEB, the plant's purchase price for straw has gone up from an estimated Rs 75 to Rs 100 a torme in 1986 to over Rs 500 a torme now.

The Bharat Heavy Electrical Ltd (BHEL), which is to set up the plant, has designed most of the equipment indigenously, except for the fuel feeding and firing system, which is being imported from Denmark. BHEL hopes to manufacture the straw-based fluidised bed combustion boiler locally in the future.

On its part, the PSEB has evolved its own baling and collection system for the plant. It has acquired vehicles from Punjab Tractors to collect and transport straw from areas within a radius of 15 km around Jal Kheri.

The technology developed for harvesting, baling, storage and transport of rice straw has undoubtedly benefited the paper industry as well as other industries in the region. But the thermal plant will find economic viability a difficult proposition. More so since, because of delays in the project, the cost of the plant itself has shot up from the original Rs 25 crore to nearly Rs 40 crore.

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