SustainEarth and The Paradox of Energy in Rural India

Though not the best appetite-inducing conversation over a meal, this question remains one of India's greatest paradoxes: why does a country with the world's largest livestock population in the world use wood for such a large portion of energy production when biogas can be made cheaply from cattle waste?

According to a 2007 census, India had a bovine population of 300 million, with almost half of rural households owning cattle. This picture becomes stark when it is juxtaposed with the fact that only about 1% of such households use biogas. Beyond the well-developed locales of the urban India, there is a vast rural populace that still has no access to or cannot afford cleaner fuels like Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) and has to burn firewood in their kitchens leading to Household Air Pollution (HAP). Over the last three decades, the Indian government tried addressing this issue by pushing subsidized Biogas plants in rural areas. However, the lack of technical support, very high product failure rates, and labor & time intensive construction processes led to abysmally low levels of adoption and near extinction of this technology.

Enter Piyush and Koushik. The two young entrepreneurs at SustainEarth Energy want to re-approach this issue with a refreshed and refurbished solution, rebranding biogas and delivering as a ‘Clean, Affordable & Reliable’ cooking fuel to millions of rural communities in India, transforming rural India into a self-sufficient energy economy.

Aligning Mission with Technology

Piyush and Koushik first met in July 2011 at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) whilst pursuing Masters in Renewable Energy Engineering. Although both came from slightly different backgrounds -- Piyush a Biotech engineer and Koushik an Agriculture engineer -- they shared a common passion for clean energy. It was during a joint rural survey for a college project that they realized the grim energy situation in the hinterlands.

“The Majority of those surveyed was not aware of clean fuels like Biogas and existing Biogas systems were not scalable and reliable” says Koushik. “Reliability is the biggest factor” adds Piyush. Many more surveys followed, largely through their scholarship funds. Soon the potential for designing an easy to use, affordable and reliable biogas system became clear.

Soon to graduate and running out of research funding, the pair won support from Villgro -- a Chennai-based social entrepreneurship incubator -- at the last second. Not only did Villgro provide funds for product development, but they also connected Piyush and Koushik to many experienced mentors. In September of 2013, SustainEarth Energy Solutions was born.

Over the last 2 years, SustainEarth has developed 9 iterations of products based on feedback from farmers, dairy experts, biogas masons and academic researchers. Out of these, 5 models have been running as prototypes with farmers for last 6 months. “Working on technology with a user centric approach” is how Koushik summarizes the philosophy of their product development. Their aim is to make a system so reliable that it won’t require maintenance for at least 10 years.

Currently SustainEarth has a small core team. While Piyush is the CEO and manages Finance & Technology, Koushik is the Chief of Field Operations. He also looks after Communications & Marketing for the company.

Koushik Yanamandram (Left) and Piyush Sohani (Right)

The Founding of Gau Gas

‘Gau Gas’ is the new age, innovative and low cost Biogas system developed by SustainEarth. It’s based on a simple process in which the methanogenesis bacteria consumer organic matter and produce methane gas which burns like LPG. Dung from 2-3 animals can generate 3-4 hours of cooking gas per day. Plants with output ranging from one cubic meter of gas per day to four cubic meters per day can be installed by farmers. A Gau Gas system is made of flexible PVC coated fabric with a long operational life which is housed under a greenhouse polysheet that raises the internal temperature by 6-8 degrees Celsius thus accelerating gas production. One of the biggest advantages of Gau Gas as compared to a traditional Biogas plant for the person using the stove is the ability to regulate the size of the flame. An enriched bio fertilizer is discharged from the plant. This byproduct increases the crop productivity, reduces dependency on chemical fertilizers and can also open up a source of revenue for the farmer if sold commercially.

2 plant setup at a farmer's dairy in a village in Andhra Pradesh.

Black PVC coated fabric inside the greenhouse. It rises as the gas fills up inside it.

What's Next?

“We want to launch a fully functional product in next 3 months” says Koushik. SustainEarth aims at deploying 100 pilot plants in next 6 months with a larger goal of completing a 1000 installations countrywide in coming one and a half years.With more than 14 million dairy farmers associated with several milk cooperatives, the size of the market does look very promising. That India has a humungous untapped potential for biogas cannot be overstated.

SustainEarth is talking to not only the Government but also to several NGOs, microfinance institutions and Investors to promote Gau Gas as a cheaper alternative to LPG and cleaner fuel than firewood. It wants to roll out easy finance options to farmers to encourage wide-spread adoption. To achieve this goal SustainEarth will reach out to its target groups through dairy cooperatives, rural banks, agriculture extension centers, and Zilla Parishads (Village-level governance bodies). Although this task is herculean SustainEarth has its feet firmly on the ground.

With exhilaration in his eyes, Piyush sums up, “We want to be recognized as change makers and pioneers in the rural clean energy industry who have set standards for others to follow.”