Husk Power lights rural India

It’s rare to find electric lights along the Indian countryside. But a startup called Husk Power Systems is trying to change that. The company has developed biomass miniplants — pared-down power plants that convert oft-discarded rice husks and grasses into electricity — providing power and jobs to the people of rural India.

The power stations are small, typically only producing about 40 kilowatts of power. But that’s enough electricity to illuminate about 500 homes (three to four adjacent villages) per plant, says Manoj Sinha, Husk Power’s co-founder. This means that villagers can trade out their kerosene lamps, with their flames and carbon monoxide emissions, for light bulbs. In addition, plant operations are kept local: the company employs about 300 workers throughout the northeastern Indian state of Bihar to run the power stations.

Old idea new innovation

While many energy startups focus on perfecting new technology, Husk Power Systems has taken a different approach, says Sinha. The technology is called biomass gasification, and has been used since World War II. But specifically converting rice husks to electricity posed a problem. The husks have a very high tar content, which means that they clog engines.

Sinha and his co-founder Gyanesh Pandey realized, however, that they could solve the clogging problem by having part of the plant operators’ workflow ensure that the engine was always clean. This meant that operations would need to be mostly manual, with few of the technological bells and whistles common in other gasification systems.

One of the ways Husk Power Systems’ miniplants are more simple than a traditional power plant is they don’t use complex feedback loops, explains Sinha. Gas needs to be maintained at a certain pressure and temperature. To do this, more complex gassifiers rely on feedback systems that automatically adjust pressure and temperature.

While these feedback loops work well most of the time, they can be tricky to fix on the occasion they don’t, says Sinha . Especially if the plant operator is a villager who doesn’t have an engineering degree. Therefore, Husk Power Systems designed the plants to be manually operated and monitored without complex feedback loops, so when a problem arises, the operator can see exactly what it is and know what to fix.

Distributed power

Simplification was one of the key business innovations for the company. The other was realizing that by spreading out its small power plants, Husk Power Systems could reach more people than if it built a few larger plants. “It’s a combination of making it much more simple than a typical power plant combined with the decentralized way of power generation and distribution,” Sinha says.

The company is funded by Acumen Funds, the Shell Foundation, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, among others. And earlier this summer, it won this year’s International Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy.

Even so, the company’s approach isn’t without its detractors. Mark Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford would prefer that all new energy be solar, wind, or an other emission-free process. “Biomass isn’t clean,” he says. “You’re putting out air pollution because it’s still a combustion process.”

Moreover, he says, while the electricity produced by Husk Power Systems is enough to light homes, it’s not enough to offer an alternative to stoves that also burn wood and dried dung cakes (which are made partially of use rice husks).

Sinha explains that his company chose biomass over other power sources including solar and wind because, “those technologies aren’t simple to install.” And while solar power is simple to run, he says, it can be expensive to fix if something goes wrong. “We made things simpler by choosing to go mechanical,” he says.

He adds that Husk Power Systems has no plans to replace fuel-burning stoves with electric ones, but is open to partnerships that could enable this.

Since August of 2007, Husk Power Systems has installed about 80 plants throughout Bihar. The company plans to expand dramatically over the next few years, growing to 500 plants by 2012 and 2,014 plants by 2014. That many plants could employ 7000 locals and light 1 million homes.