In a country where there is so little to cheer about, the enormous success of Nepal's biogas programme has been a shining beacon for development projects here, and also serves as a model for other developing countries. The accomplishment has been possible because of a strong and sustained national focus on this alternative energy source, the development of a simple and affordable design suited to local conditions, and political commitment accompanied by donor support for a subsidy strategy efficiently implemented by the private sector.
Just look at the figures. There are now nearly 80,000 biogas plants all over Nepal, and at present growth rates this number is expected to reach 100,000 by end-2003. Nepal overtook India in the ratio of people per biogas plants several years ago, and has now even surpassed China. And more impressive is the finding that as many as 98 percent of the household gas plants constructed in the past 20 years are functioning optimally-the figure for China and India are only 60-70 percent. Still, Nepal has only constructed 3.8 percent of the estimated 1.3 million plants that are possible all over the country.
For Brinda Chaudhary of a tiny hamlet in Rupandehi District, biogas has been the best thing that ever happened to her family. She likes to show visitors her kitchen, where the clean, odourless blue methane flame from the fermenting gobar is heating the evening meal. "Look, there is no smoke, it is easier to clean the pots because they aren't black, we women in the family don't have to spend hours looking for firewood. It has made our life much easier," says Brinda. Surveys confirm that in some areas biogas has saved women three hours of hard work cooking, cleaning and gathering firewood every day. And even more importantly, it has reduced the incidence of acute respiratory infection among women and children who would otherwise be breathing smoke from wood fires indoors.
On the outskirts of Bhaktapur, Sri Prasad Neupane serves piping hot tea to visitors-and there are many these days: curious villagers, people from other parts of Nepal and even foreigners who want to inspect his biogas plant. Neupane had no personal property, and needed first to convince his father to sign off the family land as collateral for the soft loan of Rs 14,000 to have the plant built. "In four years we have paid back the loan, and we save about Rs 1,000 every month in firewood and kerosene. But more than that, it has given us pride and made us self-sufficient," Sri Prasad tells visitors.
Nepal has one of the lowest per capita energy consumption in the world, and most of this is met by burning agricultural waste and firewood, known as biomass. Still, the country spends nearly 40 percent of its hard currency earnings to import petroleum products to meet mainly urban demand. Nepal is better known for its enormous hydropower potential, but hydropower is capital intensive technology and the energy is too expensive to use for heating. On the other hand, a 10 cubic metre biogas plant for a family of eight can be built for Rs 30,000 and will pay for itself within a year or two. The beauty of biogas is that it has no moving parts. The cow dung goes into an airless pit, bacteria already inside the cow's stomach go to work breaking down the waste into methane which is piped to the kitchen and lit just like any other gas stove. And that is not all: one by-product of gas generation is the digested slurry that comes out of the pit which is prime fertiliser that can sometimes double vegetable production.
"At a time when our electricity grid is having a hard time meeting demand in remote areas, here is an energy source that is already generating the equivalent of 120 megawatts," says power expert Bikash Pandey, director of the research organisation Winrock-REPSO Nepal. "We now know that forests can't be saved with electricity, biogas is the only true alternative renewable energy source." Besides saving firewood, biogas also helps forest regeneration by requiring livestock to be stall-fed, which means forests have a chance to regenerate because there are no free-ranging cattle to munch up the undergrowth. In fact, Nepal's community forestry programme combined with the spread of biogas has been credited with a dramatic rise in forest cover in Nepal's mid-hills over the past 20 years.
The technical breakthrough that made this all possible was the design perfected by Nepali and Swiss engineers in 1978 of an underground digester capped with an airtight concrete dome. This simplified construction made it cheaper and cut down maintenance drastically. Unlike the Indian design at that time which consisted of a floating steel drum, the Nepali concrete dome did not rust, didn't need to be painted every year, and lasted almost indefinitely. Also, because of lower temperatures in the hills, the underground pit had advantages because it prevented the temperature of the digester from dipping too low.
Amrit Bahadur Karki, a pioneer of biogas in Nepal summarises it all: "The success of Nepal's biogas programme was because we had a good design, a workable private sector system subsidised by donors and the government, and in addition there was effective quality control and follow-up." Today, there are nearly 40 private companies which build biogas plants all over the country. The procedure is very simple: the farmer applies for a loan, the paperwork is finished within a week after the collateral is valued and subsidies worked out. For a plant costing Rs 30,000 the subsidy amounts to Rs 12,000 in the remote mountains, Rs 10,000 in the hills and Rs 7,000 in the tarai and urban areas. The technicians inspect the site and start digging the pit. The biogas company provides a three year guarantee on the digester dome, inlet and other fittings and makes regular diagnostic visits to see if everything is working fine. So far there has been nearly 100 percent payback of all loans. Says Karki: "The economics of it makes so much sense that more and farmers are showing an interest, and there will be 25,000 new plants built every year." The Biogas Support Programme was launched in 1992, and is supported by the German Financial Cooperation (KfW) and the Dutch organisation, SNV-Nepal. The only future problem could be with sustainability as more and more private companies join what has come to be seen as a lucrative business, and when the donors pull out the subsidies.
Twenty years ago when biogas plants started being built in Nepal, the main rationale was that they would save forests. The focus has now shifted slightly: also being stressed these days are the benefits to agriculture of the nutrient-rich slurry, and the connection of family latrines to the biogas digester. Says agricultural expert Krishna Murari Gautam, an early promoter of appropriate energy: "Perhaps the greatest change in the past 20 years is that Nepalis have overcome their traditional taboos against using human waste." The latrine connection not only improved sanitary conditions within households, but also augmented gas supply. Today, more than half of all biogas plants in Nepal are hooked up to latrines.
Although technically there is potential for 1.3 million plants, most experts say it is realistically half that number. Even so, at present rates of growth, Nepal can probably reach that target in 15 years. An Alternative Energy Promotion Centre (AEPC) under the Ministry of Science and Technology has been set up to promote not just biogas, but also wind energy and solar power. The cold winter months see a drop in gas production in biogas plants, but it is possible to integrate solar heating of underground digesters and some organisations are carrying out research to see if it is economically viable. For example, with an additional Rs 40,000, a solar heater can bring the temperature in the underground digesters to a constant 24 degrees even in winter and increase gas production by 25 percent.
The boom in biogas has also benefited ancillary industries: most stoves are now manufactured locally, the gas pipes, slurry mixing devices and even lamps for biogas used for lighting purposes are now manufactured locally. About 3,000 people (engineers, masons, and others) are directly employed by biogas companies. The Agriculture Development Bank, Rastriya Banijya Bank and Nepal Bank have been involved in channelling the loans, and the private biogas companies do most of the paperwork for the client.
Nepal has seen the future and it's odourless.