Offsets spark clean change

22nd December, 2010 by Martin Wright

Pioneering projects from solar panels to biomass plants are finding funds through offsets.

Glowing prospects

Rajendra Chitragi is a fruit merchant in the coastal town of Kumta, in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. With no connection to the grid, he used to rely on kerosene lanterns to keep his shop open through the evening. But the dim light, smoke and risk of fire weren’t much of a draw for customers, and he got fed up with the ongoing fuel and maintenance costs.

Then he heard about Orb Solar, a Bangalore-based company that aims to make solar energy affordable and accessible, by combining installation and post-sale support with help securing low-interest loans. Compared with kerosene, photovoltaics offer a cleaner, safer and more reliable source of light.

And the electricity generated can be used to power other appliances, too, with long-term cost savings. Orb Solar calculates that, by exchanging a 2.5kwh diesel generator for a PV array with a capacity of 1KW, a company can save 470,000 rupees (US$10,000) over ten years.

Today, the panels on Chitragi’s shop roof power a number of low-energy 11W lamps and an 18W electric fan. And he claims the move has already boosted his business. “Solar lights attract people at night time,” he says, “especially during power cuts.”
It’s just one example of how a reliable source of light and heat can mark the beginning of greater transformation across a community. It can give local entrepreneurs the chance to expand their businesses, resulting in an influx of new jobs and skills. Or it can help to improve public services. Take the Gandhi Hospital in Udupi. It recently invested in two solar thermal systems, providing a 24-hour supply of hot water for the first time. “Now we can offer our patients a better service at a lower cost”, says Dr Harishchandra, the Managing Director.

As India’s largely coal-powered grid struggles to meet demand for electricity, there’s growing enthusiasm for alternative sources. The success of Orb Solar is testimony to this, with forty branches in Karnataka alone, and further franchises across India.

Spinning tales

The Nahar Spinning Mill started out in 1980 in Ludhiana – the industrial hub of Punjab which some affectionately dub the “Manchester of India”. Back then it was a small affair, with just 800 spindles producing worsted yarn and hosiery. Today, the 335,000 spindles of the Nahar Group supply t-shirts and other garments to major international high street brands, such as GAP and Quicksilver.

Spinning isn’t the only industry in Punjab. The mills sit among the northern plains where basmati rice, famed across the world for its fine aroma, is cultivated. Now, with international markets creating opportunities for economic growth, the demand for a clean and reliable source of energy is linking the two ancient industries.

The abundance of husk waste produced by the rice milling process is being used by the spinning mill to meet its energy requirements. Previously, the Nahar Mill’s operations relied heavily on a sporadic and unreliable supply of energy from the grid (mostly from coal power) and on fuel oil. But a new 5MW rice husk-fired boiler produces steam to generate electricity, meeting all the mill’s demand. Unlike fossil fuel combustion, the carbon released in this process doesn’t add to the total atmospheric content, as an equivalent amount will be taken up again.

The new boiler is expected to avoid 22,267 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. It’s a flagship project that, with further support from carbon finance schemes, could be replicated in mills across the region.

And carbon savings aren’t the only positive outcome. Local farmers profit from the sale of waste biomass, even as the mill makes savings by generating electricity on-site – as opposed to forking out more for oil as the price soars. And Nahar Mill is putting the savings towards a more resilient local community, by funding new medical services, materials for schools and flood defences.

King charcoal

Lavishing carbon finance on simple improved cook stoves may seem something of an extravagance – especially if they only save 0.4 tonnes a year each. But with over one million sold in Cambodia alone in the last five years, that’s getting on for half a million tonnes. Which is scale, by any reckoning.

The vast majority of Cambodians depend on charcoal for cooking – not great news in a nation so badly hit by forest loss. But GERES, a French NGO with extensive experience in the region, has worked with local designers to come up with a new model of stove which uses far less fuel – and emits far less smoke… The result? Less pressure on the country’s forests, and less respiratory disease for its households. Retailing at just $5 or so, the locally made stove has proved highly popular with residents in Phnom Penh, the capital.

In a project validated by the Voluntary Carbon Standard, ClimateCare has sold over 400,000 tonnes worth of emissions reductions made possible by the new stove.

Most families in towns and cities across Ghana, too, cook their meals on charcoal, using a metal grate or shallow ‘coal-pot’. Much of the heat escapes, which means more fuel is needed. This has serious consequences in a country with one of the highest rates of deforestation in Africa.

The Ghana Stoves project is introducing the Gyapa, an insulated and efficient cook stove, to families in Ghana. It cooks food more quickly, requires less fuel, and gives off less smoke – saving time, money and health. And, thanks to carbon finance, it can be sold at an affordable price.

White heat

In the Russian town of Onega by the White Sea, an old coal-fired power station has been replaced with an efficient wood-fired biomass plant that will provide warm water and heating for 12,000 residents. With temperatures regularly falling below -35oC in winter, finding a reliable way to warm up is no optional extra.

The coal-fired boiler had been attached to a hydrolysis plant, but this went bust a few years ago, leaving the administration to search for alternatives. What they found was a clean, renewable and reliable source of fuel, available in the form of waste biomass from the Onega sawmill. It cost €7.5 million to build a new plant – but the carbon emissions avoided by replacing coal with waste biomass have already generated €5 million through offset schemes.

And there are wider benefits for the community. Employees at the plant no longer have to put up with the dust, noise and fumes of the coal combustion process, and local farmers are using the ash (a by-product) as fertiliser.

Carbon and cane

The sweetness of sugarcane is in the juice. Less sweet is bagasse – the fibrous residue left behind when the stalks are crushed. But it contains a significant amount of energy, which can be harnessed to drive the sugar manufacturing process.

Sugar mills have been using waste biomass in this way for hundreds of years. Take La Providencia, a mill in the province of Tucumán, Argentina, where 60% of the country’s sugar is produced. It was built in 1882, when new trading opportunities brought by the railway sparked a golden age for the industry, and is today the country’s third most important mill, producing 13,000 tonnes a year.

Its manufacturing process has always relied on a mixture of bagasse, natural gas and fuel oil to generate steam. But an inefficient biomass boiler meant that not all the bagasse was used, and that meant a higher proportion of fossil fuels in the mix.
In 2005, a new high pressure biomass boiler was installed at the mill, funded through a ClimateCare carbon finance scheme. It has significantly increased the amount of waste bagasse that can be used in the sugar production process, reducing dependence on fossil fuels and avoiding an estimated 50,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.

It’s part of a wider initiative by parent company Arcor Group to increase the efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of sugar production. It’s replacing traditional burning methods with mechanisation, which eliminates the need to wash the cane before processing – cutting down on both atmospheric pollution and water use. By-products of the production process are also being put to good use, with cane mud cachaza collected to replenish depleted soil and repair eroded land, molasses sold to yeast manufacturers, and excess bagasse sent on to paper mills.

Private investment in such measures is limited, with much of the funding for infrastructure tied to petrochemical companies. But with further funding from carbon finance schemes, projects such as this could be replicated in all 19 sugar mills across Argentina and elsewhere.

Fixing a drink

Want to offset your cuppa? Even with the best of intentions, tracing the footprint of every bean and tea leaf is no piece of cake. But last year Cafédirect made a start, calculating the carbon emissions of its entire supply chain – including over 40 producers, in 14 different countries. Now, as part of a three-year strategy to shrink the print, it’s offsetting 5,000 tonnes of CO2 over six years, through the CEPICAFE reforestation project, which is undergoing validation by the Carbon Fix forestry offset standard.

It’s a collaboration involving nine caserios (villages) in the Sierra Piura, northern Peru, and a number of local and international NGOs. Together, they are developing a long-term forest management programme to enable the sustainable extraction of precious resources, including timber, firewood and shade-grown coffee. Reforestation will address some chronic problems in the area, such as soil depletion and erosion. In addition, 10% of the income from the carbon credit sales will fund climate change adaptation strategies with coffee farmers.

Warm winds

The district of Bahce nestles in the Nur mountain range on southern Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Agriculture is a big part of the economy, employing around half the workforce, but a combination of widespread soil erosion on the hillsides and poor infrastructure keeps the region’s productivity in check. Neighbouring trade centres Adana and Osmaniye attract much of the local industry, leaving Bahce struggling with low employment and literacy rates.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that proposals to build Turkey’s largest wind farm in the area met with enthusiasm from the residents. The project offered local people immediate jobs in the construction phase, as well as long-term opportunities in operation and maintenance, and the chance to skill up in a new sector. It also promised new roads and a local, reliable source of electricity, in a region where the neglect of basic infrastructure had long hindered growth.

The contrast to the knee-jerk opposition which any wind farm proposal triggers in Britain could not be greater. Early in the planning process, a community engagement project found that the heads of the two villages nearest to the proposed site had never heard of renewable energy – although one had seen wind turbines on TV. Now they share Gokcedag Mountain with the 54 turbines of the Zorlu Wind Farm. The farm is connected to the national grid via a 9km transmission line, and contributes around 512GWh of electricity a year. It’s expected to save an average of 288,262 tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually, by reducing the pressure on coal-fired plants.

Before Zorlu, large-scale hydro was the only significant source of renewable energy in Turkey. But rapid growth in demand for power is drawing new investment in clean technology, and – with high wind speeds year-in, year-out – this may not be the largest farm for long.

Martin Wright is Editor in Chief of Green Futures.

Image credits: Adeel Halim; Vladimirovic / istock; Cafedirect Plc; Ecosecurities

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