A study undertaken by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) has found the districts of Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram to be ideal for cultivating energy plantations, which fuel biomass power units.

Apart from powering a renewable energy source, these plantations could also turn barren wastelands into highly remunerative ones for farmers, S. Natarajan, Deputy General Manager of NABARD Watersheds Unit, which covers eight southern districts, told The Hindu here on Monday.

Energy plantation is growing select species of trees which could be harvested in a short time and are grown specifically for fuel purposes.

The initiative follows a meeting chaired by Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) Secretary Deepak Gupta with energy plantation owners, power developers, non-governmental organisations and bank officials from southern districts in Madurai during June 2011. In the meeting, it was decided that NABARD would come out with suitable farm models for developing wastelands.

Productive species

Mr. Natarajan pointed out that the fast-growing tree species such as Melia dubia (‘Malai Vembu' in Tamil) and Leucaena leucocephala (Subabool) would produce about 100 tonnes per acre within three to four years. The extensively-spread Prosopis juliflora (kaattu karuvel in Tamil), which is seen almost everywhere in Ramanathapuram district and partially in other adjoining Sivaganga, Virudhunagar and Tuticorin districts, was likely to give only about 10 tonnes per acre during the same period.

Raising energy plantations would enable fulfilling dual objectives of afforestation and meeting electricity requirements. The biomass harvested from the energy plantation fields would have ‘assured buyback' by Biomass Based Power Producers (BMPPs). It was proposed that farmers, banks and BMPP enter into tripartite agreements to this effect.

Two models

Two farm models have been evolved - in the first a one acre model, pure energy plantation crops has been mooted. In the second model of 2.5 acres, two acres would be covered with high value energy plantations while the remaining area would be reserved for horticulture tree crops such as mango and amla. Farmers could avail bank loan to cover the cost till the first crop was harvested. Investment of about Rs. 62,000 and Rs.1,30,000 would be required for developing one acre and 2.5 acres farms respectively.

Mr. Natarajan estimated that a 10 MW biomass power plant could ensure livelihood of over 2,000 marginalised families.