Pine needle power projects to check Uttarakhand forest fires prove to be inadequate

Despite the potential, there are many challenges on the ground in Uttarakhand’s forests that result in only a miniscule proportion of the available pine needles being collected

Updated - May 15, 2024 03:47 pm IST

Published - May 15, 2024 02:26 am IST - NEW DELHI

Women group of volunteers engaged in dousing fire poses for a picture after successfully extinguishing a forest fire at Sitlakhet in Uttarakhand on May 6, 2024.

Women group of volunteers engaged in dousing fire poses for a picture after successfully extinguishing a forest fire at Sitlakhet in Uttarakhand on May 6, 2024. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

Bio-energy projects set up by the Uttarakhand Renewable Energy Development Agency (UREDA), to use the vast quantities of flammable pine needles for generating electricity have been “unsuccessful”, with officials saying appropriate technology does not yet exist to use them.

“We have commissioned six plants so far but it is unlikely that we will add more. It has not been a major success as the technology to use pine needles for generating electricity isn’t sustainable as of now,” Y.S. Bisht of the UREDA said.

With annual forest fires becoming more severe, partly from climate change-accentuated drought spells and rising stores of organic biomass, including pine needles and agricultural residue, State authorities have often tried to address the threat by lessening the available pine needle load.

The Supreme Court had earlier reprimanded the Uttarakhand government in response to petitions in the wake of the forest fires. The lack of rainfall in April and May had led to the build up of vast quantities of dry pine that were susceptible to blazes.

In 2021, the State government announced a scheme to establish power projects that would use the pine needles as fuel to generate electricity. The original plan was to establish multiple unit ranging from 10kW to 250 kW across the State in three phases (worth about 150 MW). Though the government expected 58 units to be set up, only six units of 250 kW (totally worth 750 kW) have been established.

In 2023, the Uttarakhand government said it was unable to meet its renewable power purchase obligations (under which a minimum percentage of the power it procured and supplied was to be from renewable energy sources), partly because its expectations of power from pirul (pine needle)projects did not materialise.

In theory, the vast amount of pine needles available in Uttarakhand makes a valuable resource. An official document says that out of the total forest area in the State, 16.36% or about 3,99,329 hectares is covered by chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) forests. As per estimates, over 15 lakh tonnes of pine leaves are annually generated. Were even 40% of the estimated quantity available coupled with other agricultural residue, it could significantly aid the State’s power requirements as well be source of employment and livelihood.

However, experts have said despite the potential, there are many challenges on the ground in Uttarakhand’s forests that result in only a miniscule proportion of the available pine needles being collected. “The steep forest slopes in the State, vulnerability to attacks by animals such as leopards, and insufficient labour available at remunerative rates are significant challenges,” Yogesh Gokhale, senior fellow, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), and an expert on forest management and conservation issues, said.

“There are even strong ecological reasons for these pirul (pine needles) to be removed as it is an exotic species that has become naturalised, and prevents other localised species from regenerating. Being used as fuel, while polluting, is more efficient than using as firewood or being burnt away,” Dr. Gokhale told The Hindu.

Also Read | IAF continues to douse forest fire in Uttarakhand even as State claims in Supreme Court that emergency is over

Following the recent fires, the Uttarakhand government announced a policy that raised the procurement price of pine needles from ₹3 per kg to ₹50 per kg, so that workers had a greater incentive to clear larger tracts and prevent future conflagrations.

“This is a positive step and a huge amount, and ideally should create an incentive. However, there is also need for strategic collection,” Kireet Kumar Pande of the G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment (NIHE) said.

The effective area of pine needles is extremely vast but experience suggests that 90% of the fires were manmade — a stray lit cigarette or a mismanaged bonfire, for example — and these usually originate close to roads and habitations.

“If spots, say, 100-200 metres near the roads were cleared, and such spots identified in advance, it would make a significant difference,” Mr. Pande said. “Power projects cannot be the only solution.”

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