For those who have lived in Bengaluru, the phrase ‘garden city to garbage city’ isn’t just a platitude. It is a sentiment in itself, associated with the city’s diminishing sheen.
When Bengalurean Som Narayanan was in his 20s, he was working as an environment engineer here – and getting increasingly disillusioned with the field. So, when he returned to Bengaluru in 2012 after finishing his masters in carbon management from Edinburgh University, the above sentiment drove him to make the change he so craved.
Kevin and Som
That is how Carbon Masters came into being. Co-founded by Som and his batchmate from Edinburgh, 66-year-old Kevin Houston, the bio-CNG plant is located in Malur in Karnataka’s Kolar district. Since starting operations four months ago, the plant currently recycles 33 tonnes of wet waste from Bengaluru to produce bio-CNG as well as organic fertiliser. The former is stored in cylinders and supplied to eight restaurants and commercial establishments in the city.
Carbonlite, the brand name under which the bio-CNG cylinders are sold, is the first branded bottled bio-CNG supplied to customers in India, Som claims.
What is bio-CNG and why is it better?
For the last two months, 85% of the fuel requirement in Herbs and Spices, a restaurant in Whitefield, is being met by Carbonlite cylinders, replacing the LPG ones used earlier.
When Carbon Masters approached Paddy Kolar, the restaurant’s owner, in September they were also selling at a marginally lower price than LPG cylinders. But for Paddy that was not the only criterion.
“You also have to consider time and efficiency. For instance, if a fuel costs less but the pressure and heat are not good, and the cooking time goes up, it doesn’t work for me,” he explains.
But after the initial testing period of 15 days, Paddy realised that the Carbonlite cylinders checked all of these boxes, and proved more efficient too. “There was no residue left; the fuel was being used 100%. In LPG cylinders we often noticed that some gas used to settle down and could not be used. It was a plus that this was made from recycled waste too,” Paddy said.
On an average, the restaurant goes through three units of the bio-CNG cylinders in four weekdays. Each unit contains four cylinders of 25 kg each. “Overall, it has saved me approximately 15% in terms of consumption and price, simply because one cylinder lasts longer as the fuel is completely utilised,” Paddy says.
This absence of residue is what makes this a much more efficient fuel, says Som. He explains, “When you convert wet waste to fuel through an anaerobic process, biogas is released. Biogas has many elements, including hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide, moisture and methane. Gobar gas fuel, for instance, removes the others and has 55% methane. What we do is increase the methane content to over 92%.”
The carbon dioxide released by burning bio-CNG is biogenic, because the carbon is generated by the natural carbon cycle. “Meaning, it is in a form that can be ingested by trees to produce oxygen. Comparatively, the carbon dioxide released when you burn a fossil fuel is not biogenic – meaning it adds to the pollution and adds to other greenhouse gases,” Som adds.
But the major USP of bottled bio-CNG, Som states, is that it’s a renewable fuel that can be stored over a period of time and used as required.
Carbon Masters began as a consultancy firm advising companies on how they can cut down on their carbon footprint. After being incubated for a year at Edinburgh University, it operated for two years in the UK.
However, Som had to return to India as his visa expired. They tried continuing here, but realised that the same model wasn’t selling. In their quest to find an approach which was more in sync in Indian market requirements, Som and Kevin came upon a defunct biogas plant in Doddaballapur, in Bengaluru rural district, and commercialised it.
With an investment of about Rs 50 lakh, Kevin and Som started bottling operations and producing bio-fertiliser from the leftover slurry as well. And that’s how Carbonlite was launched in 2014.
The next major development happened when they bought some trucks from Mahindra to test if they could run on bio-CNG. When they found that they could, Mahindra approached them for a partnership. The plant in Malur is a result of that partnership. While Mahindra invested 90% of the 8-crore investment, Som and Kevin also raised some funding from Sangam Network as well as the Indian Angel Network earlier this year.
The 40-tonne capacity plant in Malur currently collects about 33 tonnes of wet waste per day. The waste is supplied majorly by waste management collectives like Hasiru Dala and Saahas. But wet waste is also collected from apartment associations and resident welfare associations in Koramangala, Whitefield and Sarjapur, essentially areas within a 50-km radius of the plant. Some BBMP vendors also supply wet waste.
The plant can produce 1.6 tonnes of bio-CNG per 40 tonnes of wet waste. Their fertiliser production is still in the nascent stage – only up to 1 tonne against the capacity of 8 tonnes. They hope to increase the production to 6 tonnes by February 2018 and work with farmers in the area.
Som says that apart from reducing some burden on the landfills where this garbage would otherwise have ended up, they have also been able to create 40 jobs for people living within a 2-km vicinity of the plant.
Among the restaurants and establishments that Carbon Masters supplies bio-CNG is Iskcon temple. Iskcon generates up to 1.2 tonnes of wet waste daily, which Kevin and Som felt would just burden the landfills. So, they set up a fully functional decentralised bio-CNG plant inside the premises itself in two shipping containers with one stacked on top of another. This is a model Carbon Masters hopes to implement in other places as well.
Apart from Iskcon and Herbs and Spices, Carbon Masters supplies Carbonlite cylinders to both branches of Konark restaurant, SLV Delite – Adiga Residency (restaurant and hotel), Kadambas (a catering service) and Whitefield Diner, among others.
A versatile fuel
Apart from supplying fuel commercially, the bio-CNG is also used to power the Malur plant itself.
“It can power generators, vehicles, machines for steel-cutting, in quarries and can even be used as a petrol replacement. It’s a versatile, environment friendly, renewable source of energy,” Som says.
But even though the usage of the bio-CNG is aplenty, he intends on keeping the price fractionally lower than LPG. At this pace Carbon Masters will break even in five to six years and the plant’s life itself is 15 years.
“In India, few establishments will pay a premium price to shift to greener energy alternatives. We have to keep it affordable. Once they see the benefits, they won’t mind paying more, but till that time, we cannot keep expecting the government to subsidise green fuels,” Som says.