Responsible production of biogas in India
Using rice straw and other biomass for the production of biogas raises technical and economic challenges, but also fundamental ethical and social questions. This project investigates how industrial interests and farmers’ needs in India can be integrated in the design of a system for sustainable biogas production on the basis of rice straw.
In Punjab widespread - yet illegal - livelihood practices of burning rice straw biomass, an agricultural residue, lead to environmental pollution and health problems. The project initially aimed to develop a design and implementation plan for an innovative and responsible socio-technical system for utilising rice straw to produce biogas, and for delivering part of the produced energy to the farmers. It aimed to do so in collaboration with DSM-India and a range of other stakeholders.
To provide for biogas processes that balance technological challenges with industrial interests and farmers’ needs in an ethically sound way, the values and interests of farmers, farmers’ organisations, innovators, industrial partners, government bodies and other stakeholders have been studied and described. In addition, the researchers have identified possible avenues to align these values and interests, including:
- various forms of dialogue;
- innovative socio-economic arrangements and business models
- novel ways of presenting and mobilizing technological expertise
As the project unfolds, the problem definition has become broader: a perspective inspired by Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) has brought to the light that it is not just about making gas from straw, but about complex entanglements of agricultural processes and livelihood, commercial interests that compete between biogas and bioethanol, policy incentives that compete alike, etc. In this complex, the technological challenges play only one part of many.
The insights gained from the project will be relevant for stimulating a bio-based economy in the Netherlands and globally, but the most direct relevance will be for India and similarly emerging economies where a new balance needs to be found between sustainability in farming and food production on the one hand and sustainability in energy production and consumption on the other hand
The project will lead to an understanding of the feasibility of scalable technology for biogas production in India. More generally, it leads to an understanding of how a seemingly simple question – how to make gas from straw – travels and connects to elements as diverse as petrol imports, ethanol blending targets, farming practices holding traditional notions of biogas that are rehearsed time and again, academic research that connects along very specific lines to implementation practices on the field, etc. This new understanding is described more broadly than in mere technological and economic terms, and it includes possible instances of RRI-inspired interventions in energy and agricultural policies.
Collaboration with industrial partner
The researchers have provided an in-house workshop for the DSM-India staff in June 2016, on the topic “CSR and Innovation: contradicting or reinforcing each other?” This workshop was an unequivocal success, and it may serve as a ‘best practice’ for other responsible innovation projects. The workshop consisted of three integrated parts:
- University staff gave a tailor-made course to corporate staff, who thus got access to information that is otherwise difficult to acquire;
- University staff presented an introduction to RRI in terms of the current agenda and practices of the corporate staff;
- The workshop provided an intensive exchange of experiences and views between university and corporate partners, resulting in a better understanding of each other.
In addition to DSM-India as a corporate partner, the project has meanwhile developed strong ties with academics in India, with farmers’ organisations, and with partners in policy making and governance.
The project is strongly interdisciplinary. It draws on vulnerability studies, responsible research and innovation studies, and ethics/ philosophy. Methods used include ethical analysis, ethnographic fieldwork, literature review, stakeholder dialogues, and policy analysis.
India, sustainable biogas, energy security, rice straw biomass, rice straw biomass, industry, farmers' needs, business models, scalable biogas production, scenario study, local livelihoodsOfficial project title: