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Generating Power From Rice Husk

An electrical engineer by profession and a rural development worker by passion, 34-year-old Gyanesh Pandey is co-founder and CEO of a company that produces electricity from rice husks. To fulfill his dream of bringing light into the lives of millions of people, Pandey returned to India in 2007 after giving up a successful career in America. “It has been a lifelong dream to work for rural development,” he says.

Born in Baithania village in Bihar, Pandey studied engineering at Benaras Hindu University before moving to New York’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where he earned a master’s degree in electric power and power electronics engineering. He went on to work as a senior yield enhancement engineer with semiconductor manufacturer International Rectifier in Los Angeles, California.

After returning to India, Pandey joined hands with Ratnesh Yadav to set up Husk Power Systems. “Energy forms one part of the vision. Ratnesh and I decided to work on it in 2002. It took over five years to figure out the right technology for the purpose,” Pandey says.

A chance meeting with a gasifier salesman, Krishna Murari, helped Pandey discover the right technology. A gasifier is a device that converts plant material into a gas that can be used as fuel.

Murari showed Pandey how rice husks burned in an oxygen restricted gasifier produce biogas to power rice mills. However, according to Pandey, this decade-old technology was not being used to run a whole power system. The problem was that the rice husks produced a gas that had a very high tar content. Pandey found a solution for this problem. He created a mechanism for cleaning the engine, before the tar would cause it to choke.

“We use the process of biomass gasification, where rice husks or other biomass is burned in a controlled amount of oxygen to produce a gas...which drives an internal combustion engine which runs an alternator that produces electricity,” explains Pandey.

Tamkuha, which means “fog of darkness,” was the first village in Bihar to receive electricity at affordable rates from Pandey and Yadav’s rice husk-based 40 K.V. plant. Now they have 60 mini power plants that provide electricity to more than 250 villages and benefit around 150,000 people. Husk Power Systems set a landmark with its ecofriendly technology.

The Overseas Private Investment Corpo­ration, a U.S. government agency, was one of the first financers of Husk Power, providing a $750,000 loan in 2009. This helped the company develop some of its first power plants in the villages of Bihar.

Does Pandey see potential in his company to replicate its success across India? “Yes, it does hold a great promise to cater to the majority of power-starved rural areas. We plan to set up 2,014 systems by 2014 [and provide electricity to] over 6,500 villages,” says Pandey, who was among the Indian entrepreneurs invited for a round-table discussion with President Barack Obama in Mumbai in November 2010.

Describing his entrepreneurial aspirations, Pandey says, “I want to bring tangible changes in the rural space in the areas of energy, healthcare, primary education, agricultural market aggregation and livelihood generation for women.”