Waste to Energy: Rural Tamil Nadu Uses Waste to Power its Small Villages

How electricity produced in biogas plants can power common facilities / Credit: Lachlan Ross via Pexels.
Village Square
Tamil Nadu, India
Waste to Energy: Rural Tamil Nadu Uses Waste to Power its Small Villages

Out of sight, out of mind. NIMBYism (not in my backyard), in fact. That’s the attitude most of us have towards the waste we generate. But some villages are taking a conscious decision to not only manage their waste better, getting cleaner streets in the process, but finding multiple uses for it. 

Like powering the streetlights, for one.  

Electricity from biodegradable waste 

“Cow dung is what powers the 140-odd streetlights in our village,” said S Balakrishnan, a dairy farmer of Varadharajapuram village in Tamil Nadu’s Tiruvallur district

Biogas plants, such as the one in Varadharajapuram, are used to produce electricity from methane / Credit: Kalaiyarasu.
Biogas plants, such as the one in Varadharajapuram, are used to produce electricity from methane / Credit: Kalaiyarasu. 

In Kanjirangal village of Sivaganga district, it is wet waste from eateries, markets and households that powers the streetlights. 

It is quite common to produce gas from bio-waste. But electricity? 

“Wet waste can be composted and used as fertilizer or it can be used to produce biogas. The biogas can be used for cooking or to produce electricity,” explained Madhusudhan Reddy, the district collector of Sivaganga.  

The pressure in these plants is not sufficient for cooking and bottling gas is expensive. “So, we opted for lighting,” Reddy adds. 

The plant in Kanjirangal is away from the residential area.   

“So, the electricity from the plant powers some common facilities and a stretch of the highway nearby,” M Alwin, operations manager at Carbon Loops Private Limited, the company that installed and operates the Kanjirangal plant, told Village Square

But how did the idea for biogas plants come about? 

Cow dung finds better use 

Varadharajapuram has a considerable number of dairy farmers.  

“With about 800 cattle, the waste generated is about two tons per day,” said Alwin, whose company installed the plant in Varadharajapuram too. 

As most of the farmlands around the village has been folded into real estate projects, the cattle waste could no longer be used as manure. There was no other disposal method. 

Villagers remember cow dung dotting the streets, making it difficult for them to walk.  

Lack of a waste disposal methods led to cattle waste messing up the roads / Credit: Jency Samuel.
Lack of waste disposal methods led to cattle waste messing up the roads / Credit: Jency Samuel. 

While some of the cattle roamed the roads leaving a mess, the milch cows were confined to the sheds or tethered near the houses.  

“For decades people had been washing down the cattle waste from the shed into the channels, which flowed into the Mannankuttai pond nearby,” said V Kalaiyarasu, the Varadharajapuram panchayat president. 

It had seeped in so much that the groundwater pumped by some of the houses near the pond used to be discolored. 

“When this dirty water from the pond overflowed into the nearby government school during rains, posing a health risk, the then-district collector Mageswari Ravikumar suggested the biogas plant as an alternative,” said Kalaiyarasu.  

Producing biogas 

As for Kanjirangal, Madhusudhan Reddy, who had installed similar biogas plants in Chennai, decided to replicate them. 

“Currently the biggest challenge in our villages, towns and cities is the management of solid and liquid waste. About 50% of the waste is compostable. But generally, everything is put in dump yards. Instead, it can be used to produce useful energy,” said Madhusudhan Reddy, the district collector of Kanjirangal village of Sivaganga district. 

The biogas plants in Varadharajapuram and Kanjirangal have a 2-ton capacity — fed by cow dung and wet waste respectively. 

“An e-car collects kitchen and food waste from houses and eateries and other biodegradable waste from weekly vegetable markets from nearby panchayats and Sivaganga,” said KSM Manimuthu, president of Kanjirangal panchayat. 

The collected bio-waste fed into a digester, along with water, produces biogas in the absence of oxygen. This biogas is used as fuel to generate electricity. 

The electricity is also used to run the plant, besides powering the streetlights and e-car. 

Kitchen and food waste from houses and eateries are used to produce biogas / Credit: Jency Samuel.
Kitchen and food waste from houses and eateries are used to produce biogas / Credit: Jency Samuel. 

Clean villages 

But getting energy out of waste is not the only benefit. The roads in Varadharajapuram are clean now.  

“We collect the dung in drums. Workers take the drums every morning,” said Balakrishnan. 

Now that the villagers don’t wash the waste down the channel, the panchayat has cleared the muck and cleaned the pond.  

Overall, the village has become clean and there is no water stagnation in the school when it rains.  

Some in the village are apprehensive though, as the generator is not working at the moment. But according to the panchayat president, they will repair the generator soon and the streets will remain clean.  

In Kanjirangal, Manimuthu is happy that the marketplaces and villages are clean. And so are the villagers. 

Free fertilizer for farmers 

But there is more.  

“The slurry that you get from the plant is rich in nutrients and distributed to farmers (as fertilizer) free of cost,” said Reddy. “There will be solid manure also, but  in limited quantity. So that’s used in the kitchen garden on the premises.” 

Farmers dilute the slurry and use it as liquid fertilizer, easily applied by mixing with the irrigation water.  

According to Elumalai, a farmer, using such liquid fertilizer free of impurities is more effective than applying manure directly as hardly any weeds grow. 

The slurry from the biogas plant is stored in tanks, which farmers later collect in large drums or tankers / Credit: Kalaiyarasu.
The slurry from the biogas plant is stored in tanks, which farmers later collect in large drums or tankers / Credit: Kalaiyarasu. 

“This slurry can turn infertile soil into fertile, normal soil in six months,” said M Winston, managing partner at BRITT Envirotech, a company providing organic waste management solutions. 

Toward a better environment 

The Kanjirangal plant costing Rs 66 lakh (approx US $80,000) was funded by the National Rurban Mission (NRuM).  

In Varadharajapuram, with a monthly operational cost of nearly Rs 50,000 (approx. US $ 600) borne by the panchayat, the net saving in their electricity bill has been more than Rs 40,000. 

“This is a clean way of processing solid waste. Since there’s no smell, people have little objection to having it in their neighborhood,” said Reddy. 

The biggest advantage is the amount of waste avoided from reaching the landfills. 

From June 2021 till the first week of December 2022, 358 tons of solid waste have been processed in Kanjirangal. With about 50% of landfill gases being methane, more than 4,000 m3 of the greenhouse gas has been prevented from entering the atmosphere. 

And as Manimuthu proudly said, “We produce much-needed electricity with raw material that costs nothing.” 


This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published by Village Square on December 16, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: How electricity produced in biogas plants can power common facilities / Credit: Lachlan Ross via Pexels.  

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