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Can biogas spark a revolution on India's farms?

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Before turning to biogas, Patel would struggle to come up with enough power to run his home and his farm. "The eight hours of power that the government grid supplies daily to a single tube used by 10 neighboring farms would always be usurped by large-holding farmers," says Patel. "Every day I would have to buy 1.7 liters of diesel to run my pump." For irrigation alone, Patel was spending 22,000 rupees ($400) annually and had to limit his farmed area in the summer to keep down costs.

Today, Patel's diesel bill is a fraction of what it was. His biogas plant produces more power than he can use, so after his farm and home requirements are met he sells the remaining power to area farmers, charging 60 rupees ($1) an hour.

He is forced to keep his rates competitive with the government-subsidized power supply to farmers in the area, which caps his profits. But he still has an edge when it comes to timing: The government supply is available for limited and often inconvenient night-time hours; Patel can give his clients power whenever they need it.

The affordability and reliability of biogas means Patel finally has the freedom to make the most of his land. In 2011 he took out a bank loan of 180,000 rupees ($3,330) to install a drip irrigation system, for which the government paid 50 percent. Now the half of his farm that is on the drip system – using a network of narrow pipes to deliver water directly to the base of individual plants – takes just an hour to water.

With water at his beck and call, Patel has ventured into high-value cash crops like tomatoes, watermelon, onions, and flowers. Today he can earn 200,000 rupees ($3,700) from the same three hectares that five years ago, without the biogas plant, fetched him just a quarter of that.

“I can repay the bank loan in 18 months, where earlier it would have taken me five long years to do so,” he says.

It used to be that his main concern was to grow enough grain to feed his family of six and his two farm hands. Now he has plenty to spare and enough cash to buy other food he needs.

And the biogas isn't the only money producer. The fermentation process that produces the gas also leaves behind a fertilizer that Patel can use and sell. He goes through 20 tractor loads of organic compost each season. For most farmers, that compost would cost 1,000 rupees ($19) per load. For Patel, it's free.

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