Bio-CNG: Should you consider entering this business?
Though Biogas has been around for nearly three decades, it has been a small industry, dominated by family size plants used for providing cooking fuel and power. Prospects for Biogas plants are improving slowly but significantly, largely driven by the government policies that have allowed use of Bio-CNG (purified Biogas, also known as Compressed Bio Gas or CBG) in commercial vehicles and availability of subsidy for large scale plants. In September 2018, government of India (GOI) announced a policy on Sustainable Alternative Towards Affordable Transportation (SATAT), which proposes to set up 5,000 new Bio-CNG units across the country by 2025 and generate 15 million tonnes of Bio-CNG.
India is the third largest energy consumer in the world with fossil fuels accounting for over 90 per cent of the energy mix. Renewable fuels such as Bio-CNG present a huge opportunity as they not only reduce our dependence on imports but also offer a solution to tackle the growing amount of organic waste and pollution arising out of crop burning.
No wonder then that Bio-CNG industry is suddenly attracting several entrepreneurs, including existing Biogas facilities that are looking to upgrade to Bio-CNG. Profitability of Bio-CNG businesses depends on a host of factors including macro issues that influence demand for cleaner fuels and local elements such as availability of feedstock, capital requirements and ability of entrepreneurs to market their products. This article analyses four key factors that affect viability of Bio-CNG ventures.
1. Demand for cleaner fuels
Natural gas contributes to around 23% [efn_note]Corporate profile of Petronet LNG, June 2018[/efn_note]of primary energy mix (see Figure 1) in India, with a consumption of around 164 MMSCMD[efn_note]City gas distribution and fertiliser sector to drive gas demand, a report by CRISIL, Feb 2019[/efn_note] (equivalent to 45 million tonnes per annum), growing at around 4 per cent per annum. Power, Fertiliser and City Gas Distribution (CGD) are key consuming sectors (see Figure 2). Since the domestic production of gas has not increased significantly, consumption of imported gas (LNG) has been rising (see Figure 3).
Consumption of gas is constrained by the limited availability of infrastructure related to its supply and distribution. Gas distribution network pipelines are available only in 96 districts in Northern and Western parts of country. Similarly, there are only 1424 CNG dispensing stations, 82% of which are located in Maharashtra and Gujarat[efn_note]Economic Times dated September 7, 2018[/efn_note]. Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board (PNRB) is expanding City Gas Distribution (CGD) network significantly so as to cover 400 districts and set up additional 9000 CNG pumping stations. The CGD network will be used to supply Bio-CNG also, therefore boosting its demand.
2. Cost competitiveness of Bio-CNG vis-a-vis other fuels
For large scale adoption, Bio-CNG would need to be cost competitive with LNG, commercial LPG and fuel oil that are used by the transport and industrial sectors. As per SATAT, the introductory price (ex- factory) of Bio-CNG is likely to be Rs. 46/kg and retail price could be around Rs. 52-55 per kg ($14–$15 per MBTU).
The prices of LNG have been decreasing of late, and landed prices of LNG in the near term are expected to be around $ 13 per MBTU, thus translating into a price of Rs. 48 per kg. Over the long term, significant decrease in LNG prices, would put pressure on Bio-CNG prices also.
Note: landed prices of LNG have been calculated by adding $5 to the cost of contracted LNG, to account for cost of regasification and distribution
With regard to Bio-CNG’s cost competitiveness with industrial fuels such as LPG and fuel oil, according to CRISIL[efn_note]As per CRISIL press release: Falling LNG prices will lift city gas distributor margins 250-300 bps, March 2019[/efn_note] , at an average crude price of $64 per barrel, landed cost of fuel oil and LPG would be $12.1 per MMBtu and $16.9 per MMBtu respectively, as against Bio-CNG’s expected prices of $14-15 per MMBtu. Therefore any significant decline in crude prices from current levels could also put pressure on Bio-CNG prices.
The key question that needs to be analyzed is whether a Bio-CNG plant will be profitable at a price of Rs. 46 /kg (ex-plant). Important components of Bio-CNG cost include feedstock, power, and manpower and capital costs, with feedstock cost accounting up to 40% per cent. Therefore feedstock cost (including transport) and its biogas yield play a critical role in determining viability of Bio-CNG unit. For example, a feedstock such as cow dung has a poorer biogas yield vis-a-vis other sources, resulting in lower Biogas output and higher capital costs. However it may be available free of cost, thus reducing the operating cost and making the operations viable.
An indicative cost structure for a press mud based BIO-CNG unit is provided in Table 1. It has been assumed that the capacity of the plant is 10 TPD of Bio-CNG and its capital cost is Rs. 34 crores, with a subsidy of Rs. 8 crores. The plant procures press mud at a price of Rs. 800 per tonne and press mud yields about 105 cubic meter of Bio gas per tonne.
As can be seen from the Table 2, the cost of Bio-CNG increases from Rs. 39,000 per tonne to Rs. 52,000 per tonne due to an increase in the feedstock cost from Rs. 600 per tonne to Rs. 1100 per tonne.
3. Capital cost
As a thumb rule, cost of a project that handles around 200 tonnes of waste per day (produces 10 tonnes of Bio-CNG per day) is likely to be around Rs. 30-35 crores. The fixed cost (interest and depreciation) contributes to as much as 30 per cent of the total cost of production and this can vary depending on the cost of land and machinery and timely receipt of subsidy, as described below.
- Land cost: Around 4 acres of land is required to set up a plant that can handle 200 tonnes of waste per day. The cost can vary hugely depending on the location and whether the land is agricultural or industrial, land cost is typically funded by the entrepreneur.
- Machinery and civil work: These together contribute to almost 70 % of the cost of a Bio-CNG plant. The machinery comprises biogas holder, scrubber, upgradation unit, plant automation equipment and piping/electricals and its cost can vary a lot across vendors depending on whether they are manufacturing it in house or procuring it from others. Civil work is typically executed through local contractors and its costs may not differ across vendors.
- Timely receipt of regulatory approvals: A Bio-CNG unit requires a number of permissions including a license from Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation (PESO), fire safety certifications and a certification from MNRE (Ministry of New & Renewable Energy). Ability of the company to secure these licenses on time can minimize delays in commissioning of the plant and result in cost savings. Additionally, receipt of subsidy is also subject to project completion and commencement of commercial production and any delay in project commissioning would also delay the subsidy, therefore increasing the interest cost.
Since purity/quality and specifications to standards is of topmost priority for a Bio-CNG unit, quality of machinery/upgradation technology should not be compromised. Significant cost savings can be realised by working directly with OEMs who can provide both biogas fabrication and CBG upgradation technology, instead of engaging with contractors who would outsource critical plant components.
While the offtake for Bio CNG from OMC is assured to an extent, it would be important to develop alternate set of customers such as industries/hotels, who can perhaps provide better pricing/payment terms and provide cushion when the demand from OMC declines. Also, the potential for sale of organic fertiliser would need to be assessed. Fertilisers/compost are typically sold through dealer network and require large sales force that can educate farmers on benefits of organic fertilisers. Alternatively, the option of bulk sale to fertiliser companies needs to be explored.
The need for cleaner fuels is evident given that by 2030, under the Paris Climate Change Agreement, India has committed to meeting 40% of its electricity con from renewable energy sources. While macro environment remains positive, the key risk to a Bio-CNG plant viability is lack of any linkage between the feedstock and final product price and lack of clarity on the price revision mechanism under SATAT. Since Bio-CNG would compete with fossil fuels, its pricing would depend on the price of CNG/LPG, whereas the price of its feedstock may move very differently. This is already the case with biogas based power plants/waste to energy plants that are not able to compete with decreasing tariffs of solar/wind power plants. Therefore, feedstock analysis, availability and long term agreements for purchase of feedstock are critical to the viability of Bio-CNG plants. Industries such as sugar mills, distilleries, and poultry farms that have captive access to feedstock would be most favourably disposed to take advantage of this opportunity.
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 Corporate profile of Petronet LNG, June 2018
 City gas distribution and fertilizer sector to drive gas demand, a report by CRISIL, Feb 2019
 Economic Times dated September 7, 2018
 As per CRISIL press release: Falling LNG prices will lift city gas distributor margins 250-300 bps, March 2019