From being counted as a non-performing asset (NPA) by its bankers to becoming the toast of the World Economic Forum 2020 in Davos, Pune-based Noble Exchange (NEX), which is backed by the world's largest vaccine manufacturer, it seems has tremendous immunity against setbacks.
NEX, funded by Adar Poonawalla of the Serum Institute of India, is busy these days to complete the process of putting into trial a project for supplying bio-CNG created out of city waste to about 100-odd public buses. The plan is to replicate the business model in other similar-sized cities, once successful. The management claims its efforts will help in two ways. Firstly, it will help in solving the city waste and related issues. Secondly, the larger aim is to reduce the country's dependence on crude oil imports which,in FY2019, stood at 84 percent, translating into US$111.9 billion in precious foreign exchange.
Promoters Nuriel Pezarkar and Shweta Negi of NEX are confident about the project's success. “We have been working on this for quite some time. The land has been allotted to us now (near Nigdi bus depot),” they say. The company ascertains that the project, planned to be run in collaboration with Pune Mahanagar Parivahan Mahamandal (PMPML), at the current stage will require setting up of one refuelling station or at the most two. If the situation demands, then more can be added at later stages, the duo add. PMPML is the public transport bus service provider for Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad municipal zones.
Taking cognizance of its importance, the project was showcased at World Economic Forum 2020 at Davos in January where participants discussed ideas to tackle the climate emergency arising out of sustained global warming. The development seems significant considering the expert opinion that bio-CNG, also known as CBG, has the potential to replace conventional fossil fuel-based CNG as an affordable fuel for automotive, industrial and commercial use by conversion of biomass or any kind of organic waste.
Converting city waste into green mobility
The pre-segregated and non-compacted organic waste is collected by Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) vehicles from waste generators and delivered to the NEX segregation facility at Baner, a suburb in Pune. The organic waste is then offloaded into the hopper by a PMC vehicle, after which it gets segregated in a well defined manner before being brought to the plant in Talegaon Dabhade in the form of slurry. According to an estimate, around 52-55 percent of total municipal waste generated in urban cities is organic in nature.
The city waste gets segregated at the plant near Baner in Pune. Effective segregation plays an important role in bringing out better CBG quality.
Biogas is then produced through a process of anaerobic decomposition, generating methane content of about 94-96 percent. In comparison, conventional CNG offers about 85-92 percent methane. As a result, experts claim that with its better air-to-fuel ratio, CBG offers lower engine heating and better torque leading to enhance combustible efficiency and mileage for the vehicles. The CBG is filled in special cylinders for supply to clientele, which includes India's largest OMC, Indian Oil Corporation's (IOCL) fuel stations in Pune.
Each day, at NEX’s Pune plant, about 100 tonnes of bio-waste are processed, helping generate 3,000 kilograms of CBG. The plant has a CBG-generating capacity of around 300 tonnes, when all the three digestors start functioning. The CBG is filled in special cylinders for supply to clientele, which includes India's largest OMC, Indian Oil Corporation (IOCL) fuel stations in Pune. While IOCL takes around 2,500kg of CBG fuel daily, it goes up to 3,000kg on weekends. Mahindra CIE Automotive, a subsidiary of CIE Automotive Group of Spain, picks up the remaining gas, whenever there is extra for the forging needs of its plant near Chakan, in Pune.
The fall before the rise
NEX must be breathing a sigh of relief that its plans are fructifying at last. That's because its journey towards public mobility was not smooth. In 2015, NEX had designed two of the world’s largest CBG plants — one each in Pune and Bangalore —with a combined waste processing capacity of 146,000 tonnes a year, which when converted into CNG translates into 6,930 tonnes of CBG per annum.
In fact, the company initially started supplying CBG for industrial use to a few companies before deciding to focus on automobiles due to the huge potential in the transport field. NEX management also approached a few software majors to supply CBG for their staff buses. However, they soon learnt that CBG cannot be sold in India for automotive purposes without receiving a mandatory nod after testing and licensing from agencies like Petroleum Explosive and Safety Organisation (PESO), ARAI and others.
Tata Motors offered to test CBG on its vehicles. However, even while the tests and trials for the fuel continued, NEX could not sustain itself during the period due to high repayment cost to the bank and other charges, which accounted for Rs 60 lakh annually. Thus it was not long before bankers declared NEX as an NPA.
But a stroke of luck followed, what with the government announcing the 'Sustainable Alternative Towards Affordable Transportation (SATAT)’ initiative towards end-2018. Further, under the new bio-fuel policy, also announced in 2018, included CBG among the bio-fuels for automobiles, offering assured purchase from private entrepreneurs by the government oil marketing companies. “By the time SATAT came, we were dead. We were declared NPA and this plant was shut down completely,” reminisces Pezarkar. However, realising the considerable potential that CBG offered, NEX began regrouping itself, investing another Rs 15 crore to restructure the plant in Pune. The company soon began supplying CBG to Indian Oil.
Bangalore CBG plant still needs cash injection
While the CBG plant at Talegaon is seeing a new lease of life, the one at Bangalore, which has seen an investment of Rs 22 crore, is far from it. The promoters expect that turnaround can be achieved in about a year’s time provided there is assistance from the government, oil companies, or banks and financiers. NEX needs about Rs 14 crore to restart the plant and an additional Rs six crore is due to the banks.
Meanwhile, the company is pinning hopes on positive news to come from the trial runs of the 100 public transport buses which will ply the roads of Pune using eco-friendly CBG and also help it chart out its future course of action for the company.