The new business venture transforming India’s use of renewable gas while protecting the planet.
Inspired by Al Gore’s climate change film An Inconvenient Truth, Kevin Houston was in his mid-fifties when he opted to leave behind a successful career with multinational corporates like Procter and Gamble, PwC and IBM to join the first intake of the University of Edinburgh’s Carbon Management Masters programme, now hosted at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation (ECCI). There he met his business partner Som Narayan, and together they set up an international carbon management consultancy, Carbon Masters, in 2009, which was recently announced as one of three finalists in Shell’s #makethefuture Accelerator programme.
Here Kevin talks about the team's latest business venture producing India’s first renewable natural gas brand, Carbonlites.
We essentially take organic material, principally food waste or agricultural waste like chicken or cow dung, and we put it into an anaerobic digester to create biogas.
That in itself is not new. What is new is that we then take out the impurities, like hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide and moisture, and compress the gas into a cylinder. By doing this we are able to reach a purity level of around 92 per cent methane.
At that sort of concentration it’s just like compressed natural gas, so we sell it to restaurants and hotels in Bangalore to displace LPG (liquid petroleum gas).
Carbonlites performs better for chefs. With LPG the pressure drops with use. That’s a problem when you’re a restaurant in the middle of a busy Saturday night. With Carbonlites you have constant pressure – so chefs love to cook with it, and it saves on costs. One chef said it was the only gas that allowed him to get a perfect golden brown colour on vada, a local fried snack. When we worked with chefs to refine our product and had to take it away to adjust something, the first question they’d ask is when they could have it back!
And crucially for us, when you burn Carbonlites it’s carbon neutral – it only releases the amount of CO2 that was in the original organic material it was produced from. So it doesn’t add to carbon stocks that cause climate change. In addition the waste we’re using would otherwise go to landfill and release harmful methane – so it’s a double win.
I was sent to Bangalore on a project and I saw that they have thousands of telecom towers running on diesel as their back up power source. Som was based back in India by then and he and I thought there had to be a better way to generate much-needed energy without emitting carbon emissions. So we originally looked at the idea of bottled biogas as a solution for that, launching Carbonlites in 2014.
In the early days we used three Mahindra & Mahindra (a major Indian automobile company) trucks to take our gas to clients and bring back the empty cylinders. Mahindra & Mahindra came over to our plant and thought what we were doing was incredible. So we persuaded them to invest in building a large-scale biogas plant in Bangalore which we’ve just signed an eight-year agreement to both operate and sell the gas output from. The senior management team really does understand climate change and it’s great working in partnership with them. When the big plant comes on stream we’ll produce about a tonne of gas a day and we’ll be able to service even more clients.
We want to make Carbonlites the biggest renewable energy brand in India.
There’s a complete lack of waste management infrastructure in cities across India. Some 60 per cent of municipal waste is organic and they’re going to run out of room to send it all to landfill. In addition 600 million people work in the agricultural sector and there’s a huge amount of agricultural waste which can be harnessed to produce renewable energy.
So with Carbonlites we’re solving a pollution issue, we’re solving a waste issue, we’re solving a climate change issue. It’s a fantastic carbon mitigation solution. We could potentially revolutionise the whole biogas sector in India.
The impact of the University of Edinburgh in our story is huge. When I first saw Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 I thought hang on, why aren’t we doing something about this? That’s when I found the University’s Carbon Management Masters course. I was starting university just as my kids were leaving! It was the most wonderful year, and it’s where I met my business partner Som.
Later on I had an office at ECCI. It was fantastic being surrounded by other people trying to start up low carbon businesses, being connected to others. ECCI has become so much more now, bringing together researchers, businesses and governments to drive carbon innovation.
I said recently that it’s taken us eight long years to become an overnight success! We believed in our vision from the get-go. It’s been a hard slog trying to raise money but it’s amazing some of the investors we’ve now got.
Since 2014 we’ve put our blood, sweat and tears into Carbonlites and as soon as this new money comes in we’ve got a lot more work to do. But that’s the brilliant thing about India – it’s not short of talent. We’ve created 15 jobs for young Indian people so far and we’ll have 30 or 40 over the summer. It feels good to be really making a difference and it all started on the Carbon Management Masters programme at Edinburgh.
Professor Dave Reay, Assistant Principal, Global Environment & Society, talks about the University’s online MSc in Carbon Management starting in September 2017.