- India has achieved 9.45 percent of ethanol blending with petrol and is likely to achieve 10 percent blending by end of this year. It has targetted 20 percent blending by 2025.
- Ethanol is a renewable source of energy used for its benefits such as increase in engine efficiency, better fuel quality, reduced emissions among other environmental benefits.
- However, experts say that the 20 percent blending target, with a focus on feedstock as the source, could be harmful as it would lead to changes in land use patterns and demand for more water.
The Indian government recently claimed that it has achieved 9.45 percent ethanol blending with petrol, a practice which contributes to lower emissions and other environmental benefits. At this pace, the country is likely to reach a target of 10 percent ethanol blending by November 2022, the end of the ethanol supply year (ESY). The government is also confident of achieving its 2025 target of 20 percent blending of ethanol in petrol, that’s stated in the National Biofuel Policy 2018.
India’s biofuel policy aims to reduce the country’s crude oil import bill, cut down emissions and move towards cleaner fuel. On March 25, the government told the parliament that 11 states/union territories have achieved the target of 10 percent blending. According to the data, the states which already exceeded the 10 percent blending targets include Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and Daman & Diu & Nagar Haveli.
Ethanol is considered a renewable source of energy. It is derived either from feedstocks such as sugarcane juice or molasses, considered first-generation sources, or through the non-starch-based fibrous part of plant materials (lignocellulosic parts) which include paddy straws, bagasse, forest residues, and others.
The Ethanol Blending Programme (EBP) in India started in 2003 with the target of five percent blending of ethanol in petrol in selected districts which was later expanded to more states in 2006.
Ethanol is used for blending with petrol due to its characteristics which lead to benefits such as an increase in engine efficiency, better fuel quality due to its higher octane number and other environmental benefits, note studies. Due to its complete combustion quality, ethanol leads to lesser emissions of carbon monoxide, and other particulate matter (PM).
While the government is confident of achieving 20 percent blending, there are some challenges along the way, note experts. For instance, the dependency on feedstock for ethanol production would result in an additional burden on the farms and feedstock, note experts and object to using first-generation sources for the production of ethanol for blending purposes.
Ramya Natarajan, a research scientist at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), a Bengaluru-based think tank, told Mongabay-India that the transition from 10 percent ethanol blending to 20 percent would lead to other investments and additional burdens on several sectors, ranging from its effect on farms to automobile users. “Most of the ethanol in India is produced from sugarcane, which is a water-intensive crop. Based on CSTEP’s analysis, India should be able to achieve up to 10 percent ethanol blending with the existing level of sugarcane cultivation – using molasses and surplus sugar. However, the 20 percent blending target would lead to increased sugarcane cultivation, which in turn will use more arable land and groundwater and affect food security. Further, existing vehicles are compatible with 5 percent-10 percent ethanol-blended petrol, so an increase in blending beyond that would mean replacing the existing stock or investing in retrofitting and calibrations,” she said.
Natarajan said that the most sustainable form of development in the blending programme would be to keep the blending levels up to 10 percent and not pursue the 20 percent target because otherwise the burden would be on the farmlands, groundwater, and automobile users, and the costs may outweigh the benefits.
Her arguments are also validated by government reports. For instance, a report by NITI Aayog, the federal government’s think tank, claimed that in 2019-20, out of the total ethanol produced in the country, 91 percent came from sugarcane alone. Another report by NITI Aayog, on sugar and sugar industry, claims that sugarcane and paddy (the feedstock source of ethanol) use 70 percent of India’s irrigation water leading to a lack of water availability for other crops.
Promit Mookherjee, a researcher at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), argues against the focus on the first-generation sources for deriving ethanol. In his latest publication on biofuel, he claimed that the shift of the government from second-generation sources, mostly agricultural waste and by-products, to the first generation, is not sustainable in the long term and is going away from the real objective of using biofuels.
“We need to first understand what is the real objective of opting for a biofuel. It is to reduce emissions from the complete life cycle of the fuel. To achieve this, we should not first target food grain-based feedstock as it will lead to unsustainable land-use changes but rather focus our energy, incentive and research on second-generation fuels,” Mookherjee told Mongabay-India. “Globally, the cost of ethanol production is also comparatively higher in India due to the dependence on heavily-subsidised food grains. If we want to reduce the cost of production and look for a sustainable development model, we need to focus on producing ethanol from waste. Although these technologies are still nascent, public investment in research and development and pilot projects could go a long way to making them commercially viable,” he said.
His concerns are based on the shift in the government policy from the 2018 National Biofuel Policy, where the focus was on second-generation sources, to the 2021 NITI Aayog Roadmap for Ethanol Blending where the focus was back on the first-generation crops for biofuels. In the 2021 roadmap, the ethanol blending targets were also fast-tracked from 2030 to 2025. The new programme aims for 20 percent ethanol blending by 2025 and five percent biodiesel blending by 2025. While ethanol production is mainly derived from sugar crops and agricultural wastes, biodiesel is driven from oil-based seeds and plants.
Food vs fuel
India ranks 94 out of the 107 countries around the world in the Global Hunger Index 2020. With this background, questions are often raised about using feedstock and farmlands for energy crops instead of food.
Some international studies also argue about the need for pushing biofuels to reduce emissions at a time when renewable energy such as solar and wind power is increasing along with a growth in electric vehicles which does not require fossil fuels.
A recent study by the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that the distance covered by an electric vehicle, that is recharged from one hectare of solar generation, would need an equivalent of ethanol from 251 hectares of sugarcane and 187 hectares of maize crops for the same distance. This could have an impact on costs.
The IEEFA study noted that the large-scale land diversion for this project would be in contravention of the other priorities of the Indian government such as food production, adoption to renewable sources of energy and water security of the country.
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Solutions to the production issues
NITI Aayog and other government documents also admit the lack of feedstock availability to produce enough ethanol in the country. Experts claim that across the country, ethanol generating plants do not have a regular supply of feedstock of a particular type.
Dr Sanjib Kumar Karmee, Principal Scientist from the Sardar Patel Renewable Energy Research Institute (SPRERI), Anand (Gujarat) told Mongabay India, “Continuous feed stock supply is key for the operation of bioethanol plants. If you design the plant specific to one type of biomass, it could not get year long supply. Thus, Instead of setting up feedstock specific plants government should plan for establishing biofuel plants that could accept a wide range of feedstocks. ”
He also added that more research works are also needed to make more genetically engineered biocatalysts which could use the same industrial-plant to ferment different bio sources to produce ethanol to make the process cost effective and to achieve the real targets of biofuel generation.
Despite such reservations, the argument of the Indian government and policymakers to favour ethanol is that the country is one of the leading energy consumers globally and is highly dependent on oil and gas imports. The government has also recently amended norms to allow the use of poor quality broken rice and surplus food available at the Food Corporation of India (FCI) for ethanol production in the country. It is estimated that the cost of oil imports in India could cost around US $100 billion in 2021-22.
According to the projections from the International Energy Agency (IEA), India, which ranks fourth in ethanol production after Brazil, US and China, would become the third largest producer of ethanol by 2023. While the production of ethanol in ESY (ethanol supply year) in 2013-14 stood at 1.55 crore (15.5 million) litres, it touched 302.30 crore (3023 million) liters in 2020-21 ESY.
Beyond first and second generation of biofuels, research is also on to promote third generation sources (algae) and fourth generation (photobiological solar fuels and electro fuels) sources as well.
Banner image: A farmer ploughs his farmland at Baramati, a sugarcane rich region of Maharashtra. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.