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Biofuels: A reality check

By Ranjit Devraj

President Kalam envisions millions of hectares of wastelands greened with oil-bearing jatropha. All the sugarcane-growing states are excited about bio-ethanol. Mercedes Benzes have been run on bio-diesel blends. But is the hype around biofuels to be believed?

If the current hype around biofuels is to be believed, in a few short years, India would not only have significantly reduced its petroleum import bills but also provided worthwhile employment to millions of farmers in rural areas. Vast acreages of wasteland would be green with oil-bearing jatropha and other vegetation heavy with enough clean carbon to power sizeable chunks of transport and industry and even earn the country tonnes of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) credits.

Reality check: To begin with there is an entrenched petroleum import lobby in the country that no one dare tackle. Those in the know speak in undertones about a self-perpetuating system complete with shadowy middlemen and fat offshore commissions that make the very idea of biofuels or any form of alternative energy laughable. Crude oil, as an old Arab said, is the very blood of Satan.

According to President Abdul Kalam's PURA (Providing Urban Facilities in Rural Areas) plan, bio-diesel plants, especially jatropha, if grown on 11 million hectares of wasteland, can yield approximately Rs 200 billion a year and provide employment to over 12 million people -- both in plantations and in the extraction and processing units. In all, India has 63 million hectares of wasteland. "Can there be a better project than this for coherent development of our rural sector and sustainable business proposition for industry?'' the President has demanded.

Not many would contradict the President. But Alok Adholyeya, Director of Biotechnology and Management of Bioresources at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) contends that if it was at all possible to green India's wastelands, there would be no wastelands left. Not only that, it would always be possible to find crops, including food crops, that could yield faster and bigger profits. Adholyeya says the idea that jatropha can be grown anywhere and without any input belongs in the realm of wishful thinking. In any case, irrigation and fertilisers are needed for commercial-level yields. TERI has taken care to see that its own plantations are in areas with sufficient rainfall. TERI's studies have also shown that technological inputs such as inoculation of jatropha plants with mycorrhiza are needed to improve jatropha nutrition. Needless to say, this calls for the kind of attention and investment that existing agriculture does not receive.

Of the many arguments trotted out in favour of biofuels, the most compelling is that it could help Indian industries avail of CDM benefits as defined under the Kyoto Protocol. But a closer look reveals that there is yet to be anything like an approved methodology. There may never be one. The trouble here is that bio-fuel projects fall under the 'fuel-switch' category. Essentially, this means that not only do emissions from the plantations and the processing units need to be taken into account in assessments but also the end-use of the final product. It does not take genius to understand that in Indian conditions it would be impossible to monitor whether the end-users are taking their diesel (or petrol) blended or neat. Besides, individual projects, in a country where farmers work handkerchief-sized plots, may never be large enough to attract the buyers of certified emission reductions (CERs) -- unless farmers get smart and form large cooperatives. Someone should ask Verghese Kurien.

The case for bio-ethanol has greatly excited politicians from sugarcane-growing states for decades. The example of Brazil saving tens of billions of dollars over the past three decades has been held out. As also the fact that bio-ethanol can be blended into petrol to the extent of 20% without engine modification. But it did not take very long to realise that conditions in India are different and that availability of bio-ethanol is bound to fluctuate according to sugarcane production. The simple fact is that sugar is a politically and culturally-sensitive commodity in this country. Maybe this is why no government has dared to issue a clear policy directive on bio-ethanol. As a result, there have been many false starts by impatient industrialists, and some have come to grief.

The fixation on jatropha for bio-diesel and sugarcane for bio-ethanol goes back to the recommendation of the Committee on the Development of Bio-fuels (CDB) submitted in April 2003.

So what is the way forward? Alok Adholyeya still sees hope in the corporate sector which is keen on experimenting with new technologies. But the real driving force could be the sheer demand for cheap fuels that is expected to be generated by the common man. According to World Energy Outlook (2005) in a business-as-usual scenario, by 2030 India will be consuming 5.6 million barrels of oil per day, of which 94% will be met through imports. There is also growing public concern at the deterioration of the environment from harmful emissions. Court orders compelling public transporters in Mumbai and Delhi to switch to CNG reflect this concern and have definitely spurred the search for newer biofuels and technologies. Entrepreneurs are now seriously looking at producing bio-ethanol from crop residues such as rice straw and bagasse. There are also plants like sweet sorghum which have a far higher yield than sugarcane or grain. The technology for producing ethanol from biomass, which is abundant in this country, is promising but could take a few more years to develop.

Similarly, for bio-diesel production, Adholyeya advocates examination of ''multiple feedstock'', which means looking at several promising crops rather than being fixated on jatropha - which is not native to this country. There are local candidates such as mahua, neem, rice bran oil, palm oil and a dozen other species with proven suitability to this country's agro-climatic conditions.

What is most important is that as bio-diesel availability -- from whatever source -- improves, so must the capacity for oil extraction and processing. And this calls for suitable policy initiatives that encourage investment by private entrepreneurship. This could start with exemptions on sales tax, excise and duty, plus support for transport. As things stand the price of bio-diesel is not very different from the average of Rs 25 per litre for regular diesel. A sales tax exemption of 9% and excise duty of 7% can be considered a promotional step.

Seeing is believing. TERI plans to demonstrate the economics of biofuels with its 8,000 hectares under jatropha in Andhra Pradesh which will attain 'seed-to-oil' capacity in the next four years. The University of Hohenheim has been developing diesel blends in collaboration with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) which have been tested on Mercedes Benz C-class cars without a murmur. But the best demonstration of bio-diesel power comes from Bastar district where the tribals have, for some time now, been using jatropha oil to power their pumps and farm equipment. But then they do not have to wait for policy pronouncements from reluctant governments.

Can jatropha fuel a Mercedes?

'Biofuel' is a broad term covering all fuels produced from earth-based or agro-based products. Generally, liquid transport fuels produced from plant material or recycled vegetable oils are called biofuels. Ethanol is a biofuel which has been used in automobiles or agro-based products for some time in countries like Brazil. Biofuels have the potential to displace substantial amounts of petroleum use in transport over the next few decades. They can be blended with petro-products, or in some cases, used exclusively to run internal combustion engines.

In 2002, the Government of India issued a notification declaring it mandatory to use a 5% ethanol blend in petrol in nine states and four union territories, beginning January 1, 2003. However, this has not been implemented. In 2003, a draft national biofuel policy was also discussed at various fora. It has been reported that a national biodiesel policy will be announced by August 2005. A National Biofuel Fund of Rs 1,400 crore to promote biodiesel production is also talked about.

Biodiesel is a recent term used to denote biofuel produced by processing non-edible oilseeds. In India, such non-edible oil can be produced from seeds of plants like Jatwpha curcas, Pongamia pinnata, Hevea braziliensis (rubber), Madhuca indica (mahua), cotton, neem, etc. Jatwpha curcas is the species being promoted in India for production of biodiesel. It is an indigenous wild bush or tree that grows well in semi-arid marginal or wastelands and is found in many tropical countries. Oil is extracted from the dry seeds of this plant. Through the process of transesterification, the oils are converted to a product called Jatropha Methyl Ester (JME) or biodiesel. Studies and trials done by IISc, Bangalore, have shown that this biodiesel can be used to fully power an automobile, run agricultural pumps etc, without blending or modification of the original diesel engines. Recently, Daimler Chrysler India Ltd, in collaboration with Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute, has done a 6,000-km road test of a Mercedes C class car exclusively using biodiesel. Similar tests were done by Tata Motors in collaboration with Indian Oil Corporation. However, the government initially plans to go the petrodiesel blending route, upto a certain percentage.

Meanwhile, criticism is also surfacing against large-scale planting of a poisonous weed like jatropha. Some people fear its adverse impact on biodiversity. Irrigating such large tracts of wasteland for the first three years after planting, using scarce water resources, is another big question. Others contest the claim that it will be cheaper than diesel. Since combustion of biodiesel will result in CO2 emissions, its environment friendliness is also suspect. What is needed is a field-level pilot study to accurately assess the production in varying land and climatic conditions, to identify the right species, harmless methods of propagation of the plant, strict scientific studies to establish its economic viability in the long-term, and the emission from its combustion.

-G M Pillai

Excerpted from The New Energy Economy, Edited by G M Pillai, published by World Institute of Sustainable Energy, 2005

(Ranjit Devraj is Editor (Asia Pacific region) of the Inter Press Service (IPS) international news agency. Earlier, he worked as Special Correspondent for the United News of India (UNI)covering science and technology, environment and health)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2006