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Guest Column

Published on: Nov. 9, 2021, 1:13 p.m.
Blending for a bright future
  • Ethanol is a low-hanging fruit, with both environmental and economic benefits

By Tarun Sawhney. The author is Vice Chairman & Managing Director, Triveni Engineering & Industries Ltd

India is one of the fastest growing economies and the third largest consumer of primary energy in the world after the US and China. India’s fuel energy security will remain vulnerable until alternative fuels are developed based on renewable feedstocks. The government of India targets to reduce the country’s carbon footprint by 30-35 per cent by 2030. 

These targets will be achieved through a five-pronged strategy which includes: Increasing domestic production, adopting biofuels and renewables, implementing energy efficiency norms, improving refinery processes and achieving demand substitution. This strategy envisages a strategic role for biofuels in the Indian energy basket. 

The government has proposed a target of 20 per cent blending of ethanol in petrol and 5 per cent blending of biodiesel in diesel by 2025-2030 and introduced multiple initiatives to increase indigenous production of biofuels.

India is the second-most polluted country in the world, with almost all its people living in areas where the annual average particulate matter level exceeds World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. 

Pollution caused by fossil fuel vehicular exhaust is a big part of the problem, contributing a significant percentage of greenhouse emissions, and a much larger percentage of carbon monoxide pollution

The use of biofuels such as ethanol, CBG, agri residues, second generation bio-fuels provides an extremely viable and eco-friendly solution. Ethanol-blended fuel makes internal combustion highly efficient; it reduces the formation of greenhouse gases up to 90 per cent as compared to conventional fuels, and reduces particulate pollutants to zero. Moreover, it does not require any design changes to the existing internal combustion engines.

Ethanol is a low-hanging fruit, with both environmental and economic benefits. India has been producing surplus sugarcane for many years now. This surplus yield can be diverted to produce ethanol. Doing so will generate additional income for farmers and more employment opportunities in rural areas.

Ethanol can be made from not only sugarcane but also waste feedstock such as corn, maize, potatoes, and rice. This waste feedstock is usually thrown away; using it for ethanol production can ensure that farmers get a price for it.

Domestic biofuel production and consumption can also help in offsetting oil imports and enhancing demand for important agricultural commodities. The use of biofuels can reduce emissions from sectors such as heavy-duty vehicles, aviation, and shipping, which are difficult to bring into the ambit of low-carbon electricity.

At a national level, a tax differentiation should be provided between fossil fuels and renewable fuels to encourage the use of ethanol. Such measures, together with mandatory ethanol blending, could help India become one of the largest producers and consumers of ethanol in the world. The National Policy on Biofuels, introduced by the government in 2018, is significant in this context. It has set a target of 10 per cent ethanol blending with vehicle fuel by the year 2022, and 20 per cent by 2025. It will also play an important role in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goal of making India a $5 trillion economy.

Ethanol can be a game-changer for not just transportation and environment, but also for agriculture and trade. 

Climate change impact crucial for bio-fuel

Observed climate change is already affecting food security through increasing temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, and greater frequency of some extreme events. Studies that separate out climate change from other factors affecting crop yields have shown that yields of some crops (e.g., maize and wheat) in many lower-latitude regions have been affected negatively by observed climate changes, while in many higher-latitude regions, yields of some crops (e.g., maize, wheat, and sugar beets) have been affected positively over recent decades. 

 

Food security will be increasingly affected by projected future climate change. While increased CO2 is projected to be beneficial for crop productivity at lower temperature increases, it is projected to lower nutritional quality (e.g., wheat grown at 546–586 ppm CO2 has 5.9-12.7 per cent less protein, 3.7-6.5 per cent less zinc, and 5.2-7.5 per cent less iron). Distributions of pests and diseases will change, affecting production negatively in many regions. 

Fruit and vegetable production, a key component of healthy diets, is also vulnerable to climate change. Declines in yields and crop suitability are projected under higher temperatures, especially in tropical and semi-tropical regions. Heat stress reduces fruit set and speeds up development of annual vegetables, resulting in yield losses, impaired product quality, and increasing food loss and waste.

Longer growing seasons enable a greater number of plantings to be cultivated and can contribute to greater annual yields. However, some fruits and vegetables need a period of cold accumulation to produce a viable harvest, and warmer winters may constitute a risk.

About 21-37 per cent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are attributable to the food system. These are from agriculture and land use, storage, transport, packaging, processing, retail, and consumption. This estimate includes emissions of 9-14 per cent from crop and livestock activities within the farm gate and 5-14 per cent from land use and land-use change including deforestation and peatland degradation, 5-10 per cent is from supply chain activities. This estimate includes GHG emissions from food loss and waste. 

Supply-side practices can contribute to climate change mitigation by reducing crop and livestock emissions, sequestering carbon in soils and biomass, and by decreasing emissions intensity within sustainable production systems. Options with large potential for GHG mitigation in cropping systems include soil carbon sequestration (at decreasing rates over time), reductions in N2O emissions from fertilisers, reductions in CH4 emissions from paddy rice, and bridging of yield gaps.

Options with large potential for mitigation in livestock systems include better grazing land management, with increased net primary production and soil carbon stocks, improved manure management, and higher-quality feed. Reductions in GHG emissions intensity (emissions per unit product) from livestock can support reductions in absolute emissions, provided appropriate governance to limit total production is implemented at the same time.

Agriculture and the food system are key to global climate change responses. Combining supply-side actions such as efficient production, transport, and processing with demand-side interventions such as modification of food choices, and reduction of food loss and waste, reduces GHG emissions and enhances food system resilience. 

Rural development & employment opportunities

The biofuel sector has the potential to create substantial employment for both skilled and unskilled labour. The sugar industry is the source of livelihood for 45 million farmers and their dependents, comprising 7.5 per cent of the rural population. Another 500,000 people are employed as skilled or semi-skilled labourers in sugarcane cultivation. 

With second-generation biofuel industries becoming more established, there is greater potential to generate both direct and indirect jobs. These jobs may not be in the primary agricultural sector because the proposed feedstocks are by-products of agriculture. However, jobs will be generated in the collection and transport of residues, biomass pre-processing, and the generation of bioethanol and related by-products.

Compared with current-generation biofuels, the new technologies demand more highly skilled workers because the quality of feedstock and process technologies is more complex for thermo-chemical or bio-chemical conversion technologies compared with first-generation biofuels. 

Of prime importance, a number of studies indicate that farmers benefit from engaging in feedstock Production when the enabling environment (via tax incentives, land titles, subsidies, and land right policies) is profitable, equitable, and there are built-in measures to diversify. Furthermore, providing incentives (e.g., seeds and tax breaks) and expanding the existing infrastructure create opportunities for agents along the value chain.

Unlike fuel-free technologies (e.g., wind, solar PV, EV), which mainly create jobs distant from their point of application, biofuel production is more labour intensive at the point of feedstock growth and production. For developing countries or even developed countries that seek to promote investment in rural areas, this characteristic of biofuels is of value.

Important in the development context, although labour productivity is evolving through time, studies have shown that renewable energy technologies are currently more labour intensive than fossil fuel technologies.

A large part of India’s population, mostly in rural areas, still does not have access to energy services. Enhanced use of biofuels in rural areas is closely linked to poverty reduction, improved health because greater access to energy services can facilitate access to pumped drinking water. Less time spent by women and children on basic survival activities, such as gathering firewood, fetching water, and cooking reduce deforestation and indoor pollution caused by firewood use. 

Considering that approximately 300 million people in India are without access to electricity, developing access to modern decentralised energy technologies, particularly Renewables (including biofuels), is an important element of effective poverty alleviation policies. A programme that develops energy from raw materials grown in rural areas can go a long way in providing energy security to rural people.

Smallholders stand to benefit directly from the additional income generated by selling residues and from cropping marginal lands/wastelands for second-generation biofuel feed stock cultivation. Farmers’ cooperatives, Self-support groups and NGOs can assemble smallholders, impart training when needed, and organise support activities to ensure a competitive market position for these groups.

India energy map

From the above it’s evident that India’s energy policy is more crucial to accrue immense benefits to the country by 20 per cent ethanol blending by 2025, such as saving Rs30,000 crore of foreign exchange per year, energy security, lower carbon emissions, better air quality, self-reliance, use of damaged food grains, increasing farmers' incomes, employment generation, and greater investment opportunities. 

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