By Prachi Mishra, Vellore Institute of Technology, Vellore & Riya Mathur, SRCC, Delhi.

The growing global consciousness in regard to the impending doom of climate change, has finally managed to startle governments and policy makers to endorse sustainable legislation. In most developing countries, fuel for industry, commute and domestic usage alike makes up the largest part of emissions, making fuel policy an area of targeted attention. Bio-Fuels and subsequent techniques like ethanol blending of petroleum are avenues of great potential for achieving greater fuel efficiency and environment sustainability.

Ethanol, primarily known as common alcohol, also serves as a renewable bio fuel. It is derived largely from fermentation of sugarcane juices, type B and C molasses, damaged food grains with high starch content such as wheat and sorghum alongside still nascent methods like algae processing and chemical treatment of CO2 and H2O. Blending of bio ethanol with petroleum serves a multitude of purposes including but not limited to, reduced vehicular emissions and energy security by using renewable energy.

Since 84% of India’s fuel needs are dependent on imports, blending can help reduce this import dependency by margins. Further, utilizing surplus food crops for bio fuel generation can ensure better prices for farmers who otherwise incur losses. India’s production of ethanol comes mainly from sugarcane molasses with Maharashtra, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh being prime producers of the crop. However, out of the total production of approximately 300 crore litres, 130 crore litres is utilized for alcohol production while another 60 crore litres is dedicated to the chemical industry usages; leaving only about 110 crore litres of ethanol available for blending. 

In light of global collaborations for clean fuels initiatives and the persisting need for establishing higher energy security, the government has endorsed substantial policies to drive up ethanol production in the country. The first initiative on the subject was launched in 2003 as the EBP (Ethanol Blending with Petroleum) Programme in line with the Auto Fuel Policy aiming to achieve 5% blending for all petroleum companies.  This scheme however ambitious, failed to come through due to obvious bottlenecks such as lack of consistent investment, poor supply chain management, transaction barriers, lack of technical expertise and conflicts with existing agricultural policies. This happened as sugarcane, which is currently the main source of ethanol production in India, is a highly water-intensive crop. Furthermore, the absence of precise decisions relating to procurement prices and bidding procedures led to ineffective policy implementation. 

Upon critical examination, it can be realized that policy with respect to ethanol production requires an overarching multifaceted approach that addresses the diverse set of challenges associated with it. Firstly, increased incentivization of ethanol production directly creates a Food vs. Fuel situation where more farmers move towards a monoculture of fuel crops resulting in potential food supply shortages and a risk to food security. Secondly, water footprint is a crucial factor to be considered in legislating upon sustainable technologies. India’s water footprint in terms of ethanol production exceeds that of Brazil and the USA- countries with the largest ethanol production in the world for a much lesser yield. This results due to fluctuations in production, volatile prices and lack of comprehensive data. Compared with Brazil, it has been found that farmers in India tend to switch to other crops much more, due to uncertainty of a stable stream of income. India thus lags behind in terms of financial support and erratic supply. In such a scenario an ideal suggestion comes through exploring collaborations with Brazil and other prominent suppliers of ethanol while also strengthening the country’s R&D.Thus as of this moment, the practice is way less efficient than perceived and increases the competition with parallel food crops. In second generation (2G) ethanol production, where ethanol is produced from non-food crops, there still exists the crisis of using sown areas for non-food production. This hits strikingly when we account for the fact that a modest aim of about 20% ethanol would require about 1/10th of sown area to be dedicated for bio-ethanol.

In the face of an already lagging ethanol policy and a range of challenges, Government of India in 2008 launched the National BioFuel Policy with an aim of reduced polluting emissions which set out the target of achieving 10% blending and progressing to a 30% figure by 2030 and raised the purchase price of ethanol biomass for companies from INR 9 to INR 43 to incentivise farmers. This policy took account of food security concerns by allowing only surplus food crops and damaged crop residues unfit for human consumption to be utilized for bio-fuel production with authorized state approval. Additionally, the policy promotes 2G ethanol production from cellulosic and lignocellulosic (dry plant mass) sources with viable public aid to private projects and 6 years tax incentive alongside limiting land usage to agriculturally unfit land for such projects. 

However, upon real time application of the National Biofuel Policy, farmers and industries faced plenty of logistical and bureaucratic hindrances. A 2006 Environmental Impact Assessment notification made it compulsory for sugar mills to get clearance for all new projects, expansions and product rectifications. This process made the transfer of surplus food crops towards bio-fuel generation a tedious process and often led to losses and massive piles of wastage in the mills. In a recent announcement in 2019 the Centre revoked the need of the EIA green clearance for sugar mills to utilize surplus produce for ethanol production declaring it as harmless to the environment and as a possible redeeming measure for farmers and loss-incurring sugar mills alike. 

2019 also saw the sanctioning of a 766 crore 2G ethanol production plant to the Indian Oil Corporation Limited (IOCL) in Panipat, Haryana. The plant would operate on lignocellulosic material and is expected to increase farmers’ income alongside promoting green fuels. Keeping in mind the present government’s focus on Make in India, imports of biofuels such as ethanol, biodiesel and petroleum oils have been restricted, requiring special licences from the Directorate General of Foreign Trade. The amendments introduced seek to further ethanol production within the country with environmental concerns taking a back seat. What needs to be the guiding factor here is the combating of unavoidable consequences of pursuing such a policy. The shift to domestic ethanol production can not come at the expense of the supply of other sources of food and energy as these will hit the country’s farmers and the rural poor the most. 

From an ecological point of view, the risk of worsening the already existing acute water shortage looms large. Maharashtra, with 44 crore litres being produced annually stands tall as the country’s largest ethanol producing State. However, a recent report claims how an annual target of an additional 329 crore litres for the country seems too far fetched to be pursued at the moment. Added to this, the sugar industry not being in the best of health requires urgent government help if they wish to embark on the journey to produce an adequate amount of ethanol, sustainably. While the aforementioned developments in the recent times, seem to be in line with our decade old efforts of increasing blending percentages whilst mitigating food security risks and enabling increased technological efficiency, there still remain loopholes and ambiguities with respect to the sustainability of  performance achieved that must be tackled immediately; both in terms of policy as well as grassroots implementation.

More research should be channelized towards enhancing sugarcane yield on the same amount of land along with judicious usage of other resources as well. Methods to reduce the water footprint with scientific alternatives and smart irrigation practices must be discussed in the mainframe agenda. The Water Footprint Network of India states that the need of the hour for developing countries like India would be to take steps like setting ‘water footprint caps’. Unless related issues like excessive use without compensation and unsustainable practices are given equal weightage in public policy, proceeding with commercial ethanol production can backfire, hitting the masses very hard. 

As recent announcements suggest, India wishes to achieve a more-than-ten-times ethanol gasoline blending rate by 2030. With this background, it also needs to be iterated how the country does not just use almost as much surface water as Brazil and the United States but is also home to the least internal surface and groundwater amongst the three. Thus the current statistics are not very encouraging and there is no way a policy of increasing ethanol production can be implemented arbitrarily. The titanic investment in 2G ethanol and the viable gap funding projects while pioneering, still remain an untested and nascent technology when aiming for mass scale commercial production from plant-mass.

The way forward with our blending and bio-fuel policies is to focus more keenly on net sustainable produce and savings, price stability and systematic supply chain management. Despite a bunch of challenges, the massive scope of benefits out of ethanol blending cannot be overlooked. If optimally achieved, ethanol blending with gasoline can reduce import dependencies and save the nation an unprecedented amount of foreign exchange. It can reduce vehicular emissions by promoting clean fuel and has the potential of exclusively preventing burning of surplus crops in farms by utilizing them for bio ethanol creation. Even a close to ideal system for bio-ethanol production if developed in the coming years would ensure organized waste management epitomizing the waste to wealth concept. On the flip side, these benefits can not be achieved at the cost of India’s existing natural resources. Hasty policies would result in policy amendments that the country is not yet ready for. If increased domestic production reduces imports but also releases pollutants from manufacturing outlets, the switch would offset all reasons of adopting it in the first place. A practical solution may be to use surplus crops for the production of ethanol as the country’s bio-fuel policy suggests already. However, with an estimated capacity of 300-400 million litres, this supply would not be sufficient to meet the future demands if such a scheme is adopted full steam ahead. It has been pointed out that the development of second and third generation bio-fuel sources will be integral for India to reach the targets it has set for itself.

Sustainable sectors such as ethanol production among others, if rightly harnessed can create impact in social, economic and environmental spheres alike , promising a future we desperately aspire for in current times. The key is to focus on this ‘right harnessing’ as the first and foremost priority  rather than jumping into actions it may not be possible to jump out of.