Can Ethanol Blending Be a Panacea For India?

Twin challenges of increasing price of crude and depreciating rupee are burdening Indian economy. Time and again it has been emphasised that increase in the use of biofuels as a way out to address this challenge.

Among biofuels ethanol appears to be the most viable alternative. Other biofuels such as jatropha have often proven to be commercially unviable. The government aims to raise ethanol blending in petrol to 20% by 2030 from the current 2-3%.

Why ethanol blending cannot be a panacea?

Water footprint:
  • Water footprint of ethanol refers to water required to produce a litre of ethanol which includes rainwater at the root zone used by ethanol-producing plants such as sugarcane, and surface, ground water, and fresh water required to wash away pollutants.
  • India’s water footprint is high in overall terms. India also uses more surface and ground water when compared to Brazil and US which are top producers of ethanol.
  • India’s usage of internal surface and ground water for ethanol fuel production is slowly catching up with that of Brazil and even exceeded Brazil in 2016 even though there is a huge gap in blend rates.
  • In explicit terms Brazil used 0.025% of its internal surface and ground water for ethanol production to achieve a 45% overall blend rate in 2017, India would use 0.701% even for 20%.
Net sown area:
  • Sugarcane is one of the key component for ethanol production. Data shows that to increase the petrol-ethanol blend rate to even 10%, extent of the extra net sown area required is 4%.
  • To achieve 20% blend rate almost one-tenth of the existing net sown area will have to be diverted for sugarcane production. This will put a stress on other crops and has the potential to increase food prices.
  • Even India’s bio-fuel policy stipulates that fuel requirements must not compete with food requirements and that only surplus food crops should be used for fuel production, if at all required.

Way forward

  • Producing ethanol from crop residue can be a good and viable alternative.
  • Strengthening the capacity of bio-refineries. The annual capacity of required bio-refineries is stipulated to be 300-400 million litres, which is still not enough to meet the 5% petrol-ethanol blending requirement. India needs to take a leap forward in this direction.
  • Need for a technological revolution. With just 1G which uses first generation biofuels, such as sugarcane-based ethanol India will lag behind in fulfilling its commitment towards ethanol blending.

Even though increasing petrol-ethanol blending does not seem viable in the current scenario with concentrated efforts like increase sugarcane yield and decrease water usage through better irrigation practices, or increase the ethanol production capacity of bio-refineries India can climb up the ladder in ethanol blending.

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