Ethanol blending targets can pose challenges on farms in India

The Ethanol Blending Programme (EBP) in India started in 2003 with the target of 5% blending of ethanol in petrol in selected districts which was later expanded to more states in 2006.

The government recently claimed that it has achieved 9.45% 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. The government recently 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 which include paddy straws, bagasse, forest residues, and others.

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.

The experts argue quoting 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.

The experts argue against the focus on the first-generation sources for deriving ethanol. They claim 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.

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.

Tags: Biofuel, Blending, Ethanol, Farming, Feedstocks, India, Petrol
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