What Can Be Done To Energise The National Biofuels Strategy

Production of biodiesel from Jatropha seeds in the workshop of Central Salt and Marine Chemical Research Institute (CSMCRI), Bhavnagar. (Shailesh Raval/The India Today Group/GettyImages)
  • It makes sense for any biofuels policy to focus on deriving energy from waste, and India must work in this direction.

The central government came out with a National Policy on Biofuels 2018 (NPB18) earlier this year, as part of its quest to reduce import dependency on oil and gas, and to move towards renewable and clean energy, in the interest of mitigating climate change. As per the current government’s targets, biofuels would contribute 10 gigawatts (GW) of power by 2022.

States have to support taking the NPB18 forward by adopting various measures as agriculture and other inputs that will fuel the implementation of the policy are state subjects. Rajasthan has recently become the first state to adopt the policy and announced that it has taken the following steps:

- will emphasise increasing oilseeds production

- installed a biodiesel plant of 8 tonnes per day

- planned a centre of excellence to promote research in the field of alternative fuel

- women SHGs (self-help groups) will be involved to explore additional income sources from biofuel.

These are some measures chosen by Rajasthan – disparate, but which has the common thread of biofuels running in them. It will bode well for other states to also choose according to their convenience and understanding of the tenets of the NPB18 policy.

Will such measures lead to gains in bioenergy for India?

Across the world, over the past one and a half decades, bioenergy has caught the attention of policymakers, who have been supporting its use in transport and power through policies and regulations.

India had announced its first biofuels policy in 2003 and then one in 2009. The latest policy is an updated version of the earlier ones, and envisages a multi-pronged approach to promote use of biofuels by a) ethanol blended petrol (EBP) programmed; b) development and commercialisation of second generation ethanol technologies; c) biodiesel blending programmed; d) focus on drop-in fuels produced from municipal solid waste, industrial wastes, biomass etc; e) focus on advanced biofuels including bio-CNG, bio-methanol, DME, bio-hydrogen, bio-jet fuel etc.

Industry experts estimate this as comprehensive, with many firsts, and one that will encourage investment. The government has also been taking important steps to address issues in this sector which hitherto acted as constraints – such as increasing price of ethanol, granting marketing rights to private biodiesel manufacturers, authorising retailers to sell biodiesel directly to consumers.

Yet, past experience from older policies suggests that some of the prongs may not work. The first is to do with targets on blending. According to NPB18, an indicative target of 20 per cent blending of ethanol in petrol and 5 per cent blending of biodiesel in diesel by 2030 was proposed. Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi further announced raising this target, and that 12 bio-refineries would be set up in the country at an investment of Rs 12,000 crore.

The earlier policies mandated blending 10-20 per cent biodiesel and ethanol with diesel. Yet, those targets were not met, with blending currently at very low levels – at 2 per cent for ethanol and less than 0.1 per cent for biodiesel blending. The reasons for this `failure’ are to do with limited feedstock availability, lack of an integrated and dedicated supply chain.


The target will again remain unattainable in the prevailing conditions. Unmet targets not only expose policymakers to ridicule and criticism, but also may lead to inefficient allocation of resources and misplaced priorities that lose sight of the original problem.

Take for instance, this report by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, which points out that the only way India can achieve its target is by imports: “With continued reliance on conventional molasses ethanol (with cane juice added), and use of commercially unproven, alternative feedstock for conventional biofuels, as well as an increased emphasis for advanced biofuels not yet commercialized, it is unlikely the new targets can be met if biofuel imports remain banned as set forth in the new policy”. Needless to say, the US is a leading ethanol producer, along with Brazil – the two account for over 80 per cent of global production.

Statedly, NPB18 is against allowing import of biofuels, as this would adversely affect domestic biofuels. It, instead, wants to encourage “augmenting indigenous feedstock supplies for biofuel production utilising the wastelands for feedstock generation”. Yet, it does allow for “import of feedstock for production of biodiesel would be permitted to the extent necessary”, depending upon availability of domestic feedstock and blending requirement.

The target and the clause of imports make us vulnerable to manipulations. Perhaps, the better thing to do would be to do away with targets altogether.

The other seriously contentious issue is to do with feedstock. NPB18 wants to augment feedstock availability by encouraging planting of non-edible oilseed bearing trees – “energy crops” such as Pongamia pinnata (Karanja), neem, Jatropha carcus and others.

India has emphasised growing Jatropha over the years, believing that this will not just reduce its dependence on coal and petroleum, but also provide employment to rural poor, and also utilise wastelands thereby. Recently, a successful Dehradun to Delhi flight, which used blended fuel, became the poster boy of biofuels and Jatropha farming, especially by the Chhattisgarh farmers.

World over, there is talk about the opportunity costs of doing this – food security is compromised as land and money is diverted to these crops. Most energy crops take up scarce resources like water. Making the switch to growing energy crops is a risk, even if wastelands are to be utilised for these. Reports point out that success in pilot projects is not a reliable indicator, and that nurturing in larger areas especially wastelands with lower fertility, would produce much lower yields. The authors say that though in theory biomass could be cultivated on virtually all available land, the economic reality is that even with policy support in some places yields will not be high enough to cover the cost of production.

In fact, another paper that appeared this year in Energy for Sustainable Development – ‘Why Do Farmers abandon Jatropha Cultivation? The case of Chiapas, Mexico' – concluded after rigorous analysis that though initially farmers took well to the government’s programme to boost cultivation of Jatropha, the dis-adoption rates later were as high as 38-49 per cent. The reasons were to do with a perceived lack of profitability of the crop, default on subsidy, and lack of long-term incentives, since it is a long-gestation crop.

Worse, Jatropha has been found by researchers to harm the soil in large-scale plantations, can cause skin cancer and affect the brain of children if accidentally consumed; The fumes of Jatropha seed oil could also be unsafe for inhaling.  Pankaj Oudhia, a Raipur-based agricultural scientist, who has done extensive research on Jatropha, warns against its extensive usage: “Jatropha is a poisonous weed; there is a need for long-term studies on its impact on human beings, livestock and plants before giving the green signal for its large scale plantation and use as bio-diesel.”

In the light of the above, it makes sense for any biofuels policy to focus on deriving energy from waste, with, perhaps, India and its states concentrating their energies here. A bottom-up approach, rather than a top-down one that flows from targets.

Wastes can be farm residue, plastic and municipal waste. Waste-to-energy is a heavyweight justification also because of its synergies with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, and it would also open up avenues for small investments and jobs.

Biofuel Roadmap for India’, a study by Pallav Purohit and Subash Dhar for UNEP and Centre on Energy, Climate and Sustainable Development, clearly pitchs for second-generation biofuels, given the concerns related to first-generation fuels . Second-generation biofuels are derived from agricultural residues and by-products, organic wastes, and materials from energy plantations, using a variety of woody, grassy, and waste materials as a feedstock.

The following table shows the biofuel potential from net availability of agricultural residues:

Source: Biofuel Roadmap for India Source: Biofuel Roadmap for India

The table shows that India has the biomass resources to produce approximately 50 billion liters of biofuel from second-generation sources in 2030-31 – which will be sufficient to meet the 20-per cent blending target, as the authors have taken pains to work out.

Now that much has been written about how crop-stubble burning and the resultant pollution, especially in Delhi, stubble burning can be stemmed by converting the residual straw into cellulosic biofuels, but despite its obvious benefits, this solution is still far from becoming a reality. This article in the international council on clean transportation tells us that the main challenge here is something as mundane as collecting the straw from the farmers. Given the tight 15-20 day time window between rice harvest and wheat sowing in Punjab, for instance, the easiest method for the farmer, therefore, is to simply burn it. Solutions to this may lie in higher straw prices as an incentive to farmers, and perhaps having agencies collect it – straw pickers regularised and paid by the government’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee programme or entrepreneurs in this area created via the DigiGaon programme could help.

Further, as Ramya Natarajan from the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy explains, the biomass supply system can be made more efficient and standardised by something called ‘torrefaction’, a process that can convert and compress biomass into a lighter, energy-dense solid. The advantages are this biomass is easy to transport, has high energy content, low ash and moisture content. Torrefied biomass could also be a good option for producing methanol, compressed natural gas (bio-CNG) and biodiesel. The viability of setting up several such plants needs to be explored – the obvious benefit being that they would be immediate markets for farmers’ crop residue.


Isher Judge Ahluwalia and Utkarsh Patel have similar suggestions in the case of municipal and solid waste. In a paper ‘Solid Waste Management in India An Assessment of Resource Recovery and Environmental Impact’, the authors list out the different kinds of municipal solid waste like household waste, market area waste, slaughter house waste, institutional waste, horticultural waste, waste from road sweeping, silt from drainage, treated biomedical waste and waste from construction and demolition, which can all be converted into energy via processes like refuse derived fuel, incineration and gasification. These processes can also be carried out at small scale plants. Meticulous segregation must precede this, of course. Several bio-methanation plants have been installed in cities like Pune, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Delhi, Coimbatore, Matheran, Vadodara and Nasik.

The following tables give lists of some plants that process solid waste.

 Medium and large-scale bio-methanation plants in India Medium and large-scale bio-methanation plants in India
Refuse derived fuel plants in operation in India Refuse derived fuel plants in operation in India
Waste-to-energy plants in operation in India Waste-to-energy plants in operation in India

These provide examples of how waste can be managed in a sustainable manner; for biofuels these can be sustained supplies of raw materials. The authors go into the processing of these wastes and the methods used.

These form the “drop-in fuels” category, in the NPB18.


Rajasthan’s idea of involving SHGs could also focus on waste collection and processing. The small plants for conversion of waste as also for torrefaction could be investments by private players, with necessary incentives and impetus provided by the state. A clear, tinier, stratified strategy – focusing on waste management, rather than piecemeal and varied steps – can be adopted by states.

The “adoption” would be more the conscious adoption of a new way of looking at things – one that better guarantees success of this “biofuels” strategy.

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