Recently, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari inaugurated India’s first refinery plant in Pune that will produce fuel oil from rice and wheat straw, cotton stalk, cane trash and corn cobs.
The preferred raw material for biofuel in India is Jatropa. This crop is often cultivated in degraded lands but requires irrigation to produce the seeds that carry the oil. Gadkari has already done excellent work in producing power from municipal sewage and solid waste. It appears he wants to repeat that performance with biofuels. But there is a fundamental difference between biofuel crops like Jatropa and municipal sewage. Municipal sewage is a “waste” product. We have to spend money to treat it before reusing or discharging it in the rivers. On the other hand, biofuels are produced from agricultural wastes like wheat straw which have alternative uses like cattle feed; or crops like Jatropa that lay claim on our scarce land and water resources that can be used to produce grasses and forests.
Jatropa can grow on degraded lands. It produces a poisonous seed that yields biodiesel. A friend in Dungarpur in Rajasthan runs a NGO. He started cultivating jatropa on two acres of degrade land. He is happy with the income. Seeing his success, about 100 farmers in the area have started cultivation of this plant. The cultivation of Jatropa is good if done on lands not suitable for crop cultivation. Then it does not compete with other uses of the land such as the production of dry land crops like bajra and ragi. We must give encouragement to such cultivation. One policy hurdle is that as per our current laws the producer cannot sell biodiesel directly to the consumers. The producer has to sell the biodiesel to the oil companies, who blend it with petroleum and sell in the market. Reportedly two biodiesel plants in Kolkata have closed down, the Calcutta Tram Company and Kolkata Police stopped buying this fuel directly from the producers. Manufacturers can produce biodiesel at a lower cost than the sale price of diesel but they are not able to do this because of the intermediation of the oil companies. The oil companies have to pay taxes on the biodiesel blended with diesel, which makes it uneconomic to produce. The Government must exempt biodiesel from these taxes.
Another step to give boost to biodiesel is to invest in research on the conversion of the stems of the plant into fuel. Presently manufacturers use only the seeds of jatropa to produce biodiesel. Large amounts of cellulosic materials are available in the stems of the plant. This goes waste. Researchers are trying to find ways of converting the cellulose of the stems into biodiesel or other forms of conveniently usable fuel globally. So far, this technology has eluded them. Gadkari should push a mission to invent this technology. Then it will become much profitable to cultivate jatropa.
There is a need for caution though. The jatropa plant converts sunlight into oil. A report from the TreeHugger website, which is dedicated to promoting sustainable development, says that the plants are able to covert only 2 percent of the sunlight into the energy stored in the oilseeds. In comparison, solar panels can convert 15 to 25 percent of the sunlight into usable energy in the form of electricity. Solar panels established on an acre of degraded land will provide about 10 times the energy provided by a jatropa plantation. Therefore, it will be much more efficient to push for the installation of solar panels on degraded lands rather than cultivation of Jatropa.
The second source of bio fuel is from crops that compete with food. Bio fuel is produced from about 40 percent of the corn grown in the United States. Soybean is also used extensively for this.
This is not viable option for India because we are unable to produce enough food and oilseeds for our own consumption. The third source of bio fuel is ethanol. Molasses is produced as a waste product during the manufacture of sugar. It contains some leftover sugar that could not be extracted. Ethanol can be produced from this leftover sugar. The amount of molasses available in the country is, however, extremely small considering our large energy requirements. Therefore, we will have to produce more sugarcane and convert it directly into ethanol to augment the supply of this biofuel substantially. Here also there is a conflict between food and energy. More production of sugarcane for the manufacture of ethanol means less production of food grains. Sugarcane cultivation also consumes a large amount of water. Reportedly certain sugar companies based in Nagpur, the home town of Gadkari, are pushing for increasing production of ethanol from sugar cane. Gadkari should beware of them. We have limited land and water. If we use the available land and water for the production of ethanol, then we will have to import more of food. It is better to be dependent on imported energy than on imported food. He is the custodian of the land, water and food of the people of the country. He should beware of such lobbies that have no hesitation in destroying the country for their petty commercial benefits.
It is clear that bio fuels cannot go very far in our country. Rice and wheat straw, cotton stalk, cane trash and corn cobs; and the land used for Jatropa cultivation have alternative uses that will be hit by encouragement to biofuels.
Needless to say, the situation of municipal waste is altogether different because it saves us the cost of sewage treatment and does not lay claim on our scarce natural resources.
We have to; therefore, look for other sources of energy. We have limited stocks of coal hence we cannot meet the increasing needs of energy from thermal power. Our rivers have cultural and biodiversity values, that are hit by the production of hydropower. We remain dependent on imports of uranium in the production of nuclear power.
The three sources of energy available to us are solar power, cellulosic materials like Jatropa stems that do not have alternative uses, and thorium-based nuclear power. We are already making substantial progress in solar power and the Government must be congratulated for the same. However, the cellulosic waste and thorium technologies are in the infancy. The way forward for Gadkari is to push for research in these areas.
The author was formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bangalore