Thursday, April 10, 2008

More energy for ethanol and biodiesel!

Shyam Ponappa / New Delhi September 01, 2005

Our need to use more ethanol and biodiesel for transportation is a no-brainer. The question is how best to do it.
With the current speculation on the potential of BRIC economies, one insistent question we face is: what could go wrong for India? My response, after acknowledging an upward trend for the foreseeable future, followed by the usual caveat about sudden blips from unexpected (and therefore unpredictable) crises that characterise emerging economies, is the infrastructure refrain.

I mean the risk of constraints created by insufficient energy, transportation, and communications facilities, and the ineffectiveness of an uncoordinated approach to the formulation and implementation of policies. Let us consider a subset of energy: renewable fuels for transportation from plant sources--biodiesel and ethanol.

According to press reports, biodiesel is coming along, although we have plenty to do to get to where President APJ Abdul Kalam is exhorting us. However, coordinated and concerted effort could certainly accelerate our usage of biodiesel, a necessary adjunct to investing in petroleum resources (diesel accounts for about a half of India’s nearly 100 million tonnes of crude import). Our use of ethanol seems to be languishing even more because of our diffuse, fragmented approach.

Having worked on an ethanol project in America, I think only institutional lack of capacity explains our lackadaisical approach to ethanol, whether for fuel or even for producing biodiesel, when other countries are moving ahead.

For instance, because of environmental concerns related to drinking water, ethanol has displaced methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), an oil-refining byproduct, in 19 states in the US as an additive to improve the octane rating of petrol and reduce pollutants.

California now has an ethanol blend of 5.75 per cent, while Michigan has 10 per cent and is considering 20 per cent. In India, although ethanol has been considered since the 1970s, it was only in 2002 that the then Petroleum Minister Ram Naik introduced a 5 per cent target in several states.

Recent steps taken by the ministry should help meet this target, but the world moves on: Brazil will increase ethanol exports not only to the EU, which is targeting 2 per cent this year and 5.75 per cent by 2010, but to California and Japan as well, while China builds for the long term.

Before we go headlong down the path of increasing ethanol production from sugarcane with its consequences for other crops, water requirements, etc. it would help if we did a life-cycle assessment, a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis, of consciously encouraging biofuels for transportation.

It would help greatly if the government did this using the competence of various lobbies as well as of neutral experts. This would bring together the oil industry, sugar/ethanol manufacturers, agriculture and silviculture experts, the various ministries, aided by consultants capable of using sound project management to assess all available material, such as the Planning Commission’s “Report on Bio-Fuels 2003”, inputs from TERI (The Energy Resources Institute), the Indian Institute of Science, Winrock International, etc., as well as from other countries. Surely we don’t need foreign companies to step in to make things happen?

Developing a long-term strategy for implementation deserves the attention of a team with the domain skills (technical, commercial, management, legal, and administrative) to evaluate the issues and formulate the way forward; we should not limit ourselves to a committee of politicians, administrators, and PSUs.

The aspects to be considered include:

- The benefits of renewable fuels, e.g. reduced oil imports, clean technology, energy efficiency (including controversies such as the arguments of Cornell’s David Pimentel), and carbon credits;
The choice of appropriate materials for ethanol and biodiesel: crops for ethanol, e.g. sugarcane, sorghum, maize, cassava, or other materials such as straw (Iogen) or cellulose, and for biodiesel, jatropha, pongamia, or algae. This relates to land use, availability, climate, water, fertilisers, other infrastructure/inputs, and time to market. Also, issues such as aspects of Brazil’s experience that are helpful, e.g. whether sugarcane is appropriate for India, given the land and water requirements, as pointed out by TERI years ago; policy aspects, such as subsidies and mandatory use, given the collapse of the sector during the 1990s;

- The benefits of distributed employment and income generation from the cultivation of jatropha and pongamia;
The detriment from renewable fuels, whether from emitting volatile hydrocarbons or from other effects such as crop substitution or water usage;

- The cost of exporting excess diesel and gasoline (and other products?) from inland refineries;

- The costs and benefits of modifying vehicles to use varying percentages of ethanol, or converting them to flexible fuels for petrol and biodiesel blends as prices and availability change.

An extensive search indicates no cohesive set of information on a coordinated approach to implementation. One has to struggle to find information. Integral use of the Internet for research as well as for dissemination of findings during the process, and for soliciting/inducting inputs not only at the point of a draft report but also along the way, should greatly improve the quality and usefulness of output.

It would also help institute better and more transparent processes as an effective way for policymaking and governance, e.g., there could be validation of an energy density table with energy by mass for Indian materials and conditions as in the table below, with the associated moisture, ash, demystification of the joules to BTU calculations, etc.

Table: Energy density of Materials

Material                   Energy Density
                              Mega Joules/kg
Coal (bituminous)       >23.9
Ethanol                      29.7 (Wikipedia: 23.4-26.8)
Diesel                        45.3
Biodiesel                    37.8
Petrol (automotive)    45.8
Kerosene                   46.3
                                                                   (Various sources)

Our policy makers can then decide on a course of action after they have this team’s considered input. Otherwise, it will be another committee report consigned to gather dust.

We have to organise ourselves effectively for this, accepting the premise that our administrative systems are inappropriate for our needs (because of their lingering colonial focus on collecting revenues and taxes). We must focus on building long-term capacity with interdisciplinary integration, together with structures and systems that are more suitable for our needs.

This will help achieve an enabling policy framework for biofuels: a combination of policy aims, laws, regulations, procedures, institutions, and customary practices that reinforce each other: our systems, built for our strengths and compensating for our weaknesses.

Shyam Ponappa

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