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Push for Ethanol-Blended Petrol: A Road that Leads to Nowhere

D. Raghunandan |
The government’s 2021 roadmap reverts to the use of sugarcane molasses and foodgrain, directly attacking the food basket in a country beset by increasing hunger.

Representational use only.

The government’s Roadmap for Ethanol Blending India 2020-25, a programme of the NITI Aayog and the Ministry of Petroleum & Natural Gas, was launched without irony on World Environment Day, June 5, 2021. This is the new avatar of several past policies which have been repeatedly re-launched only to crash again. Regrettably, the roadmap has been designed without learning from past mistakes and problems.

The stated objectives and justification remain broadly the same, namely to boost production and use of EBP (ethanol blended petrol) to save on the petroleum import bill, reduce air pollution, mitigate climate change and, questionably as always, assist farmers to get higher returns. The policy assumptions of feedstock availability, costs and productivity are not supported by the evidence of earlier and on-going efforts. Untenable comparisons with Brazil are also used in support, ignoring the completely different conditions in the two countries.

To make matters worse, the 2021 roadmap is a shocking reversal of the 2018 policy which had promised to galvanise research in India toward the brave new world of second generation biofuels, i.e. ethanol derived from agri-residues and other non-food waste biomass.  Many other countries, including developed nations, were looking at India’s endeavours with considerable interest. The 2021 roadmap reverts to the use of sugarcane molasses and, of all things, foodgrain. Most distressingly, there is an in-built tilt toward use of rice and corn, directly attacking the food basket in a country beset by increasing hunger.

Fuel From Food

The policy claims to save up to $4 billion or Rs.30,000 crore annually on its petroleum import bill through EBP up to 20%       ethanol dosing. The roadmap plans for nationwide rollout of E10, or petrol with 10% ethanol, by 2022 and a phased rollout of E20 from 2023 till 2025, advancing the final date from the earlier 2030. In quantity, the policy seeks to increase ethanol production from the present 7,000 million litres to 15,000 million litres annually.

The problem is that the EBP programme has been underway from 2008 and has limped along to reach only about 5% ethanol blending in 2020, with little possibility of E10 fuel being available at all pumps across the country. Some studies have shown that actual ethanol blending has been considerably lower, with ethanol also being sold to other industries. Even this quantum has been achieved after much pushing and incentives, such as for use of B-heavy rather than only C-heavy molasses, direct use of cane juice and, finally, setting up of grain-based distilleries, mostly using maize or rice.

To achieve the roadmap goals, ethanol production must first double to reach universal availability of E10. Even at current levels, the main sugarcane feedstock suffers from substantial variation in availability. With acreage under sugarcane being nearly static at around 5 million ha (hectares), as has sugar productivity, annual sugar production has varied only slightly, with India exporting sugar in some years and importing in others.

Viewing India as being permanently sugarcane surplus and, therefore, having substantial future potential for diversion to ethanol is clearly erroneous. Diversion of sugarcane for ethanol also encounters competitive demands from potable alcohol and chemicals industries. India has last year even been importing ethanol mostly from the US but also from Brazil, amounting to around 720 million litres from the US, contradicting the very goal of reducing the fuel import bill. Similarly, several studies predict that India may turn into a net importer of maize to meet demand for ethanol for E20.

Given the above constraints in sugarcane feedstock, the roadmap necessitates foodgrain being used if the country has to double ethanol production for E10 and quadruple it for E20 by 2025. The grain used this far has been mostly maize, whose production also fluctuates considerably, supposedly spoiled grain and so-called “surplus” FCI (Food Corporation of India) rice. Even last year, during the Covid pandemic, around 78,000 tonnes of FCI rice was used for ethanol production. According to the roadmap, in 2025 around 7,600 million litres ethanol would come from sugarcane molasses, and about 7,480 million litres from grain, representing around 16.5 million tonnes of foodgrain!

The roadmap document casually proclaims this to be very feasible, based on the assumption of so-called surplus foodgrain, in reality a lack of purchasing power with the poor and a total failure of the public distribution system. This is a travesty for a poor country like India in which around 200 million people go to bed hungry every day and which is continually dropping in the world hunger index. It also goes against the injunctions of the Food & Agriculture Organisation, which has long proclaimed that land should be used for producing food not fuel.

How Green is EB?

At the simplest level, ethanol is, of course, less polluting than petrol when burnt in automotive engines, since it contains less carbon. EBP also has higher octane number than petrol and thus burns cleaner, although evaporative emissions from fuel tanks and filling pumps are higher too.

At the same time, ethanol also results in a drop of fuel efficiency by around 8% for four-wheelers and around 5% for two-wheelers, due to its lower calorific value, although this loss could be reduced by re-tuning. Levels of carbon monoxide, hydro-carbons are lower at the tailpipe but nitrogen oxide levels are at around the same level, affecting ground-level ozone known to be dangerous. However, it should be remembered that ethanol too is, after all, a hydrocarbon and, while reducing emissions, does not eliminate them when used in an internal combustion engine.

The process of converting feedstock into ethanol also consumes energy, although most studies suggest that this process is energy positive. Yet, emissions over the life-cycle of ethanol are a matter of considerable concern. Some argue that ethanol is a renewable fuel since the carbon released, when burnt, is recovered by the crop while growing. But this does not account for the energy inputs into agriculture such as fertilisers, pesticides, labour and machinery, and above all water inputs, quite apart from tillage and other farm practices themselves. If all this energy is taken into account, the energy balance turns negative. It would surely be far better if this energy were consumed by people, especially the poor, rather than used by the better-off for automotive energy.

The use of water also has significant impact on the environment. Sugar and rice are, of course, both water-intensive crops and India is bearing an enormous cost in terms of water use for agriculture. Intensive cropping for grain would tend to drive up water use running counter efforts to reduce water consumption in agriculture.

In fact, it is for these reasons that 2-Gen biofuels are much to be preferred since they do not interfere with the food or cropping cycles and the feedstock are secondary residues rather than primary cash crops with competing demand for resources.

Expansion of cultivation for ethanol feedstock is a big environmental problem, perhaps not for India but elsewhere in the world. While Brazil is cited as an example for India to emulate, even the roadmap document does not account for the far greater acreage under sugarcane than India and more sugar production.

Brazil also has vast scope for expansion of agriculture. Unfortunately for the world as a whole, this has been at the expense of huge tracts of the Amazon forests which are being sacrificed for sugarcane and pasture land for raising beef cattle. Ethanol in the Brazilian case, therefore, has gigantic environmental costs.


All the above applies more or less equally to E10 as to E20. However, while E10 can be used by existing vehicles with some re-tuning of the engine, E20 would require modifications to the engine including in some materials and basic re-tuning. Uneven or erratic availability of E20 fuel could result in severe damage to modified engines if unblended or lower octane fuel is used. Vehicles modified for EBP could be costlier by Rs.10,000 to Rs.20,000.

Question is, when even nationwide availability of E10 is doubtful, why push vehicle manufacturers to modify engines etc for E20 which is at present clouded by uncertainty? There is little point in comparisons with Brazil, where fuel-flex engines capable of handling EBP range from E20 up to E85 or E100 since that country’s automobile industry and fuel production and distribution are institutionalised and structurally completely different.

As noted earlier, the Roadmap has given up on the worthwhile pursuit of 2-Gen ethanol from agri-residues and waste biomass which could yield real benefits in costs and reduced pollution, without disrupting the cropping and food systems. The annual problem with stubble burning in North India could also be tackled through ethanol production by setting up supply chains from farms to decentralised ethanol plants.

The roadmap focusing on grain-based ethanol not only misses out on a serious opportunity for novel value-chains and manufacturing systems, but is taking retrograde steps. There is little sense in incentivising the automobile industry into rapid adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) on the one hand, and on the other, simultaneously pressing them to modify their internal combustion technologies to accommodate EBP. If the latter course is really desired as an interim measure for a decade or two while EVs are scaled up in India, it might be better to stick to the relatively painless E10, but based on novel 2-Gen biofuels.

The Biofuels Roadmap 2021 thus repeats many past mistakes, representing empty hope over bitter experience, and also misses many opportunities for innovation.

The writer is with Delhi Science Forum and All India Peoples Science Network. The views are personal.

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