Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fuel for Thought

Editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly

Biofuels have their advantages but as the world is learning to its cost that it comes with a burden of its own.

The ongoing energy consumption glut and the simultaneous pressure on depleting fossil fuels in the world have resulted in the coming to the fore of developing energy resources from new sources. Biofuels, the most well known example, are predominantly used as fuel for automotive transportation.

Following the example of Brazil, which has utilised extracted fuel (ethanol) from sugar cane grown in large-scale farms, many developed nations (and developing ones) arepromoting the growth of crops such as corn, sugar cane, beet, maize and jatropha (for biodiesel extraction) to manufacture biofuel. The reason for the new embrace of biofuels is, of course, the rising cost of crude oil and the need to promote energy independence. It is also being promoted on the somewhat dubious promise of reducing emission of greenhouse gases.

Within a couple of years of the global rush to promote biofuels new questions are being asked about the claimed benefits of these fuels and serious negative impacts are coming to light. One of the claimed advantages of biofuels over fossil fuels is that they do not contribute to global warming because of lower carbon emissions. However, considering that quite a large amount of new land needed to grow crops generating biofuels is being obtained by clearing forests, there is likely to be a net negative greenhouse impact in generating and using biofuels. The other major problem that is now becoming apparent in the large-scale production of biofuels is the fallout of the cultivation of crops for fuel rather than food. With the provision of substantial subsidies in the US for production of ethanol, large areas are now being used to grow corn for fuel rather than for food. This phenomenon of diversion of land to grow biofuel generating crops is one of the important reasons for the current surge in global food prices and shortages across the world.

The situation is so dire that the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki Moon recently called for the review of biofuel use policy and urged caution in transfer of land to grow these crops. Researchers, however, argue that second generation biofuels, which extract energy from biomass such as biodegradable waste and are more “climate friendly”, mitigate the limitations of the first generation biofuels that are generated from crops. But research in manufacture of second generation biofuels is still going on and large-scale production has not yet come to fruition.

In India, there are strong economic disadvantages of an ethanol-based biofuel generation scheme. This is because of the fact that sugar cane (from which ethanol is extracted through fermentation) that is produced in the country is adequate, other than in the occasional year, only to meet domestic demand and growing more cane only means the diversion of more scarce water resources for use in cultivation of this water-intensive crop. Hence replication of the Brazilian model of biofuel generation in the country must be ruled out.

It is in this regard that the focus of the biofuel policy in India has been towards utilising an “oil bearing” plant, jatropha carcus, for oil extraction, processing and eventual blending with diesel. The advantage of this plant lies in the fact that it can be grown on cultivable wasteland and requires very little fertiliser and other inputs as normally required in agriculture. The use of jatropha as the primary plant for fuel generation thus obviates the need to transfer crop land for this use. Yet state regulation must ensure that crop switching from food crops to the “fuel crop” does not take place because of the commercial benefits of growing jatropha.

The focus on jatropha was fleshed out in a Planning Commission committee report in 2003 that laid emphasis on utilising large hectares of wasteland in the country to grow jatropha trees. The entire supply chain of jatropha production, oil extraction and transesterification (conversion to biodiesel for ultimate blending with standard diesel), is expected to be an employment generating exercise. Cooperative farming, decentralised extraction units and large-scale processing plants can be used for the creation of an employment-intensive jatropha to biodiesel supply chain.

Challenges still remain in deciding the price band of seeds that will provide a reasonable return to the farmer and yet ensure that the eventual price of the blended fuel product would be economical and comparable to existing diesel prices. Different states in India have already embarked upon drawing up a framework to develop the biodiesel industry. From contract farming to joint ventures, various ways of encouraging jatropha production and biodiesel use are being encouraged.

The biofuel experience thus far indicates that its use poses many challenges. The use of such fuel through reliance on second generation biofuels, and wasteland grown plants such as jatropha with regulation of land use and selection can certainly help reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Yet even such adjustments may not be able to serve a preponderant consumerist economy that increasingly depends on personal transport, which can only keep guzzling natural resources of all kinds.


ShankarG said...

Dear Virus,
It is really a nice article about the buzz of 'biofuel'. As you pointed out, instead of relying on ethanol based system, government should focus on biomass such as green algae which produces H2 which in turn can be used in fuel cell applications. The fuel cell buzz is getting louder and louder in US as researchers are developing new enzymes to catalyze H2 production, and storage. In a country like India, we cannot afford to fall behind in the economics of energy. I agree with your point that it is certainly not going to help us by converting food crops to fuel crops.

Excited about more article in this area, electrochemist.

Take care-da,

Shankar (Baba)

P.S. I would really appreciate (whenever you have time) if you could write about GM crops and its implication on farmers suicide in India.

Srinivasan Ramani said...


You are more qualified to write on the fuel cell/ second generation biofuel research and their relevance in fuel use in the world. I would appreciate if you could write a column on this and I can host it on my blog.

As regards the farmers' suicide problem, use of GM crops/ BT Cotton is just one part of the bigger story. The bigger story is the withdrawal of state intervention in ensuring agrarian relevance in the country. And it is not just India which is facing this; but a host of developing countries which were subjected to the IMF-World Bank prescriptions of structural adjustment policies. A host of people have written on this. Prominent among them is P.Sainath. You can get to read his articles at .


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