India’s Ambitious Ethanol Plan & Food Security

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    • In June 2021, the Prime Minister accelerated the nation’s ethanol goal by 5 years.
      • The policy seeks to double production and to have gasoline 20% blended with the spirit by 2025. 
      • To help meet the target, the government is offering financial assistance to biofuel producers and faster environmental clearances.

    Ethanol

    • Ethanol is an organic chemical compound.
    • It is simple alcohol with the chemical formula C2H6O. 

    • It is a volatile, flammable, colourless liquid with a characteristic wine-like odour and pungent taste.
    • Ethanol can be produced from crops that have high starch content like sugarcane, maize, wheat, etc.
    • In India, ethanol is mainly produced from sugarcane molasses by the fermentation process.
    • Ethanol can be mixed with the gasoline to form different blends.
    • As the ethanol molecule contains oxygen, it allows the engine to better combust the fuel.
      • It results in fewer emissions and thereby reducing the occurrence of environmental pollution.
    • Since ethanol is produced from plants that harness the power of the sun, ethanol is also considered a renewable fuel.

    Ethanol blending programme in India: A Timeline

    • 2001: The Centre had “launched pilot projects wherein 5 per cent ethanol-blended petrol was supplied to retail outlets”.
    • 2003: Success of field trials paved the way for the launching of the Ethanol Blended Petrol (EBP) Programme.
      • It aimed to popularise 5 per cent ethanol-blended petrol in 9 States and 4 UTs.
      • Ethanol is blended through a separate pumping and BIO-metering mechanism.
      • Once blended, ethanol cannot be separated from petrol.
    • 2021: The central government released an expert committee report on the Roadmap for Ethanol Blending in India by 2025.
      • It proposed a gradual rollout of ethanol-blended fuel to achieve E10 fuel supply by April 2022.
      • It proposed a phased rollout of E20 (20 percent ethanol blending in petrol) from April 2023 to April 2025.

    Need for Such Plan

    • Energy Security
      • India is the third-largest consumer of energy in the world after China and the US.
      • Ethanol will promote AtmaNirbhar Bharat Abhiyan by ensuring energy self-dependency to some extent.
    • Reduction in import dependency
      • India is dependent on imports for about 82.1% of its crude oil requirement and to the extent of about 44.4% in the case of natural gas.
      • EBP will reduce oil import bills and can save precious USD 4 billion (Rs. 300 Billion) per year.
    • Entrepreneurial Opportunity
      • India is expected to need 10 billion litres of ethanol annually to meet the 20% blending target in 2030 if petrol consumption continues to grow at the current pace.
      • At present, the capacity stands at 1.55 billion litres a year.
    • Support for the agricultural sector 
      • It will help the sugar mill owner to pay farmers their pending FRP for sugarcane.
      • It will also mitigate the problem of low sugar prices in the international market.
    • Additional income to farmers
      • It is in line with the vision of the Prime Minister regarding Doubling the Farmer’s Income
    • Environmental friendly fuel.
      • It will decrease emissions of CO, Hydrocarbons, NOx, etc as it burns more smoothly due to the presence of Oxygen in the molecule itself.
    • SDG targets
      • Relatively low Emissions will help achieve SDG targets and mitigate climate change.

    Criticism of the E20 plan

    • Threat to Food Security
      • Ethanol derived from rice, corn and sugar could undermine food security in the world’s second-most populous country.
      • India still ranks 94th on the Global Hunger Index 2020 comprising 107 nations.
      • The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 209 million Indians, or about 15% of its population, were undernourished between 2018 and 2020. 
        • The coronavirus pandemic is also pushing more people into poverty, dealing a blow to decades of progress.
    • Water Crisis
      • The new ethanol policy should ensure that it doesn’t drive farmers toward water-intensive crops and create a water crisis in a country.
      • Rice and sugarcane, along with wheat, consume about 80% of India’s irrigation water.
      • There is a need to prioritise food production over crops for fuel due to following
        • Depleting groundwater resources, 
        • Arable land constraints, 
        • Erratic monsoons, and 
        • Dropping crop yields due to climate change.
      • A ton of corn can typically produce about 350 litres of ethanol, while a similar quantity of rice can yield about 450 litres of the spirit. 
        • For sugarcane, it’s about 70 litres.
    • Competition between the distilleries and the public distribution system
      • As per some critics, the food grains meant for the impoverished are being sold to distilleries at prices cheaper than what states pay for their public distribution networks.
      • Many ethanol producers are getting rice at 2,000 rupees per 100 kilograms, 
        • which compares with an estimated 4,300 rupees FCI pays to stock up the grain.
      • It could have adverse consequences for the rural poor and expose them to an enhanced risk of hunger.
    • Aversion among developed nations too
      • Many developed countries debate limiting policy support for grain-based biofuels.
      • Such steps are being taken amid reports of food-price increases and greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation
      • The USA is focussing on Electric Vehicles.
    • Non-uniform availability of Blending Infrastructure
      • About 50% of total pump nozzles in India are supplying only E0 even today especially in the North East States.
      • High Logistics Cost is also a challenge for petrol pump operators.
    • Challenges to Vehicle Manufactures and old Vehicle Owners
      • Rusting of the fuel tank was seen as ethanol sucks moisture from the atmosphere.
      • E20 compatible vehicles are expected to be costlier.

    Way ahead and Conclusion

    • Shift Focus from 1G to next-generation Biofuels
      • It will counter the most genuine fear of loss of food security.
      • Even, the 2018 National Policy on Biofuels prioritized 
        • grasses and algae; 
        • cellulosic material such as bagasse, farm and forestry residue; and, 
        • items like straw from rice, wheat and corn for ethanol production.

    Courtesy: Science Direct

    • Floor Price for Ethanol
      • To promote entrepreneurship and investment, predictability is required.
      • A floor price will help in that direction.
    • Making Vehicle manufacturers future-ready
      • The industry and petrol pump should be made ready for next pushes like E85 and E100.
    • India has a real opportunity here to become a global leader in sustainable biofuels policy if it chooses to refocus on ethanol made from wastes.
      • This would bring both strong climate and air quality benefits, since these wastes are currently often burned, contributing to smog.

    Source: IE