Food vs Fuel: Ethanol Blending Scheme

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    Syllabus: GS3/ Environmental Pollution & Degradation

    In Context

    • Low stocks of sugar and uncertainties of overproduction this year have led the government to go slow on its ethanol blending programme.

    Ethanol Blending

    • Ethanol can be mixed with gasoline to form different blends. 
    • This blending is done by the oil marketing companies in their terminals. Once blended, the ethanol cannot be separated from the petrol.
    • As the ethanol molecule contains oxygen, it allows the engine to more completely combust the fuel, resulting 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.
      • It has a higher octane number than gasoline, hence improving the petrol octane number.

    Significance of Ethanol Blending for India

    • Increased energy security: India imports more than 70 per cent of its domestic crude requirement from abroad.
      • The blending reduces its dependency on foreign crude significantly.
      • India will be more immune to geopolitics upheavals as seen recently in the Russia-Ukraine conflict or Middle-Eastern turmoil.
    • Eco-friendly: The use of blended ethanol lowers carbon emissions, resulting in better air quality.
    • Judicious use of otherwise wasted crops: Huge quantities of crops see wastage in India every year. With the blending, the wasted crops would be diverted for ethanol production thus reducing wastage.
    • Increased farmer income: Farmers can realise better prices for their produce. The previous policy of attaining a 10 per cent blending level has benefited the farmers significantly. The 20 per cent level has further benefited them.
    • Increased self-reliance: The blending has fostered the development of indigenous technologies making India self-reliant to a considerable degree
    • SDG targets: Relatively low Emissions will help achieve SDG targets and mitigate climate change.

    Challenges

    • Reduced domestic availability: Recently, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution directed all mills and distilleries not to use sugarcane juice/syrup for making any ethanol “with immediate effect”. The Centre has also banned sugar exports.
      • It is a step towards augmenting domestic availability – restricting diversion of the sweetener for ethanol production.
    • Low sugar production: The 2022-23 sugar year ended with stocks of just over 57 lakh tonnes (lt), the lowest since the 39.4 lt of 2016-17 and way below the record 143.3 lt of 2018-19.
      • There is uncertainty over production for the current 2023-24 year itself. Maharashtra and Karnataka are expected to record particularly sharp declines, on the back of subpar rains and low reservoir water levels in their major cane-growing areas.
    • Land diverted for non-food purposes: A greater percentage of blending may further result in more land being diverted for crops that would be used for ethanol production threatening food security.
    • Unsustainable crop rearing:
      • As of now, primarily water-intensive sugar cane is being used in ethanol production which is driving down the water table swiftly. It is also being subsidised by the government thus nudging more farmers to grow the crop.
      • The target would require 6 million tonnes of sugarcane and 16.5 million tonnes of grains per annum by 2025 for non-food purposes thus impacting food security.

    Suggestions & way ahead

    • Shift Focus from 1G to next-generation Biofuels: It will counter the most genuine fear of loss of food security. The 2018 National Policy on Biofuels prioritised:
      • grasses and algae; 
      • cellulosic material such as bagasse, farm and forestry residue; and, 
      • items like straw from rice, wheat and corn for ethanol production.
    • India as a global leader:
      • 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.
    What is Ethanol?

    – 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.
    1. Bioethanol production is classified into different generations (as shown in the image below).

    – It is primarily produced from molasses, a derivative of sugar production. 

    – It is among the most important biofuels, manufactured naturally by yeast fermentation or petrochemical methods such as ethylene hydration.

    – It is the organic compound Ethyl Alcohol.

    – It is also an ingredient in alcoholic beverages.

    National Biofuel Policy

    Aim:
    1. The policy is aimed at reducing dependence on imports by encouraging fuel blending. 

    Key elements: With bioethanol, biodiesel and bio-CNG in focus, its key parts include 
    1. Ethanol Blending Programme (EBP)
    2. Production of second-generation ethanol (derived from forest and agricultural residues), 
    3. Increasing capacity for production of fuel additives, R&D in feedstock, which is the starting material for ethanol production.
    4. Financial incentives for achieving these goals.

    Ethanol Blending Petrol (EBP) programme:
    1. The Centre promotes the Ethanol Blending Petrol (EBP) programme with the aim of 
    -> Enhancing energy security, 
    -> Reducing import dependency on fuel, 
    -> Saving foreign exchange, 
    -> Addressing environmental issues and 
    -> Giving a boost to agriculture.

    Accomplishments:
    1. The ‘National Policy on Biofuels’ notified by the government in 2018 envisaged an indicative target of 20% ethanol blending in petrol by 2030.
    -> In 2014 only 1.5 per cent ethanol was blended in petrol in India.

    2. Given the encouraging performance and various interventions made by the government since 2014, the 20% target was advanced to 2025-26.

    3. The ethanol-blended petrol (EBP) programme has been a significant accomplishment of the current government. 
    -> The all-India average blending of ethanol with petrol has risen from 1.6% in 2013-14 to 11.8% in 2022-23.
    Daily Mains Question
    [Q] What is the need & significance of Ethanol Blending for India? Examine the potential challenge of Food security posed by Ethanol blending in India.