India, the world’s third-biggest oil importer, has fast-tracked a proposal to introduce petrol with a higher blend of ethanol in an effort to reduce its vehicular emissions and cut down on oil import costs.
While this is expected to also benefit Indian farmers, who produce sugar cane and grains used to make ethanol, concerns have been raised that a greater adoption of ethanol could have an adverse impact on the country’s food and ecological security.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally announced on June 5 – World Environment Day – the decision to advance the country’s target of 20 per cent ethanol blending in petrol, referred to as E20, by five years to 2025.
Oil marketing companies in India currently retail petrol with a 10 per cent ethanol blend. However, only around 50 per cent of the petrol sold in the country is E10 blended because of inadequate availability of ethanol.
A June 5 report by a government expert committee on ethanol blending in India estimates that the country will require around 10 billion litres of ethanol to meet its E20 target in 2025-2026. This is triple the current requirement of 3.32 billion litres. The increased demand for ethanol will be met by 6 million tonnes of sugar and 16.5 million tonnes of grains a year in 2025, a requirement that the country can support, according to the committee’s report.
India is also set to spend around 500 billion rupees (S$9.05 billion) to boost ethanol production, reported Bloomberg last Friday. Vehicles with E20 tuned engines, which are necessary to ensure optimum benefits for the fuel switch, are expected to be rolled out across the country from April 2025.
Among the many benefits cited behind the push for E20 is reduced oil import costs. The government estimates that a successful roll-out of the E20 programme can save around $5.3 billion a year in oil import costs. Reduced vehicular emissions is another advantage, with ethanol-blended petrol known to decrease emissions such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.
However, there are ecological concerns that the push for ethanol will incentivise greater farming of sugar cane and padi, which are water-intensive crops. Producing just one litre of ethanol from sugar requires about 3,000 litres of water. If successful, food crops and acreage meant for their cultivation could also end up being diverted for ethanol production.
Dr Jyoti Parikh, executive director of the Delhi-based Integrated Research and Action for Development think-tank, said the push for ethanol adoption should factor in the overall cost from greater use of water and electricity for growing sugar cane and grains.
“It may be profitable for a few but, socially, you and I may be paying for it,” she said.
She added that the objectives of energy self-reliance and reducing emissions can be served better by the adoption of electric vehicles, which should get higher priority.
The expert committee’s report recommends a switch to environmentally sustainable crops for ethanol production in the long run, including cereals, particularly maize, and second-generation biofuels. The latter includes non-edible oilseeds, used cooking oil, and agriculture residue such as rice straw or corn cobs.
With most of India’s ethanol production capacity currently derived from molasses, there are concerns about the impact of sugar prices on ethanol availability. An increase in prices, for instance, could result in sugar cane molasses meant for ethanol being used for producing sugar instead. The expert committee has prescribed an approximately equal amount of ethanol production from molasses and grains in the coming years to reduce reliance on sugar cane.
Diversifying ethanol sources, especially through greater use of non-food biomass, is of critical importance, said Mr Vivek Chattopadhyaya, senior programme manager for air pollution at the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment. “Any clean-fuel programme must ensure consistent supply and affordable pricing. You have to price the cleaner fuel lower than regular fuel, and supply inconsistencies can drive up costs,” he told The Straits Times.
The expert committee’s report has recommended tax relief on ethanol-blended fuel as well as tax incentives for vehicles compatible with E20 fuel.
Mr Chattopadhyaya added that further studies are needed to clearly establish the green credentials of using ethanol.