HT G20 Agenda: Why it makes sense for India to consider biofuels

Biofuels are a viable option for India to reduce its oil import bills and promote sustainable development, say experts.

Biofuels are a low-hanging fruit for India because the feedstock is local and infrastructure is already in place, experts said at HT’s G20 event on sustainable development goals and biofuels on Tuesday. India needs policies to reduce the cost of biofuels and promote large-scale adoption of blended fuel in automobiles, they suggested.

From left: Vibha Dhawan, director general at Energy and Resources Institute; Vikram Gulati, country head & executive vice president at Toyota Kirloskar Motors; and Preeti Jain, global director of policy, chemicals and carbon solution at Lanzatech, during the panel discussion on Tuesday (Hindustan Times)

Read here: HT G20 Agenda: India on course for a low carbon future, says Amitabh Kant

It makes sense for India to consider biofuels, said Vibha Dhawan, director general at the Energy and Resources Institute, a think tank. India has scanty petroleum reserves and its oil import bills are very high, she said.

“We have plenty of sunshine, which allows us to grow crops on a large scale. If the crop residue can be converted into fuel, it is a win-win situation,” Dhawan said. “Through taller and bigger trees, you can fix more carbon dioxide in the soil and, at the same time, use biomass for biofuel.”

The current pathway to growth of fossil fuels is not sustainable, said Vikram Gulati, country head and executive vice president at Toyota Kirloskar Motor. “It doesn’t add up from an economic or environmental point of view. Energy transition is inevitable. You have to basically change now and at scale,” he said.

“We have to see for our context, which is the pathway to enable transition without much disruption. My answer to that is biofuels,” Gulati said. “The feedstock for that is local. It comes from surplus food and feed. The processing plants are local. The infrastructure is already in place. For automobile companies, it means only changing the engine to take E20 first and then later on take a flexi fuel mix. This is not a technological challenge.”

Gulati said some policy tweaks are needed to ensure consumer uptake and to accelerate transition. “Our policies are based on a different era. You can have policies to reward or punish based on the amount of carbon emissions you are responsible for,” he advocated. “By doing that you can push the consumer to buy a technology that is greener and a bit more expensive.”

Carbon credits can possibly deliver on finance for biofuels, according to Preeti Jain, global director of policy, chemicals and carbon solution at Lanzatech, a carbon recycling firm. Carbon credits are permits that allow the owner to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. India is planning to introduce a carbon credit trading scheme.

“India already has a national biofuel policy. These technologies are new. They are capital-intensive, so the role of policies is important. The government has come up with PM Jeevan Yojana to support some of these plants but I would say that is not enough,” Jain said. “Carbon credits is something we need to look at for solving the puzzle of financing.”

Dhawan pointed out that biofuel is expensive compared to fossil fuels. Algae is a fast growing species that can be grown in saline water and the rate of fixation of carbon dioxide in case of algae is much higher than other terrestrial plants, she said. “Algae can be considered also for biofuels,” Dhawan suggested.

Using farm residue for biofuels can address the problem of air pollution, she said. “There is not enough focus on the impact of crop residue burning on air pollution and people’s health. Agricultural waste is actually a wealth, provided you work on the entire value chain to ensure it can be used as biofuel,” Dhawan said. “I rank biofuel higher than renewable energy. For solar panels, you require steel and rare minerals, while in case of biofuels, there will be no waste and, hence, you will not create any problem for the future.”

The value chain for electric vehicles is dominated by a particular country, it is costly and some countries have spent huge amounts in subsidies, Gulati said. The EV technology is not yet cost-effective vis a vis conventional technologies. “For India, a technology that can give you scale is biofuels. It’s a low-hanging fruit. You should not look only at tailpipes; we have to consider how sustainable the entire value chain is and whether there is reduction in carbon emissions,” he pointed out.

Biofuels can be a game-changer for a hard to decarbonise sector like aviation. “The carbon offset and reduction scheme is only applicable for long haul flights. More than 90% emissions are emitted from long haul flights. The ethanol molecule can also provide feedstock for sustainable aviation fuel. Road transport will have many solutions but aviation sector doesn’t have many options,” Jain said.

“By 2050, this sustainable aviation fuel market is likely to $50 billion market. It’s a huge economic opportunity for India. Emission reduction is also huge,” she added. “Conventional fuel leaves this white line, which is mainly particulate matter, but when you use sustainable aviation fuel, you can reduce the condensation trail by a great extent.”

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