The government recently announced an ambitious plan to roll out vehicles running on 20 per cent ethanol blended petrol by 2025. This is against the current level of blending of 5-6 per cent. Achieving this target needs a paradigm shift in production and distribution of ethanol.

One country, which has successfully integrated biofuels into its fuel economy, is Brazil. It has efficiently leveraged its traditions and dominance in sugarcane production into a biofuel economy without compromising food security. Biofuels are also central to Brazil´s low carbon emission strategy. How did Brazil achieve this?

‘Energy’ cane

To mitigate high dependence on oil imports, Brazil turned to its traditional sugarcane to revolutionise its fuel economy. The quest for a higher productivity and sugar-ethanol balance led Brazil to revolutionise its biomass production for ethanol and develop a new variety of sugarcane, popularly known as ‘energy cane’, which is low on sucrose but high on biomass.

With productivity up to 350 tonnes of biomass per ha, against 80 tonnes per ha of traditional sugarcane, it offered a perfect balance for ethanol production without compromising sugar production. It enabled Brazil to gradually augment its production and blend.

With a mandatory blending of 27 per cent ethanol with gasoline, in 2019 alone Brazil saved about 0.5 million barrels per day of gasoline with a savings of $13 billion in imports. Seventy-eight per cent of Brazilian automobiles today run on 27 per cent of ethanol blend.

High biomass productivity of energy-cane is the biological factor that contributes to the high positive lifecycle energy balance of ethanol produced from it, with a resultant positive balance of greenhouse gases emission. With residual cane-waste (Bagasse) also becoming commercially valuable for power generation and other commercial uses, it has been possible to transform energy-cane production into a multiproduct enterprise in Brazil.

This has opened new hope for other countries too, mainly because energy cane is promising on drier and lower fertility soils, not suitable for conventional cultivation.

Initially, economic, and strategic security reasons drove Brazil’s ethanol production from sugarcane. But later, when the debate on the planet’s environmental sustainability was opened, it was realised that Brazil’s was the most successful renewable energy programme from biomass.

Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is designated as an ‘advanced biofuel’ due to its 61 per cent reduction of total life cycle GHG emissions.

Use of fossil fuels is one of the major sources of Co2 and other GHG emission globally. Fossil fuels consumed world-over produce an estimated 4.5 billion tonnes of Co2 every year. But only a fraction of it is replenished to the earth in fossil-carbon cycle. However, Co2 is a non-toxic gaseous fertiliser.

If its production and consumption can be rebalanced, it can be beneficially used in the carbon cycle to produce non-toxic biofuel.

Plant based biofuel seems to have an edge over all other sources of biofuels as plants consume Co2 from the atmosphere and give back oxygen to the atmosphere. It works as a Co2-O2 pump or a Co2 battery in liquid form through carbon fixation.

Specific crops grown in large areas consume Co2 from the atmosphere and the crop can be used to produce low Co2 emitting biofuels. This is even better than the electric vehicles which do not reduce GHG but only geographically displaces the emission, unless using renewable energy. Experience from Brazil shows that GHG emission is the lowest from hybrid ethanol.

With this success story, Brazil has proved that harmonious coexistence between biofuels and traditional fuels is possible to mitigate the factors that harm the environment.

Turning to India, of the 50 most polluted cities in the world, in terms of air quality index, 25 are in India, 22 in China, two in Pakistan and one in Bangladesh. Gurugram, Ghaziabad and Faridabad lead the list at first, second and fourth position. Of the top 10 economies in the world, India stands at the third position in terms of total Co2 emission with an estimated 2.45 billion mt of Co2 emission in 2017 (6.62 per cent of global emission). China tops the list with 10.87 billion mt (29.34 per cent) followed by the US with 5.11 billion mt (13.77 per cent).

Alarming oil imports

Apart from the environmental issues, our import dependence for fuel economy is alarming — 85 per cent of our crude oil requirement is imported. To address these twin problems, some serious attempts have been made in the last few years to scale up biofuel production and blending.

The National Biofuel Policy, 2018 has brought in certain revolutionary changes in the biofuel production philosophy of the country.

While envisaging augmentation of ethanol production through the traditional sugarcane route, it has allowed production of alcohol from certain other sugary feedstock like sugar beet, sweet sorghum, and starchy feedstock like corn, cassava, damaged food grains, rotten potatoes, etc.

It has also opened the production of second-generation ethanol from cellulosic agri-residues such as rice and wheat straw, corncobs, cotton stalk, bagasse and municipal solid waste, etc.

While these are welcome steps, it may not be enough to achieve the twin objectives. It requires a paradigm shift and mainstreaming biofuel policy and implementation.

It is also time to utilise the experiences from Brazil to seriously consider the mass production of high yielding feedstock such as energy cane using modern agri-technologies and create a new bioeconomy for the country, while addressing the environmental concerns. It has the potential to change the overall outlook of sugar-ethanol production in India.

Moreover, high volume of bio-residue, i.e., bagasse, press mud, agri-feedstock produced in this process can supplement the 2G ethanol and Compressed Biogas programmes. As per certain estimates energy cane produced in one hectare has a potential to yield about 18,000 litres of ethanol with right mix of 1G and 2G programmes.

An imaginatively formulated and implemented programme with right mix of plant based 1G ethanol and agri-residue based 2G ethanol programme has the potential to enable the country to achieve the target of 20 per cent ethanol blend in petrol earlier than targeted.

However, any such programme must be independent of traditional fuel price benchmarking and will need a mandatory blending regime to be successful, before it fully integrates with the fuel economy of the country and becomes a tradition as is the case with Brazil.

The writer is a former Indian Trade Service officer and currently engaged in biofuel sector development. Views expressed are personal