Worldwide, ethanol is acknowledged as a clean, green and renewable fuel that can be blended with gasoline (petrol). In the US, where it has been blended with gasoline for more than four decades, ethanol has decreased carbon emissions, eliminating the CO₂ equivalent of 12 million cars annually.
Brazil launched its National Alcohol Programme in 1975. This involved producing both sugar and ethanol in a highly integrated process within the same plant.
Despite its unmistakable benefits, ethanol is viewed with suspicion in some quarters across India. The misconceptions include the notion that ethanol blending with petrol would raise food prices without any proper gains on the climate front. It is believed that farmers can only grow sugarcane (from which ethanol is produced) by diverting land and resources from other food crops to meet ethanol demand. This leads to shortages and price spikes in certain crops.
The misconceptions are unfounded and ethanol remains a clean and green fuel.
To begin with, whether it is low-level blends such as E10 (10 per cent ethanol and 90 per cent gasoline), E15 (between 10.5 and 15 per cent ethanol) or E85 (flex fuel – an ethanol-gasoline blend that contains 51-83 per cent ethanol), the sugarcane-derived fuel helps in lowering emissions.
Given the alternatives, across gas stations (fuel pumps) in Brazil, ethanol is sold in two different fuel variants — hydrous ethanol and anhydrous ethanol.
Also, the CO₂ released by automobiles when ethanol burns is offset by the carbon dioxide captured while growing sugarcane crops to make ethanol. Another significant benefit of ethanol production is it generates jobs in the rural regions where the sugarcane-growing belts are primarily located.
Compared with the production and use of gasoline and diesel, as per a life-cycle analysis, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are lowered on average by 40 per cent with corn-based ethanol while this can range from 88 per cent to 108 per cent if sugarcane feedstock is used (depending on the type of cane waste).
In the Indian context, the cost to consumers could be 30 per cent less compared to gasoline prices in the case of hydrous ethanol (94 per cent ethanol and 6 per cent water). Moreover, 20 per cent of the country’s total GHG imprint could be curbed by blending 50 per cent ethanol by 2030, helping India meet its UN SDG commitments.
Additionally, the fears of India’s food security being impacted are misplaced. As the country produces surplus sugar, it remains a net exporter. More than 100 million tonnes of bagasse is generated every year in the sugarcane value chain. Given these facts, ethanol generated from this value chain won’t threaten India’s food security.
Furthermore, efforts are ongoing to boost the vertical production of sugarcane, instead of expanding the area under cultivation. This is being done by identifying high-yield sugarcane varieties and innovative technologies that can drive better productivity. If India succeeds in blending 50 per cent ethanol with gasoline, multiple benefits will emerge. These include saving 3,000 crore litres of gasoline import in 2030, leading to annual foreign exchange benefits of more than $15 billion. The income of farmers would also increase by ₹1.80 lakh crore.
The other concern is that water pumps irrigating sugarcane fields use diesel, a fossil fuel, negating the ultimate benefits of ethanol. The Central Government is actively encouraging the use of solar pumps. In the days ahead, diesel pumps will be replaced with eco-friendly solar pumps or those powered by electricity.
Finally, sugarcane is criticised as a water-guzzler. But most water requirements of sugarcane are met by rainwater and less by irrigation. Also, drip irrigation is a good way to limit water wastage while growing sugarcane.
Finally, it is apparent that the benefits of ethanol far outweigh its purported downside.
The writer is Advisor, Indian Sugar Mills Association