Clean Tech

Reaping fuel after harvest

Preeti Mehra | Updated on January 24, 2021

Clean cut: Solid biofuels come in several forms, the most popular being briquettes and pellets   -  ISTOCK.COM

Potential of crop residue as biofuel not amply tapped

Besides food sufficiency, India’s agrarian economy throws up other advantages. If recognised and tapped, some of these could help mitigate climate change.

Take agriculture residue. Around 500 million tonnes of it generated annually could be turned into solid biofuels. Unfortunately, an estimated 200 million tonnes is not used productively. If utilised, this can to a great extent help reduce the industrial use of fossil fuels such as coal or furnace oil.

It is not that solid biofuels are not already being used by a variety of industries. In fact, they form a component in the fuel mix for industrial sectors such as FMCG, food products, chemicals, pharma, tyres, and small businesses. However, its potential is not being fully exploited.

“Solid biofuels offer a big cost advantage,” says Ashvin Patil, Director at Biofuels Junction Pvt Ltd, one of the larger players in the solid biofuel segment. The company manages 10 manufacturing units and also buys from another 40 local producers. A finance professional for 17 years, Patil shifted to the biofuel business in 2016.

He explains that you require 3 kg solid biofuel in order to replace one litre of furnace oil. While the oil costs ₹40-50, the solid fuel costs ₹10-15. In addition, the nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide emissions are much lower than those in fossil fuels.

“There is no dearth of demand for solid biofuels; in value terms it is almost worth ₹50,000 crore of business. But its supply is scattered, and its metric weight is high. The transport component comprises 15-30 per cent of the cost,” Patil says.

Solid biofuels come in several forms, the most popular being briquettes and pellets. They are mostly manufactured from agricultural waste such as soya or mustard husk, wood waste, wood chips and refined sawdust.

The solid biofuels sector has seen a tremendous growth in the past few years with the government asking private power producers to attempt 5 per cent co-firing in their plants by substituting coal with biofuels. Patil cites the example of the NTPC which invited tenders for the supply of biomass pellets for their power plants across the country to mix with coal. “This is indeed a great fillip to the solid biofuel sector in India,” he says.

Along with this, capital subsidies to rural entrepreneurs have also helped push solid biofuels. In fact, a 2019 report by NITI Aayog and CII — Action Plan for Clean Industry — makes a business case for leapfrogging to 50 per cent biomass co-firing in existing thermal power plants. It says, “Utilisation of biomass by power producers will result in reduced instances of stubble burning in North Western India through utilisation of surplus biomass and associated air quality/health benefits in the region. It will also lead to significant job opportunities in rural North West.”

Energy experts, too, point towards big opportunities if biomass is made a focus area by farmer producer organisations and SMEs. Patil stresses the potential of using cotton stalks on a large scale while adding that solid biofuel has both demand and opportunity. It only needs to be tapped.

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Published on January 24, 2021
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