Strike a balance between energy security and food: energy adviser

Written by ASHOK B SHARMA | New Delhi, Aug 26 | Updated: Aug 27 2007, 04:43am hrs
The governments energy adviser, Surya P Sethi has said that food and water security concerns are as critical as energy security.

Proponents of bio-energy often exaggerate their claims of availability of waste and marginal lands, availability of plant varieties and germplasm that need practically no water for growth, yield levels, costs and most importantly the benign nature of bio-energy. These claims, he said are however not based on rigorous research.

He said that if 60 million hectares of land is used for energy plantation like Jatropha Carcus and other crops), the commercial bio-energy produced would meet only 29% to 35% of country's energy needs even 25 years from today. Data on annual bio-diesel yields from Jatropha ranges from a low of 0.3 tonne to one tonne per hectare.

Based on available data wood plantations provide the best use of such lands for commercially grown bio-energy as it would yield some 9 times the energy compared to bio-diesel from equivalent land mass.

The annual yields of bio-energy from wood plantations are estimated at a low of 5 tonne to a high of 20 tonne per hectare, he said.

According to Sethi, ethanol based on sugarcane or alternate crops could match wood but the crops would require intensive cultivation, water, fertilizer and arable lands.

Suggesting another alternative Sethi said, To put this in perspective, just 2.25 million hectare land under solar cells with 15% conversion efficiency could yield the same energy as 60 million hectare of wood plantation. Only 7 to 8 million hectare land under solar cells can give India energy independence even 25 years from today.

He suggested setting up solar panels on totally arid lands, including desserts, mountaintops and roof tops.

According to Sethi about 31% of Indias primary energy needs are met from bio-energy produced on non-commercial basis from agricultural and forest waste, wood chips, animal waste and bio-fuels.

Bio-fuels have been used for centuries by the tribals. Non-commercial energy will constitute at least 10% to 1 2% of Indias primary energy mix evening 2031-32 and remain as the third important energy source for next 25 years after coal and fossil oil.

Sethi is of the view that production of bio-energy in a localised and decentralised manner consistent with current patterns is indeed sustainable. He raised questions about the proposed large-scale commercial cultivation of bio-fuel crops,particularly relating to sustainability and viability, impact on eco-systems, socio-economic settings and local lifestyles, livelihood of indigenous people, food and water security. He criticized the US direct subsidy of $ 3.4 billion for corn-based ethanol.

The consumers have paid $ 3.6 billion extra for energy they received from 4.9 billion gallons of ethanol in2006. The entire world has suffered the consequences of this $ 7 billion billion subsidy by way of lower availability and consequent higher prices for grains and pulses. Europe and Canada have done the same for subsidy on rapeseed, he said.

How green is the so-called green energy, questioned Sethi and said that there were growing body of evidences to show green fuels were not always green. Studies at Berkley and Academy of Sciences have conclusively shown that greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions through use of doped gasoline using corn-based ethanol (E85) will be less than 0.2% in 2017 when ethanol production is expected to peak in US.

The total lifecycle emission of 5 major pollutants (carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, PM10, Sox and Nox) are higher with E85 compared to gasoline. E85 also produces much higher concentration of ground level ozone, which is a serious health hazard.

He said that Indian studies have confirmed that sugarcane-based ethanol has an overall negative energy balance when all energy inputs are considered.