Column: Blending ethanol with petrol: Apart from environment benefits, can reduce import bill

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Updated: April 30, 2016 9:39:28 AM

Apart from obvious environmental benefits, blending ethanol with petrol reduces the country’s oil-import bill

ethanol, petrolApart from obvious environmental benefits, blending ethanol with petrol reduces the country’s oil-import bill (Reuters)

Even  though, thanks to the policy initiatives of the NDA government, the ethanol blending with petrol (EBP) programme in India has taken off, there still are a few sceptics asking whether fuel grade ethanol is really as good for the country as it is made out to be. Even as the PMO  tweeted saying EBP was a big success in 2015, benefitting sugarcane farmers, the Indian Chemical Council president responded on the micro-blogging site by calling it the “biggest fraud played on Indian consumers in the garb of green fuel”.

The first NDA government had introduced ethanol blending with petrol in 2003. Later, the UPA government made the blending mandatory at 5% from 2007, and fixed a procurement price for ethanol for state-owned oil marketing companies (OMCs). However, its implementation left a lot to be desired. The fixed pricing policy never really stabilised, and the government had to opt for an open tender (discovered price) mechanism in 2012; but this too had several inherent problems and was struck with delays. With several states controlling production and movement of ethanol, the programme could not cross 2.5% blending levels.

However, the present government quickly understood the factors holding back the EBP programme. Within six months of taking charge, the PM, in December 2014, decided to not only readopt the fixed pricing policy for ethanol, but also to delink it from global crude oil prices. The government press releases clearly established that the EBP programme in India is to benefit the cane farmers as well as take advantage of the fact that ethanol is a green, renewable fuel produced from a byproduct of sugarcane. In a single stroke, this move not only removed the delays in tender finalisation, but also guaranteed fair returns to the industry and, therefore, to the farmers, as well as encouraged reduction in environmental pollution. At the same time, the nation took a big step forward by “making in India” a product which brings down our reliance on imported petrol. The June 2015 decision to remove central excise duty on fuel grade ethanol for one year in 2015-16 sugar season (SS), was another strong positive signal from the government for this bio-fuel.

These two policy decisions encouraged ethanol manufacturers and suppliers to participate whole heartedly in the EBP programme. From a total of 68 crore litres in 2014-15 SS, the OMCs have already finalised orders for 135 crore litres for 2015-16 SS. It is a big jump—for the first time ever, the long desired blend percentage of 5% on an all-India basis will be reached. What it also means is that the substituted 135 crore litres of petrol will save the country over Rs 6000 crore of foreign exchange in one year alone, reducing our net oil import bill. In his various speeches, the PM has set an internal target of reducing oil import bill by 10% by 2022. The ethanol producers and OMCs are making a very important contribution in this direction.

Getting back to the main question,  of ethanol reducing environmental pollution, oxygenates are usually employed as additives to petrol to reduce carbon monoxide and soot during the burning of the fuel. Oxygenates do not occur naturally in gasoline; they are added to increase gasoline’s oxygen content, which in turn burns the petrol better in the engine itself, lowering the emissions of harmful carbon monoxide and other gases, and thereby reducing air pollution.

Alcohols like methanol, ethanol, butanol, etc, or ethers like MTBE, ETBE, etc, have been commonly used as oxygenates. The US had mandated that the minimum proportion of oxygenates be added to automotive gasoline on regional and seasonal basis from 1992 until 2006 in an attempt to reduce air pollution, in particular ground-level ozone and smog conditions. Automakers have also promoted a blend of ethanol and gasoline. Methyl tert(iary)-butyl ether (MTBE) was the most popular fuel additive in the US, prior to the government-mandated use of ethanol. Not long back, MTBE was used as an oxygenate in India as well, but due to health concerns, it was given up.

Ethanol, when used as a gasoline component, improves combustion—helping the fuel burn more completely. Thus, the quality of the environment improves. Carbon monoxide emissions are reduced, and lead and other carcinogens are removed from gasoline. Car-owners benefit from increased octane in gasoline, which reduces engine “knock” or “pinging.” This in fact, reduces wear-and-tear of the engine, increasing its longevity. Ethanol-blended fuels also absorb moisture and clean the fuel system.

In India, two separate studies conducted by IIT-Delhi and the R&D centre of the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) have confirmed the various benefits of adding ethanol to petrol.

The IIT- Delhi study confirms that:
* mere addition of ethanol upto 10% could completely eliminate exhaust carbon monoxide emission,
* ethanol is an environment friendly oxygenate that helps gasoline burn more completely, thereby reducing engine emissions, and
* the cooler, smoother, knock free operation of the engine with the blended fuel were the added beneficial effects on the engine performance due to ethanol blending.

Similar results were noticed by the R&D centre of IOC, and, in a 2002 report, it concluded that not only is there a massive reduction of carbon monoxide and green house gases, there was also a significant improvement in fuel efficiency with the ethanol blended petrol. In other words, the citizens benefit from cleaner air and better fuel efficiency with ethanol-blended petrol.

Ethanol is a “wonder” green bio-fuel, produced domestically from sugarcane, which reduces environmental pollution, improves engine-life, increases fuel efficiency and, at the same time, improves returns for farmers and the domestic industry. Its use should be encouraged and objections from vested groups should be dealt with a strong hand by the government.

The author is director general, Indian Sugar Mills Association

Views are personal

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