Government must learn from failures of the past to get the biodiesel story right.
SpiceJet’s biofuel-powered flight between Dehradun and Delhi on Monday is no small milestone. One of the two engines of SpiceJet’s aircraft ran on a 25-75 blend of Jatropha-based bio-fuel and regular, hydrocarbon-based aviation turbine fuel (ATF). Beyond just demonstrating technological competence to fly using Jatropha-derived bio-fuel, the flight also rekindles hope of a sharper policy focus on bio-fuels, especially the Jatropha-derived one. As per a report in The Hindu, the Union minister for road transport and highways, Nitin Gadkari, said that the Cabinet will soon be examining a policy on bio-fuel for aircraft. Given India is set to become one of the largest civil aviation markets, whetting the industry’s appetite for bio-fuels—the international standard for blending allows for a 50-50 mix of biofuels and ATF—not only means cheaper access to flying (bio-jet fuel, as per SpiceJet, could cut fuel costs by 15-20%), but will also be a significant step towards reducing the industry’s carbon impact and help ease India’s import dependence for fossil fuels.
So far, India’s bio-fuel efforts—more pronouncedly, for biodiesel—have lacked critical propulsion. While the Planning Commission, in 2003, had proposed a two-phased National Biodiesel Mission that was predominantly focussed on Jatropha with other non-edible oils, including from Pongamia (karanja) also thrown into the mix, a decade and a half later the goals of even the first phase haven’t been met. Under the first phase, 2.19 million hectares of land in the country were to be brought under Jatropha plantation to meet a projected demand of 5% blending with high-speed diesel consumed in the country by 2006-07. By 2011-2012, under the second phase beginning 2007, area under Jatropha was to be scaled up to 11.2 million hectares to meet a 20% blending rate. The plan panel’s report estimated 13.4 million hectares could be potentially made available for the crop.
Things started unravelling right from the start. Currently, only a little over 0.5 million hectares are under Jatropha in the country, producing just 140-300 million litres of biodiesel against a 2011-12 target of over 62 billion litres. Nearly two-thirds of the acreage, extrapolating from a 2015 TERI paper, would have matured for production just this year or last. Worse, whatever production was realised after 2005, proved unviable given the production cost itself was 20-50% higher than the purchase price set by the oil ministry. Moving targeted deadlines by almost half a decade—in 2008, the government set a goal of 20% blending with both biodiesel and ethanol by 2017—hasn’t helped.
Non-food oils like Jatropha enjoy a significant edge in terms of blending over ethanol or edible vegetable oils given there is no food security trade-off (unlike diversion of cane for ethanol production or oil-seeds for biodiesel). To be sure, the experience with Jatropha so far has been sobering. Right from the start, it has been beset with unavailability of feed-stock, small land-holdings in areas suited for cultivation, ownership issues with government/community wastelands—crucially, the new policy’s plantation vision speaks of using such lands—lack of R&D, all have their imprint on the Jatropha story. There was also poor awareness regarding irrigation requirements for the plant’s development, owing to Jatropha’s promotion as a crop suited for semi-arid regions. But, given the latest development, the government would do well to look at it closely and work around the hurdles it has faced in the past.