India’s missed opportunity

An excellent opinion piece in the Hindustan Times points out that, inspired by Western fixation with ethanol and biodiesel, India is about to miss a huge opportunity to strengthen its energy security. India intends to blend gasoline with 5 per cent of ethanol and to replace a large part of high speed diesel with bio-diesel from a plant called Jatropha. "Since ethanol can only be mass produced at present from food crops, even the six-fold increase in production that the government’s modest programme envisages will require the diversion of a large portion of land that is currently feeding people to feeding machines." "While the technology for producing ethanol from non-food plant cellulose (e.g. wood, leaves, bagasse or straw) has still to be developed and proved economically viable, the technology for producing methanol from wood is more than two centuries old." India produces approximately 200 million tonnes of bagasse and an equal amount of paddy straw and rice husk (equivalent in energy terms to about 150 million tonnes of bagasse) every year. These agricultural and industrial wastes are capable of producing 750 to 800 million tonnes of a fuel that has so far only been used in racing cars. [methanol] In energy terms, this is equivalent to about 500 million tonnes of gasoline and slightly less of diesel. That is about three times the projected transport fuel needs of the country in 2030." "Often the strongest argument against doing something is that others are doing something different. But this is not applicable to the search for new sources of energy. Other countries are exploring other paths because they face a different set of constraints. The West, for instance, is placing its short-term bets on ethanol because it has a surplus of productive capacity in agriculture. It is placing its long-term bets on hydrogen fuel cells because it knows that it cannot grow enough biomass to meet the whole of its transport fuel needs when the oil runs out. We, however, will not get to that point for several decades. We also face the challenges of rural poverty and environmental degradation that they have largely overcome. We need to find our own path."

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