July 07 2020
Years to go to stub out crop burning
22 October 2018

‘State governments must come out with guidelines to make the biofuel sector economically viable’

In May this year, the government announced a National Policy on Biofuels, which laid out the path towards increasing the country’s ethanol and biodiesel production. One of the stated benefits of biofuels was the impact this would have on the practice of burning crop waste in preparation for the next planting season.

“By reducing crop burning and conversion of agricultural residues/wastes to biofuels, there will be further reduction in greenhouse gas emissions,” the government said at the time the policy was announced.

However, this has not come to pass. Crop burning still remains a major problem across the country, and in particular, in the agrarian States of Haryana and Punjab.

It will still take years before the process of using crop residue for biofuel and thus, eliminating the need for stubble burning, becomes economically viable for the farmers and biofuel companies alike, according to industry players.

‘Very large problem’

“All in all, in India, the problem of crop residue burning is a very large problem,” Aditya Handa, MD and CEO, Abellon CleanEnergy, a biofuel producer, told The Hindu. There are varying estimates, but they range from 200 million tonnes to 240 million tonnes a year. And this is crop residue that is not usable for other purposes such as animal feed, etc.”

Mr. Handa added that Punjab and Haryana together account for about 20 million tonnes, or about 10%, of the crop residue burnt in the country every year.

“A lot of work is happening in the biofuel sector but from a private player perspective, it is still not economically viable to go and collect all the husk from a big geographical area because only a certain quantity can be fit on one truck,” said Shiva Vig, director of BioD Energy. “The logistical cost is very high if private players go to collect this husk. And the yield of converting this husk to ethanol is very low.”

“Collecting and using husk is actually not that viable a solution until there is an incentive from the government, whether State or the Centre,” Mr. Vig added. “That is why it has not picked up over the last couple of years.”

Sector experts say that while the government has introduced the macro-level policy on biofuels, there is a need for the State governments to come out with their own specific guidelines and then, for the companies to begin making the required changes.

Pellets from residue

There are various ways in which crop residue can be used as fuel for energy. One option is to make pellets from the residue and use them to complement the coal burned in thermal power plants.

Another option is to set up more ethanol and bio-CNG plants that can use the crop residue as fuel. However, the problem is in creating a chain from the field to the power plant.

“The Ministry of Power has a regulation where it is mandatory for all coal-fired thermal plants to use a minimum percentage of crop-residue pellets,” Mr. Handa said.

“But for States to now make guidelines and enforce this policy, and for companies to actually start buying the pellets, and for suppliers to come in and make the required investments, this takes a certain amount of time. In the next year or two years, we should see a positive traction in the industry.”

The key problem, he explained, is that the harvest window is very short, about 20-30 days.

Quick solution

In this time, farmers have to harvest their crop, and then clear the fields in preparation for the next crop. Burning has been the quickest solution.

“The government has already started giving subsidies for farm equipment,” Mr. Handa said. “The way forward is in using such technologies, such as baling machines and other automated machines, to do the work.”

With India’s ethanol consumption is set to rise in the coming years, crop residue can serve as a ready and environmentally-friendly source of raw material to bolster this trend.

“India’s ethanol consumption will outgrow production for the fourth consecutive year due to an uptick in fuel ethanol purchases and steady demand from the industrial and potable sectors,” according to a report by the US Department of Agriculture.

“As a result, consumption will grow from 2 billion litres in 2017 to 2.4 billion litres in 2018.”

Industry estimates peg the total investment in the biofuel sector in India, across ethanol, biodiesel, and biogas, at about $1.5-2 billion. However, this is expected to rise tenfold by 2022 to $15 billion.



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