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  Biodiesel is on centerstage now

In the last three years awareness of tree based non edible oils as alternatives to petro-diesels has risen in India. Unfortunately jatropha has received the greater attention to the exclusion of others, notably pongamia pinnata.

Still, there’s now a buzz around the country. In Chhatttisgarh, the Chief Minister Mr Raman Singh has been driving his Tata Safari for close to four months on jatropha oil. His state has also set up a 3 tonnes per day refinery to promote the use of oil in tractors, jeeps and pump sets.

Tata Motors in Pune is running 43 of its 150 fleet buses on a 10% biodiesel blend. 20 buses in the Gurgaon depot of the Haryana state roadways are running on a 5% blend. The railways meanwhile, having satisfied themselves during initial trials, have decided to run five trains out of Lucknow on a 10% biodiesel blend. In this, they have worked closely with Indian Oil Corporation [IOC] to evaluate the technology. The Petroleum Conservation Research Association [PCRA] of IOC maintains a good FAQ page where the railway’s interest is explained.

Railways has great synergies with biodiesel use. It is the largest consumer of diesel oil in the country. And it is one of the largest land owner too. It has enough land along its tracks that will enable all its trains to run on 10% biodiesel blend. What is more, its lands along the tracks, are distributed throughout the country. That will ensure low processing costs and easy transportation to points of use, while generating employment across the country. There can’t be a greater advertisement of biodiesel’s relevance to India.

Railways choice of jatropha is understandable, because for engine drivers, visibility is important and jatropha, being more bush-like is suited for planting along the tracks. [About 500 hectares in collaboration with IOC are now being planned.] But hasn’t there been a neglect of pongamia pinnata, a tree native to India since ancient times? It lives for 80 years -as against jatropha’s 40- and is just as hardy in hostile environments. Professor Udipi Shrinivasa has explored and investigated all aspects of pongamia based biodiesels for over 5 years now. He has demonstrated the generation of electricity among tribal communities -over ten so far- where pongamia trees natively exist in the surrounding jungles. These are marvels in that they are totally autonomous power stations, depending on nothing from the cities; in fact they export surplus pongamia oil. Prof. Shrinivasa’s organisation, Sustainable Transformations offers professional consultancy.

Prof Shrinivasa believes there is enough wastelands in the country to grow between four and five times our liquid fuel needs. Dr S K Chopra, Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources [MNES] has said that if the draft National Policy on Bio Fuels is adopted and a mere 10% is blended with petro-fuels, we would save Rs. 20,000 crore annually. That is about $4 billion. Scale that using Prof Shrinivasa’s estimate, and we are looking at a potential of $170 or thereabouts, with most of the costs given back as wages to Indians all across the country. There can’t be a more compelling good news. There are credible hopes that Prime Minister Singh is convinced of the potential and a Bio Fuel Development Board will come into being soon.

The scene is not without some clouds on the horizon. As worldwide awareness of and demand for biofuels rise, the third world will increasingly be tempted to supply cheap energy to the developed world. George Monbiot has flagged the emerging threat in an important essay. Given his penchant to shock and shake, he begins it with this statement: “The adoption of biofuels would be a humanitarian and environmental disaster.” Really? Read on. His worry is that the recent political activism in Europe in favour of biodiesel will spur rape of third world farms. “The European Union wants 2% of the oil we use to be biodiesel by the end of next year, rising to 6% by 2010 and 20% by 2020. To try to meet these targets, the government has reduced the tax on biofuels by 20 pence a litre, while the EU is paying farmers an extra 45 euros a hectare to grow them.”

He then imagines a worldwide disaster extrapolating the European experience with sourcing its biofuel from mostly rapeseed and soya: “...every hectare of arable land could provide 1.45 tonnes of transport fuel.” Then comes the leap: “then most of the arable surface of the planet will be deployed to produce food for cars, not people.” He does note later that oil palms produce four times as much as rapeseed, but even that is an edible oil.

Pongamia can be a wasteland tree, its oil is not edible, its care requires no chemical fertilisers or much water, it does not call for repeated planting and harvest like rape or soya do and the enriched land under its canopy can be used to raise edible crops. If then pongamia oil is used mostly for local energy needs, Monbiot’s concerns are nearly fully addressed. Jatropha alas, does not have the same advantages, notably a croppable canopy.

Some residual concern however remains. Global carpet-braggers are likely to transform themselves into environmentalists, fan out into the third world and make a tidy profit. Monbiot, again:"At a meeting in Paris last month, a group of scientists and greens studying abrupt climate change decided that Tony Blairs two big ideas tackling global warming and helping Africa could both be met by turning Africa into a biofuel production zone.”

Here’s another example of how the West’s pre-occupation with field-crops based biofuels can give the subject some pretty bad headlines. Professors Pimental of Cornell and Patzek of Berkeley have caused this headline: “Cornell ecologist’s study finds that producing ethanol and biodiesel from corn and other crops is not worth the energy”. Quite apart from raising credibility issues, the sweeping claim -"There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel"- makes one tremble at the influence these centres of learning might have on global policies. Deservedly this piece of research prompted a rebuttal and a debate at WorldChanging, which is worth studying.


Monbiot’s wait for vindication as a prophet has been short. Biodiesel entrepreneurs are swiftly afoot. Soon after the above story was published, we came across the following revelation at this site captioned:"Mysore-based firm to supply bio-crude to Britain”

“Under the long-term contract with the UK-based global firm, D1 Oils, Labland will supply one crore jatropha plants produced through tissue culture every year for the next 10 years for global distribution. It will also supply 10,000-50,000 tonnes of jatropha crude oil every year for the next 15 years. The British company will refine the crude and make it available globally as biodiesel.

“To meet the contractual obligations, the plant technology company is roping in farmers from different parts of Karnataka as well as from the neighbouring states under its contract-farming programme.

“With this, Labland proposes to add 65,000 acres of in the state every year for the next five years for jatropha cultivation, taking the total area under its cultivation to 3.25 lakh acres by 2010.”

And who is D1 Oils? Go tothis link and browse the others from there.

As cited