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What does the future hold for bioenergy in India?

What does the future hold for bioenergy in India?
Bharadwaj Kummamuru, Executive Director World Bioenergy Association

At the COP26 congerence in Glasgow last year, India promised to achieve net-zero by 2070 (China 2060, USA, and EU 2050). However, what most headlines missed is that India also promised to achieve 50 percent of energy from renewable based sources by 2030, and reduce carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes by the same year as Bharadwaj Kummamuru, Executive Director, World Bioenergy Association (WBA) explains.

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With an estimated population in excess of 1.326 billion, India is the world’s second most populous country after China. And like China, there is a fast-growing middle-income bracket consumer. In energy terms this means that per capita demand for electricity, cooking, heating, and vehicle fuel is increasing at a fast pace. At the same time there is the ongoing task of addressing poverty.. Whilst the “coal coup” caused consternation, most headlines missed that India also promised to achieve 50 percent of energy (not just electricity) from renewable based sources by 2030 and reduce carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes by the same year. This goes along with the target of 500 GW renewable power capacity by 2030.

Current energy mix

With just nine years to go, this 2030 milestone target is, in fact, a formidable Herculean task. Since the targets have been announced, experts have focussed the discussion on the role of renewable energy technologies – mainly solar and wind power. As usual, bioenergy was largely ignored even though the sector has been an over achiever in the country over the past few years. The sector already has achieved the policy target of 10 GW energy generation from biomass by 2022.

As of January 31, 2022, biomass power and cogeneration along with Waste-to-Energy (WtE) accounted for 10.5 GW installed capacity. Bagasse cogeneration contributes 7.5 GW followed by biomass Independent Power Producers (IPPs) at 1.8 GW and non-bagasse cogeneration at 772 MW. In the overall electricity mix, biomass contributes 2.7 percent of the total electricity and 11 percent of the total renewable electricity in the country. The success in the country has been mainly due to the abundant availability of feedstock as well as reliable and commercial technologies available for efficient conversion.

However, the power sector only accounts for 20 percent of energy consumption globally with heating and cooking accounting for 50 percent and transport for 30 percent. In India, more than 70 percent of the population depends on biomass for energy in the heating and cooking sector. In transport, liquid biofuels account for 2 percent of the total share.

Powering with bagasse

For power generation, the main feedstock includes sugarcane bagasse. India is the world’s 2nd largest producer of sugarcane, currently producing 400 million tonnes of sugarcane with an average yield of 82 tonnes per hectare. Like Brazil, the bagasse is typically burned in boilers and the electricity produced from the turbines is used within the sugar mills while excess in some cases, is exported to the grid. Bagasse power currently accounts for 72 percent of installed biomass capacity and generates approximately 45 TWh of power annually.

However, there is significant opportunity for improvement. Recognizing the need for more electricity due to rapid urbanization, availability of feedstock and reducing energy poverty across the country, Recently, the Indian government has initiated the biomass power and cogeneration programme with an objective to optimize the use of biomass for grid power. A capital subsidy, Central Financial Assistance (CFA) of up to EUR 70 per MW is available for upgrading current existing cogeneration facilities.

Utilizing crop residues

The annual burning of crop residues, mainly rice and wheat, in the northern part of the country has led to significant air pollution issues in the nearby regions including the capital city of Delhi. To address the challenge of air pollution as well as the need to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels for power generation, a key priority for the policy makers is to co-fire agro residues in coal-fired powered stations.

The national Sustainable Agrarian Mission on use of Agro Residue in Thermal Power Plants (SAMARTH) aims to incentivize the firing of biomass in coal-fired power stations. This is a low hanging fruit where the availability of low-cost feedstock, urgent challenge of reducing crop burning and the need for greening the grid, increases the opportunity for using biomass in power plants.

The Union Ministry of Power has mandated 5 – 7 percent co-firing in thermal power plants in India. The scale of the opportunity is immense in the country. India has a total installed coal capacity of 200 GW. A 5 percent co-firing rate would generate additional capacity requirement of 10 GW which is equal to the total installed capacity of biomass power in the country.

Progress has been slow mainly due to logistics challenges, lack of availability of biomass throughout the year as well as efficient storage. Until recently, the country has been able to co-fire 59 000 tonnes of biomass in thermal power plants while tenders for 12 million tonnes have been floated throughout the country.

A recent estimation from a study by Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) shows that 750 million tonnes of biomass is available for energy out of which surplus biomass is at 230 million tonnes per annum. This translates to 28 GW of potential capacity – about three times current installed capacity. It is quite clear that the sector would greatly benefit by an increased mandate for biopower.

Liquid biofuels in transport

In India, the transport sector has seen slow progress over the past decade. Fossil fuels account for 98 percent of all transport needs. Apart from the global climate perspective, there is strong national self interest in reducing the use of fossil fuels – energy security. Approximately 85 percent of all the crude oil used in India is imported with all that this entails in terms of dependency and cost. Improving energy security by reducing reliance on crude oil imports provides much needed financial opportunities to farmers, lowers fuel costs, and reduces pollution in cities. As a result, there is a renewed interest for liquid biofuels in India, especially ethanol.

Even though policies have been announced since early 2000’s, progress has only become clearly visible in the past few years. Currently, the primary policy for biofuel development is the National Policy on Biofuels (2018) which provided an indicative target of 20 percent blend of ethanol in gasoline (E20) by 2030. Even though E10 is being retailed in the country, the average blending rate was at 5 percent during 2019 – 2020. This increased during 2020 – 2021, as 3.3 billion litres of ethanol was supplied with an average blending rate of 8.5 percent.

Recently, a report prepared by an inter-ministerial committee recommended that the target year for 20 percent ethanol blending be advanced to 2025. E20 by 2025 in the country would mean ethanol consumption of almost 10 billion litres. Achieving the target would make India the 3rd largest ethanol producer in the transport sector after the United States, and Brazil, and account for 10 percent of the global production.

In terms of feedstock, the Indian Government has allowed the use of a wide variety of feedstock including molasses (by-product of sugarcane processing), sugarcane juice as well as surplus rice and maize. The sugar sector accounts for 90 percent of ethanol produced for blending and grains account for the rest. Recent research shows that during 2020 – 2021, 6 million tonnes of sugar, 31 million tonnes of rice and 10 million tonnes of maize were surplus to other requirements and could be available for ethanol production in the country.

However, other challenges exist. To meet the possibility of reaching E20 by 2025, issues such as approvals for setting of setting up new facilities, taxation issues for interstate transport of the fuel and engine modifications for higher blends need to be resolved. Encouragingly, there is a consensus among all stakeholders about the significant potential of the bioethanol sector in India. A reliable and predictable roadmap until 2025 and beyond, along with a concerted efforts between various government agencies, civil society, auto manufacturers and biofuel producers will ensure a smooth transformation of the transport sector in the country.

Bharadwaj Kummamuru, Executive Director
World Bioenergy Association Bharadwaj Kummamuru, Executive Director World Bioenergy Association

“In India, the bioenergy sector is an overachiever in meeting the demands for clean energy due to abundant feedstock, commercial technologies and rising demand for clean power. Looking ahead, ambitious targets and targeted incentives can further increase the use of sustainable biomass for greener heating, cooking, power, and transport fuels in the country”

Policies and finance

Modern bioenergy development depends a lot on supporting policies and incentives. A key programme promoting bioenergy development is the Programme on Energy from Urban, Industrial and Agricultural Wastes and Residues aimed at generating biogas, biomethane (aka renewable natural gas – RNG), bioCNG and power from various waste streams including agriculture wastes and residues, Municipal Solid Waste (MSW), vegetable and market wastes. These are being set up in various industries including dairy, sugar mills, pulp and paper, pharma amongst others. Moreover, there have been numerous financial support schemes depending on the technology and end-product.

In conclusion, for the bioenergy sector to prosper, long term and ambitious targets are crucial while at the same time, partnerships with variety of stakeholders including industry associations, equipment manufacturers, feedstock producers, and research institutions are crucial to solve some of the technical and economic challenges. A detailed roadmap until 2025 and beyond with clear milestones and stable incentives including financing will help the sector grow and contribute significantly to the national energy targets.

Text: Bharadwaj Kummamuru, Photo: Alan Sherrard

BI121/6878/AS

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