How India could lead the world in unlocking the global biofuel puzzle

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Biofuels have the potential to significantly impact the world’s energy supply chain and a cleaner environment – and India could be a showcase for how other countries can make it happen. A Strategic Conference yesterday heard how with its huge agricultural sector and positive political willpower, the India Energy Week host could lead the way in this emerging energy opportunity.

Leadership Panel: Fields to fuel - powering progress with biofuels heard that while currently India has few plants, its biofuels potential is huge, but would need to bring everyone into the equation. Panelists agreed that biofuels would take their “rightful place” in the world energy ecosystem, but potential feedstock hurdles had to be addressed, including fragmented regulations.

And this called for common, globally-recognised policies and standards for international collaboration and agreements on technology and scale to happen. Moderator Rahool Panandiker, MD & Senior Partner, Energy Practice Leaders, BCG, opened the discussion by highlighting the recent creation of the Global Biofuel Alliance, one of the priorities under India’s G20 presidency.

While a lot has to happen before biofuel truly influences the transition, Charlotte Morton OBE, Chief Executive of the World Biogas Association, described it as a “win-win story” in a world that craves energy but creates so much waste, including sewage and excess food. “The starting point has to be with the realisation that humans generate enormous volumes of organic waste that actually causes enormous problems,” she said, indicating pollution consequences such as methane. “These are enormous problems we have to tackle immediately, but there’s also an incredible opportunity.”

Realising biofuel’s potential could remove the need for enormous natural gas usage, and fulfil 9% of India’s energy demand. “But the challenge is how we do it, because organic wastes are not just sitting around waiting to be collected, they are under the control of lots of different stakeholders.” Bringing together the experiences of those different parties could enable the unlocking of an “incredibly valuable economic opportunity” and save billions destined for energy imports that could instead be spent on infrastructure, sanitation or to support farmers and entrepreneurs. “So that’s something we need to focus on.”

Biofuels promised huge non-urban employment potential, with Ashish Kumar, Managing Director, VERBIO India confirming his plant had delivered 800-1,000 rural jobs as supply chains can be localised. But he also stressed the need for proven business cases to help the biofuels movement gain and maintain momentum, not least in India. “To set a template, we need to talk about the business case, the economic viability of this opportunity,” he said.

That could require guarantees but also to perhaps incentivise participants such as farmers with credible carbon credits to not burn crop field stubble, for example. Atul Mulay, President & Strategic Business Unit Head - Bio Energy Division, Praj Industries Ltd agreed with a point that domestically-created biofuels could reduce dependency on energy imports, but that product specification and technology regulation was required to help momentum. He said biofuels success was already visible but “policy will bring more confidence” and the right technology could bring a swifter payback period and “route to profitability”.

Subhash Kumar, Ex CMD - ONGC, Advisor, ISMA, agreed biofuels could become a “significant part of the energy value chain” but had so far been under-utilised. He pointed out that bio-residue was dependent on nature and the environment to an extent but India possessed a colossal percentage of arable land compared to most countries. Kumar suggested it was “better to set the policy” and let the market take care of itself.

“To create scale there needs to be success stories,” he said, adding that was something the sugar industry could provide. Additionally, biofuel should ideally be consumed at the point of production to reduce carbon footprint. Morton added that speed was of the essence and a global regulatory framework was required to collate lessons from around the world, citing India as a great example because of its leadership. “We know how to do this already…it’s a case of making sure everything is joined up,” she added.

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