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Centre's biodiesel plan fails to fuel hopes

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In Chhattisgarh, vast dry, arid areas scheduled to be dotted with jatropha shrubs lie unclaimed. The scenario is no different in neighbouring states such as and Uttar Pradesh. Buoyed by the government’s policy of 20 per cent blending of biodiesel with diesel by 2017, energy companies had decided to buy swathes of land to cultivate jatropha. However, the plans have now been abandoned, almost as quickly as these were drawn up.

The project has turned out to be a non-starter for companies, including (RIL) and state run (IOC), Bharat Petroleum Corporation (BPCL) and Hindustan Petroleum Corporation (HPCL). “Yield of the jatropha seed is much lower than expected. The yield per plant was expected to be about two kilogrammes, but that has not yet happened. Besides, that the jatropha plant does not require much water and is a low-maintenance variety is a myth,” said a senior IOC official.

An industry analyst who offers solutions to bioethanol and biodiesel plants, said claims by scientists that jatropha could be planted without water on barren land misled many entities. “Jatropha survived without water, but did not yield oil, or grow, without water. So, the assumption that it would give oil without irrigation was wrong. More importantly, it took seven years to learn jatropha would not yield results in this manner. Thus, companies that had grand plans have now abandoned those,” he said.
 

JATROPHA: HURDLES APLENTY
  • Jatropha survives without water, but doesn't yield oil or grow without it
  • Yields of the jatropha seed are much lower than expected
  • Suitable wasteland is limited; no high-yielding planting material
  • Mortality of jatropha plants is a concern

In an emailed response, IOC, however, stated while the company had been able to achieve large-scale plantations, it faced various challenges, including limited availability of suitable wasteland (due to difficult terrain, low soil quality, encroachments, low lying areas, etc), uncertain yields, non-availability of certified high-yielding planting material and other issues like mortality of jatropha plants.

IOC, which had earlier planned biodiesel (jatropha) plantation projects in 30,000 hectares across Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, has been able to cultivate only 5,880 hectares so far. Together with the government, the company has floated a group company for this---IndianOil-CREDA Biofuels Limited.

Together, IOC, and had planned to cultivate jatropha on about 1,80,000 acres in two states. IOC and HPCL had signed joint ventures with the Chhattisgarh government for large-scale jatropha farming across 74,100 acres and 37,000 acres, respectively.

With Hyderabad-based research and development company Nandan Biomatrix and Shapoorji Pallonji, BPCL, too, had formed a company---Bharat Renewable Energy---to produce biodiesel from jatropha. The project envisaged jatropha plantation on one million acres and had the potential to generate employment for a million people and produce 1 million tonnes of biodiesel, with an investment of Rs 2,200 crore over 10 years.

When contacted, a BPCL official said the biodiesel project had been discontinued. BPCL and HPCL did not reply to emailed queries.

The government had, on September 12, 2008, announced the National Biofuel Policy. Considering the current scenario, the government’s indicative target of 20 per cent blending of biofuels, for biodiesel and bioethanol, by 2017 would be missed.

India, which imports 70 per cent of its oil consumption, envisaged blending of biodiesel with diesel to cut the import dependence on fossil fuels, enabling it to reduce the oil import bill.

Oil extracted from seeds of the jatropha plant is blended with diesel to manufacture bio-diesel. Bio-diesel is also produced with vegetable oils, the primary feedstock for the fuel. Energy companies involved in jatropha cultivation were scheduled to set up biodiesel plants with capacities of 30-300 tonnes a day. The cost to set up these plants was estimated at Rs 30-300 crore.

In Gujarat, the land identified for jatropha cultivation has been diverted to industrial houses. “Under Vibrant Gujarat, these land banks have been given to real estate developers. After securing land from the state government, it was easy for these players to get loans from financial institutes and local government bodies,” said Kalpesh Jani, managing trustee, Agricultural Diversification Centre, a Gujarat-based non-government organisation that tracks biodiesel ventures in the country.

Commercial production and marketing of biodiesel in India is negligible, owing to lack of availability of jatropha seeds and other non-edible oil feedstock, say analysts. The country’s jatropha plantation area is estimated at about 4,50,000 hectares and of this, about 70 per cent is accounted for by plantations that were scheduled to mature by now.

India, with about 40 million hectares of wasteland available for jatropha cultivation, could replace a tenth of the diesel consumption by biofuels, even if only a fourth of the wasteland was utilised. However, there was no hope for biodiesel, at least in the next five years, the analyst said. “The government’s grand plans will not fructify,” he added.

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