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Energy security and zero emission targets in India: Are they contradictory goals at present?

Ethanol production from beet sugar should also be promoted in India in a big way as ethanol from beet sugar has even more advantages than ethanol from sugarcane as it is less water consumption.

N S Venkataraman Sep 26, 2022
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Energy security and zero emission targets in India

India presently imports around 80 per cent of its crude oil requirement and around 50 per cent of its natural gas requirements. As the domestic production of crude oil and natural gas is virtually stagnant and the domestic demand is increasing at around 7 per cent per annum, India’s steadily increasing dependence on import of the vital energy source is a matter of high energy security concern.  This is particularly so since the price of crude oil and natural gas are considerably fluctuating/increasing in the global market due to geo-political factors, which are beyond the control of India.

 India has promised to achieve zero emission by the year 2070, which means that the level of emission has to start declining at a slow and steady rate from now onwards.

It is now well recognized that global emission is caused largely due to use of coal as fuel and natural gas as fuel and feedstock. While the burning of coal as fuel causes the emission of global warming carbon dioxide gas and sulphur dioxide gas, the storage and transportation of natural gas cause methane emissions.

India has to simultaneously tackle energy security issues and also has to reduce the emission level at the same time. Is this possible in the present circumstances?  Are the strategies being adopted to tackle these two issues contradictory?

Limitation of the strategies 

The strategies for India to reduce emission and import dependence on crude oil consist of blending ethanol with petrol, promoting electric vehicles, increase in renewable energy generation as well as promoting hydrogen as fuel and feedstock.

In the case of renewable energy, a total of 144 GW capacity excluding hydropower has been installed as of June 2022. Besides, renewable energy projects of 60. 66 GW capacity are under various stage of implementation and 23.14 GW capacity are under bidding.  While the progress is laudable, the fact is that the impact of renewable energy projects in reducing crude oil import dependence would not be significant,  since renewable energy generation is seasonal and climate dependent and the capacity utilization of renewable energy projects is only at around 20%.

In the case of electric vehicles, the Indian government  aims at ensuring that 30 per cent of all new vehicles are electric by 2030. While good progress is being made and electric vehicles can reduce emissions, it should not be nullified by using electric power for charging batteries if the power were to be generated by burning coal,  which is a fossil fuel generating emission.  There is no way that the power requirement of electric vehicles would be completely provided by renewable energy in the foreseeable future.

The government has fixed a 20 per cent target to blend ethanol with petrol by 2025  and good progress is being made to boost ethanol production. However, this would make the short supply of ethanol for other industrial purposes, as ethanol is an important feedstock for the chemical industry. Further, it is estimated that 20 per cent ethanol blending with petrol would result in 70 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, due to physical transportation of 1016 crore litre of ethanol per year by trucks using petroleum fuel.

In the case of hydrogen energy, the renewable hydrogen industry is still in the development stage across the world. Impressive progress is being made in utilizing hydrogen abroad like the hydrogen fuel-based railway project costing Rs. 737 crores implemented in Germany. 

However, as of now, such hydrogen used is not green hydrogen. In India too, hydrogen fuel cell vehicle plants have been announced including one in Chennai.  However, these projects would use blue hydrogen or grey hydrogen and not green hydrogen produced using renewable energy.

The above strategies which are progressive would be insufficient to reduce India’s import dependence on crude oil and natural gas to any significant level in the foreseeable future.

Dependence on coal 

While the Indian government is implementing the above strategies, it is also increasing the production of coal, which is a fossil fuel. To increase the production of coal to around 1000 million tonnes per annum from the present level of 700 million tonnes per annum, the government has now auctioned 10 coal mines for commercial exploitation.

Obviously, boosting coal production and greater use of coal as fuel to reduce import dependence on crude oil,  will cause emissions and obviously, this would nullify the emission reduction strategies of the government.  This appears to be a contradictory policy.

Need for new strategies 

In recent months, when the global crude oil price has steeply increased, India somehow managed the situation by buying crude oil from Russia at a discounted price.  However, this strategy can essentially be a short-term measure.

In such circumstances, apart from the strategies adopted already, India has to think about more imaginative solutions which could be the following.

Promotion of algae crop and algae biofuel for which the requirements such as tropical conditions, availability of wasteland, the requirement of sunshine and carbon dioxide etc. in India provide an ideal situation for promoting algae crop/biofuel.

India imports around 2.2 million tonnes of methanol per annum, as India does not have competitively priced natural gas which is the feedstock for methanol production. Commercial plants are operating abroad for the production of methanol from municipal solid waste. India should have no hesitation in exploiting this methanol investment opportunity from municipal solid waste.

From methanol, dimethyl ether can be produced, which is an eco-friendly fuel that can replace petroleum-based LPG in a big way.

Further, it is necessary to boost domestic production of ethanol to meet an increasing percentage of ethanol blending with petrol. For this, ethanol production from beet sugar should also be promoted in India in a big way as ethanol from beet sugar has even more advantages than ethanol from sugarcane as it is less water consumption.

(The writer is a Trustee, NGO Nandini Voice for the Deprived, Chennai. Views are personal. He can be contacted at nsvenkatchennai@gmail.com)

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