Ethanol blending programme in India

Ethanol is a biofuel, that is, a fuel produced by processing organic matter. The auto fuels we commonly use are mainly derived from the slow geological process of fossilization, which is why they are also known as fossil fuels. Ethanol in India is obtained primarily from sugarcane via a fermentation process. Ethanol is high in oxygen content, which therefore allows an engine to more thoroughly combust fuel. It can be mixed with fuel in different quantities and can help reduce vehicular emissions. Also, since it is plant-based, it is considered to be a renewable fuel.

The Centre had “launched pilot projects in 2001 wherein 5 percent ethanol blended petrol was supplied to retail outlets”.Success of field trials eventually paved the way for the launching of the Ethanol Blended Petrol (EBP) Programme in January, 2003 for sale of 5 percent ethanol blended petrol in nine States and four UTs.Currently, 5 percent of ethanol is blended with petrol in India.The government of India has advanced the target for 20 per cent ethanol blending in petrol (also called E20) to 2025 from 2030. E20 will be rolled out from April 2023.The central government has also released an expert committee report on the Roadmap for Ethanol Blending in India by 2025.The roadmap proposes a gradual rollout of ethanol-blended fuel to achieve E10 fuel supply by April 2022 and phased rollout of E20 from April 2023 to April 2025.


Need for Ethanol blending in India:

  • Ethanol has become one of the major priorities of 21st Century India.
  • Mixing 20 percent ethanol in petrol holds multiple attractions for India.
  • First, it can potentially reduce the auto fuel import bill by a yearly $4 billion, or Rs 30,000 crore.
  • Second, it also provides for farmers to earn extra income if they grow produce that helps in ethanol production.
  • Third, and no less important, is the fact that ethanol is less polluting than other fuels and, per the NITI Aayog paper, “offers equivalent efficiency at lower cost than petrol”.
  • Use of ethanol-blended petrol decreases emissions such as carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons (HC) and nitrogen oxides (NOx), the expert committee noted. Higher reductions in CO emissions were observed with E20 fuel — 50 per cent lower in two-wheelers and 30 percent lower in four-wheelers.
  • Spelling out the opportunity for India for embracing ethanol, the paper stresses that “availability of large arable land, rising production of foodgrains and sugarcane leading to surpluses, availability of technology to produce ethanol from plant-based sources, and feasibility of making vehicles compliant to ethanol blended petrol make E20 not only a national imperative, but also an important strategic requirement”.
  • In Europe, biofuels have been seen as a measure to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases from road transport because they were considered CO2-neutral fuels once lifecycle emissions are considered.


Challenges involved:

  • Less Production: Currently, domestic production of bioethanol is not sufficient to meet the demand for bio-ethanol for blending with petrol at Indian OMCs.
    • Sugar mills, which are the key domestic suppliers of bio-ethanol to OMCs, were able to supply only 57.6% of the total demand.
    • Sugar mills do not have the financial stability to invest in biofuel plants.
    • There are also concerns among investors on the uncertainty on the price of bioethanol in the future as the prices of both sugarcane and bio-ethanol are set by the central government.
    • Compatible vehicles: vehicles need to be produced with rubberised parts, plastic components and elastomers compatible with E20 and engines optimally designed for use of E20 fuel”
    • The NITI Aayog paper said that two-wheelers and passenger vehicles that are now being made in the country “are designed optimally for E5 (5 percent ethanol blend with petrol) while rubber and plastic components are “compatible with E10 fuel”.
  • Water Footprint:While India has become one of the top producers of ethanol but it lags top producers, the USA and Brazil, by a huge margin and remains inefficient in terms of water usage.
    • India’s water requirements for producing ethanol are not met through rainwater and the groundwater is used for drinking and other purposes.
    • Water footprint, that is water required to produce a litre of ethanol, includes rainwater at the root zone used by ethanol-producing plants such as sugarcane, and surface, ground water, and fresh water required to wash away pollutants.
  • Limited Sugarcane Availability:Sugarcane is another limited resource that affects the ethanol blending in the country.
    • In order to achieve a 20% blend rate, almost one-tenth of the existing net sown area will have to be diverted for sugarcane production. Any such land requirement is likely to put a stress on other crops and has the potential to increase food prices.
    • India’s biofuel policy stipulates that fuel requirements must not compete with food requirements and that only surplus food crops should be used for fuel production, if at all.
  • Lack of Alternatives:Producing ethanol from crop residue can be a good alternative but the annual capacity of biorefinery is still not enough to meet the 5% petrol-ethanol blending requirement.
    • Other biofuels such as Jatropha Have often proven to be commercially unviable.
  • Handling issues:Ethanol being a highly flammable liquid marks obligatory safety and risk assessment measures during all phases of production, storage and transportation, thus increasing the cost and risk factor.


Way forward:

  • In order to introduce vehicles that are compatible the committee recommends roll out of E20 material-compliant and E10 engine-tuned vehicles from April 2023 and production of E20-tuned engine vehicles from April 2025.
  • The Centre must look at ways to reduce the programme’s dependence on sugarcane.
  • Alternative feedstock like agricultural waste, recycled cooking oil, provides for more environmentally friendly bio-fuels.
  • There is a need to focus on raising the non-cane contribution to the ethanol mix.
  • This can be done by incentivising both public and private players to set up second-generation ethanol facilities.
  • As we progress towards higher blending of ethanol, careful monitoring and assessment of emissions changes will be needed to make sure that emission reduction potential can be enhanced both for regulated and unregulated pollutants.