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Government will have to take the lead in biofuel energy, Dr Ananda M. Chakrabarty, Member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Ministry of Science & Technology

24 Dec 2012

The biofuel energy sector in India in recent years has been high on hype and low on output. Low investment in research and development, lack of collaboration between academia and industry for creation of new technologies and the absence of government investments in creating role models for private sector are some of the reasons pointed out by Dr Ananda M. Chakrabarty, member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) under the Ministry of Science & Technology. InfralinePlus asked some of these questions over e-mail from the Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago and got the following candid replies:

The biofuels industry has seen a number of ups and downs. From very positive projections until a few years ago, the expectations are now no more than 2000 mw till 2017. What according to you went wrong?

I think the promoters vastly underestimated the complexity of collecting the biomass substrates from varied sources, separating the fermentable ligno-cellulosic wastes and then pre-treating the wastes before digestion and fermentation by appropriate bacteria or yeast.  Given a lack of experience in conducting such studies at large scales, the nascent biofuel industry in India faced difficult technical problems over which they had very little control.

The country has planned a capacity addition of 30,000 mw through the renewable route. How do you feel the government can create a conducive environment to attract investment in the sector?

Given the nascent state of the technology in India, even in well-established areas involving producing ethanol from cane sugar or other food grains, the Indian Government will have to take a lead in demonstrating pilot plant feasibility and certain amount of cost effectiveness before the investment community or the industrial sector will chip in. Note that Indian investors are risk-averse and are not known to invest in technology that are new, emerging and increasingly patent-protected. Indian investors will only invest when a technology is no longer patent-protected and can be legally copied. Thus any early development of biofuel technology will need generous support from the Government, as the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) is providing right now.

How do you see the input cost panning out in near future? How much can biofuel industry contribute in terms of power generation in the short-term?

Compared to petroleum or nuclear energy, the near-term contribution by the biofuel industry is minimal, principally due to lack of technological innovations. Old technologies of producing ethanol from starchy foodgrain are the only recourse now.

Will the implementation of generation-based incentive model help the industry? What do you think is the best revenue model to push growth in this sector?

Again, given the fact that DBT has set up three new centers devoted to bio-energy generation, a beginning has been made. To achieve real growth, the academic and the industrial sectors will have to work together for a common purpose of biofuel production from biomass, which rarely happens in India.

What kind of reforms are required in the present policies to ensure a better future for the industry?

The present culture of lack of entrepreneurship in the academic or industrial sector needs to be changed, not only for the biofuel industry, but for encouraging industrial productivity in India. There is very little evidence of entrepreneurship in the Indian academic sector. How many start-up companies in India have been founded by university professors, as opposed to, say, that in the United States? Essentially, negligible. So this will be a start.

With continuous feed supply being a major concern, what measures do you suggest to ensure financial viability of the generation plants throughout the year? Do you suggest any government effort to aid a solution for this problem?

In the United States, a major effort is being directed to cultivating fast-growing weeds in marginal or arid lands for year round use of such weeds as biomass. Genetic improvements in the composition, stress-resistance and growth rates of the weeds are being accomplished. Being a country of high bio-diversity, India has a variety of weeds that can be grown in marginal lands with a favorable ligno-cellulose composition for their rapid enzymatic degradation and fermentation. The Indian Government needs to encourage such efforts.

What other issues are plaguing this industry?

Alternatives to biomass as a source, such as marine or fresh-water algae, that can be grown in shallow ponds under sunny skies, is an area that needs attention, given the favorable weather conditions all over India. Algae can not only produce oily products, known as bio-diesel, but can be genetically improved to sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the form of insoluble inorganic carbonates, which can be stored underground forever. This will lead to both algal oil production and sequestration of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby potentially contributing to reducing global warming.

What is the scenario on the lending front? Are banks and institutional lenders willing to lend money given that it is a capital intensive sector?

As stated earlier, Indian institutional leaders are risk-averse and will rarely invest in an effort that is not simply copying. Indian industries, pharmaceutical industry for example, thrive on copying. Innovation is a buzz word in India, but there is no evidence of any major industrial innovation, including in the energy sector, in India. Thus raising capital for a truly innovative idea, product or enterprise is a difficult goal to attain in India.

(InfralineEnergy thanks Dr Ananda M. Chakrabarty, Member of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Ministry of Science & Technology for sharing his valuable insights with our readers. The column 'In-Conversation', is a platform to engage experts from various sectors to share their views on the different transformations happening in the Indian energy sector.)