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Dr Alok Adholeya, Director, Bio-technology and Management of Bio-resources, The Energy and Research Institute (TERI)

19 Jan 2013

A beneficial plant fungus called mycorrhiza is slowly becoming a rage the world over due to its potential to increase the nutrient uptake in plants and also improve their productivity. Recent experiments in India show significant improvement in the growth of crop after the use of mycorrhizal components. Dr Alok Adholeya, Director, Bio-technology and Management of Bio-resources, The Energy and Research Institute (TERI), believes mycorrhizal biofertilizer can slowly replace chemical fertilizers completely. He has developed techniques to harness the power of mycorrhizae to not only increase the productivity of plants but also restore degraded lands. Here he tells Ankita Sharma about the present state of bio-mass industry and its future prospects. Excerpts from an interview:

What major reforms are required in the present policies to ensure a better future for the bio-fuel industry?

Different countries have brought about major changes by prioritizing and focusing on a particular crop to ensure their goals are achieved. The US concentrated on corn – produced 19 million tonne in 2007; Brazil concentrated on sugarcane – produced 15 million tonne in 2007; Indonesia on palm oil-based bio-diesel with great results.

The Indian bio-fuel Industry is in its nascent stage. The current policy is fairly broad consisting of 400 species. The need of the hour is to emphasize on a few crops. Also, insurance, loan, minimum support price and premium pricing should be provided to boost the sector and incentivise farmers.

What is the status of bio-mass availability in the country?

Bio-mass atlas has estimated approximately 7400 mw of energy from agricultural residue for the entire country with Punjab and Uttar Pradesh leading the potential. Also, there is 40 million hectares of wasteland available which needs to be further categorized and evaluated for actual availability for jatropha plantation.

Punjab and Haryana have a good potential to produce energy with agricultural residue for power plants and few combustion plants in Punjab are already operational. There is also some development in Karnataka. We have to strengthen our research and development activities for different technologies for bio-mass conversion into energy.

How much can the bio-fuel industry contribute in power generation in the short-term?
Wheat and rice residue has cellulose, hemi-cellulose and lignins which could be converted into bio-ethanol and other important by-products for industrial use such as bio-plastic. Bio-fuel policy is concentrated on catering to the transportation sector. It may be decentralized for local energy needs for agriculture and rural sector also. Bio-diesel and bio-ethanol is itself in the form of usable energy so there may be no need to convert it into electrical energy.
What do you think is the best revenue model to push growth in this sector? Will a generation-based model work?

In the case of bio-fuels, a generation based model would help once the industry has crossed its nascent stage, like the wind sector. Execution of policy needs to be robust with a driven time frame; otherwise industry / entrepreneurs lose interest.

Why are we relating bio-diesel to the current petroleum price? It should get premium pricing to motivate poor farmers who are the major stakeholders in producing feedstock and bringing about energy security in their regions.

From very positive projections until a few years ago, the bio-fuel industry is witnessing rather tremulous times. What is needed to push growth in this sector?
A national mission on bio-diesel is necessary for India’s energy security. Operational guidelines for the research phase and demonstration phases 1 and 2 need to be defined. However, in the long run, an end-to-end business model with robust monitoring and evaluation is required for best results. When talking about production in terms of megawatts, I believe that mixing bio-diesel and bio-ethanol with fossil diesel and petrol can cater to the transportation sector in a big way.
The country has planned a capacity addition of 30,000 mw energy through the renewable route. What policies should the government adopt to attract investment in the sector?

When talking about the various renewable resources, India’s installed wind capacity has crossed 17000 mw and ranks sixth in the world. Even for solar and hydro projects, India as a country has over 300 days per year of good sunlight, and similar is the case with our water resources. However, both these resources need to be tapped. Among all the renewable resources, I believe that our expertise lies in bio-mass based energy generation.

For all potential renewable sources, foreign direct investment, mergers and acquisitions may be the policies, but we also need investments in R & D on new and better technologies to harness energy. We need to strategize policies to incorporate rural development. Bio-mass can be the renewable resource which can change the face of rural India by including the rural population across its entire value chain; promoting employment, education and better standards of living.

With continuous feed supply being a major concern, what measures do you suggest to ensure financial viability of the generation plants all the year around?
Kharif and rabi are the two major seasons when crop residue is produced but it is not consistent for the entire country as agriculture is heavily dependent on rain and we lose rabi crops in many areas. We can have planning of storage, supply chain infrastructure and technology customized for different regions and feedstock. Mortality of existing plantation may be replaced with local varieties / improved planting material / germplasm as per the availability.
What is the scenario at the lending front? Are banks and institutional lenders willing to lend money given that it is a capital intensive sector?

I think micro finance systems are best suited considering the gestation period. Loans / funding for jatropha projects should be provisioned for the first four years for survival of plantation during gestation period and securing the plantation till it starts giving substantial yield and payback period may be designed after the yield stabilization of five-six years.

Banks may have a guideline to promote renewable energy projects. In bio-fuel sector, banks are willing to lend but it was generally back ended subsidy by National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard). Unlike other sources of renewable energy, the poor farmers are the major stakeholders of the bio-fuel energy sector and a special plan has to be prepared for lending provisions to them owing to their numbers.

(InfralineEnergy thanks Dr Alok Adholeya, Director, Bio-technology and Management of Bio-resources, TERI 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.)