Burning fuel to carry fuel: Govt’s ethanol program to face transport challenges

India’s ethanol production for blending with petrol has soared from 38 crore liters in 2013-14 to an estimated 450 crore liters in the current 2021-22 supply year (December-November). And with supplies for achieving 20 percent blending by 2025-26 projected at 1,016 crore liters by NITI Aayog, a new logistics challenge is emerging — moving this alternative fuel from distilleries to blending depots and retail points.

“Currently, the entire quantity of ethanol is being transported by road on truck-tankers. Carrying 1,016 crore liters would require about 3.5 lakh tankers at an average 29 kiloliters capacity. Not only is this costly, but will amount to burning fuel to move fuel and result in greenhouse gas emissions of around 76 million tonnes,” said Akhilesh Goyal, managing director of the Madhya Pradesh-based Maarewa Sugars Pvt. Ltd.

According to Goyal, the government should consider alternative options for ethanol movement, including through dedicated pipelines, rail tank wagons and ferries/steamers in coastal areas. “They can also look at the RORO (roll-on/roll-off) model of moving ethanol truck-tankers themselves by rail,” he said at a recent conference on sugar and ethanol organized by the Indian Sugar Mills Association and the Brazilian agri -consultancy firm DATAGRO.

Plinio Nastari, president of DATAGRO, said that Brazil (which produces 3,500 crore liters of ethanol annually) has 14 oil refineries and 354 ethanol distilleries that supply 170 fuel depots all over the country. The movement of fuel and ethanol to the depots is entirely through pipelines, rail or coastal ships. Transport by truck-tankers happens only in the last leg, from the depots to 41,700 retail outlets.


Costs and emissions

Ethanol production has received a boost thanks to the government’s attractive pricing policy. But logistics of movement and distribution of large quantities present a challenge not only in terms of cost, but also emissions. It could result, essentially, in burning fuel to carry fuel.

Nastari felt that there was no need for dedicated pipelines to transport ethanol. “In the last 40 years, we have been using multi-product pipelines for the movement of diesel, gasoline (petrol) and ethanol,” he said. Nastari, however, advocated some precautions on account of ethanol being a solvent that dissolves the gums formed in gasoline and accumulated in tanks. “Having filters in the fuel hose pipes can ensure that this gum (which comes from gasoline and not ethanol) will not cause problems to the vehicles,” he added.

India’s ethanol output of 38 crore liters could enable only 1.53 percent blending with petrol in 2013-14. The current supply year’s production of 450 crore liters — 370 crore from sugarcane-based distilleries and 80 crore liters from those using grain feedstock — will help achieve 10 percent blending.


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