India's current and future energy consumption is a matter of worldwide concern. So when the President Dr Abdul Kalam spoke of energy independence on the eve of India's independence day, it created quite a buzz.
The speech can be found in its entirety on his website presidentofIndia.nic.in
It is often refreshing to listen to the President. Being a scientist himself, he understands the issues and the technologies involved. His style has always been to use science, statistics, economics and vision to create positive public debates and industry participation. I found his emphasis on renewable energy in the speech very reassuring. But... He goes on to promote Coal and Thorium based nuclear energy also. Add to that, he only vaguely refers to global warming. So, I found the speech inspiring and yet disappointing!
India consumes about 114 million tons of oil annually. Almost the whole of that (112 million tons) is used in the transportation sector. Simply put, to solve the problem of oil dependence one needs to focus on transportation. So when the President says that there is a potential to replace 60 million tons (50%) of oil imports with eco friendly bio diesel from energy plantations like "Jatropha" on degraded waste land...... My green radar system screams "WHAT ? HOW ? WHERE ? SERIOUS ?". My Google happy fingers furiously search for more information.
So what is Jatropha ? Jatropha Curcas aka Physic nut is a low growing tree native to South America. It is now grown in many parts of Africa and Asia. It is a vigorous drought and pest resistant plant. It can grow in soil degraded land and even better, is known to restore soil nutrients. The plant has several medicinal value. Most importantly its seeds have high oil content. A hectare of relatively dry degraded land is known to produce about 1 ton of oil. The oil has excellent bio diesel properties and India has about 60 million hectares of degraded land. Hence, the President's statement (and the title of my post)
The plant has been known to the natives of South America for centuries. It was brought into the spotlight by two professors at University of Hohenheim, Prof Dr K Becker and Prof Dr G Francis. Their case study on India and Jatropha can be found here
The study finds production of bio diesel to be almost carbon neutral. If India were to successfully deploy Jatropha, not only can India reduce its oil dependence but also gain significant carbon credits. The Center for Jatropha promotion in India is already engaged in this activity.
Now, before we make Jatropha the next super hero, we need to understand certain things. For one it is a non native plant. The perils of introducing non native vegetation is a common painful knowledge. Also, the idea is to cultivate the plant in wastelands and not on viable farmlands. If Jatropha is to go the way Ethanol is going in North America, it might not be entirely carbon neutral and eco friendly.
A burgeoning Indian population is exerting immense pressure on existing forest cover. Unregulated human activity is creating more and more wastelands. Small and medium farmers are suffering from drought and land degradation. From what I have read so far, I think, Jatropha has the potential of creating a positive impact in India. I hope it doesn't create a negative one
Quote of the day
"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world"...John Muir