The Indian government wants to reduce the country's high dependence on energy imports by shifting to biodiesel made from used cooking oil. But experts remain skeptical that its production can be boosted rapidly.
The Indian government has recently announced a major scheme aimed at converting used cooking oil (UCO) into biodiesel to power the rising number of vehicles on the country's roads.
India is the world's third-largest consumer of crude oil and the energy-hungry nation relies on imports for 80% of its fuel requirements. The South Asian country is also home to some of the worst polluted cities in the world.
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Observers say it's therefore unsurprising that the government wants to convert some of the UCO into reusable fuel.
The plan foresees India's three major state-run oil companies — Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum and Hindustan Petroleum — buying the nation's entire supply of biodiesel obtained from UCO for the next three years.
The oil corporations will pay 51 rupees ($0.72, €0.64) per liter of biodiesel during the first year of the program, and the price will be increased to 52.7 rupees per liter in the second year and then 54.5 rupees in the third. For the first year, taxes and transportation costs will also be borne by the government.
The government hopes this will promote biodiesel production, by ensuring a guaranteed income for existing plants that convert UCO to biodiesel and encouraging more firms to set up such facilities.
According to estimates by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), a government agency, India has the potential to convert 2.2 billion liters of UCO into biodiesel by 2022.
India is among the largest consumers of edible oil. At present, the country consumes about 23 million tons of edible oil annually and close to 40% of this goes toward commercial usage such as in restaurants and the processed food industry. Total consumption is expected to exceed 34 million tons by 2030, suggests a report by RaboResearch.
Most of the UCO is currently either discarded in an environmentally hazardous manner or pumped back into the food chain through street vendors and smaller restaurants.
But experts remain skeptical that the production of biodiesel from UCO can be increased rapidly.
Prasan Surana, founder of the startup Synergy Teletech which distributes biodiesel made from UCO, told DW that India lacks a system to properly collect the used cooking oil from various sources. And this needs to change if the government's plans are to be scaled up, he said.
"For example, the regulations stipulate that cooking oil should be discarded if it has more than 25% of what is called Total Polar Compounds (TPC). Beyond this limit, it is deemed unsafe for consumption. But, practically, there is no robust system to check this in the cooking oil used by facilities across the country," explained Surana.
He pointed out that big restaurants and hotels find selling used cooking oil to roadside vendors more profitable than giving it to biodiesel firms. "I think the government is working in the right direction, but it will take a long time to produce the ambitious numbers it is expecting," he said.
Biodiesel can be manufactured from other sources — such as feedstock or palm oil residue which could sometimes be cheaper than UCO and readily available. So firms might opt for cheaper these sources if they view UCO as expensive.
Speaking of the potential impediments, FSSAI CEO Pawan Kumar Agarwal told DW: "I think the challenges are mostly operational, like logistics. We're addressing them one by one.
FSSAI will provide testing equipment to states which would ease the bottleneck on testing the TPC levels in UCO and enable effective enforcement."
He added: "A nationwide awareness campaign targeting both consumers and food business operators would be launched shortly. In terms of infrastructure, we need more cleaning, aggregation and processing units to scale up the process."
There are 26 private biodiesel plants across India and more are expected to be set up in the coming years.
'Awareness and ecosystem' needed
Sandeep Chaturvedi, president of the NGO Biodiesel Association of India (BDAI), said the per capita annual oil consumption in the country ranges from 18 to 25 liters.
"Our estimates from various studies and research across urban, semi-urban and rural areas suggest a million tons of biodiesel can be obtained from UCO if all-out efforts are made," said Chaturvedi. But there has to be enough "awareness" and an "ecosystem" that supports the production, he added.
FSSAI and BDI collaboratively launched a system called Repurpose Used Cooking Oil (RUCO) in August 2018, to monitor, collect and convert used cooking oil from vendors.
"There may be shortcomings or mistakes. So we want critics to tell us what more needs to be done so that we can rectify them. If this program succeeds, the country could save anywhere between 120 and 180 billion rupees, although the exact numbers keep varying," Chaturvedi said.
"The government wants to do it systematically. And there might be challenges and it might take time. But we want to succeed and would like to provide a robust, trustworthy and transparent ecosystem. This is going to be the largest used cooking oil aggregation system across the globe."