The compelling case for Pongamia Shelterbelts and the development of Biodiesel
Drought and Climate change is presently an important element of energy use and
development, and Biodiesel is an important part of the solution. Biodiesel is
considered "climate neutral" because all of the carbon dioxide released during
consumption had been sequestered out of the atmosphere during crop growth.
However, the Biodiesel industry is suffering from high cost and low availability of
feedstocks, which form more than 80% of cost of production of Biodiesel.
Apart from the high costs, there is also a concern that Biodiesel from edible oils
increases the cost of food and scarcity around the world and forests are being
cleared to grow them. Even otherwise, it is felt that the Biodiesel crops compete with
agriculture for land and water. Using non-edible oils produced by hard trees that are
grown in non-agricultural and non-forest lands offers a solution to these issues.
In a hungry world, there is a need to produce more food and fuel through low input
farming with minimum risks and losses. Value addition at the farm level and reduced
share of middlemen would improve farmer’s income.
Integrated tree based farming system leads to self sufficiency in rural energy, while
maintaining biodiversity and ecological balance. This model is demonstrated at our
company, Tree Oils India Ltd (TOIL) farms located nearby Hyderabad and can be
replicated all over the world.
Pongamia is the future
Pongamia, a plant producing non-edible oilseeds, has the potential to become one of
the cheapest feedstocks that can be produced in most of the tropical and sub tropical
regions of the world. It can tolerate drought, light frost, water logging, moisture stress,
salinity and poor soil types.
Pongamia is a leguminous tree with a 10 metre tap root capable of sourcing water
and nutrients in the sub soil. It has a lifespan of 100 years and has low crop
maintenance and harvesting requirements.
It thrives in areas having an annual rainfall ranging from 500 to 2500 mm, the
maximum temperature ranges from 27 to 38 degrees Celsius and the minimum 1 to
16 degrees Celsius. Mature trees can withstand high temperatures upto 50 degrees
Way forward for the biodiesel regime
Despite all the advantages, Pongamia is still a wild plant, being domesticated and the
process taking some time. The existing knowledge and experience of commercial
cultivation is limited and few institutes and companies, including mine, have been
working on the genetic improvement and agronomic practices.
It is still under progress, but biodiesel from Pongamia offers a compelling case to
improve the environment, agriculture and economy and shows the way forward.
Recently, Daimler tested the use of 100% biodiesel in trial runs of 5,900 km across
India, including high altitudes in the Mercedes-Benz C Class C 220 CDI. NTPC and
IOC are exploring the possibility of producing Biodiesel and manufacturing
specialised lubricants for power plants.
Shapoorji Pallonji and Co. Ltd announced plans to cultivate Pongamia in 50,000
hectares and produce biodiesel in Ethiopia. Origin Energy of Australia is planting
180,000 Pongamia trees on 300 hectares to produce biodiesel.
Wealth creation through local production
Considering the widespread need of fuel alternatives in India, there is a need for the
feed stocks being able to be produced locally thereby bringing decentralization of
wealth and providing self sufficiency to the region.
Biodiesel can be produced locally in rural and remote areas by growing Pongamia
trees. A small economically viable processing plant can be set up to be surrounded
by about 100,000 trees can be planted in a reasonably small area.
Conventional food crops could be grown in between the trees and animals can be
raised as they don’t browse the trees. While the fuel requirements of the area are
taken care of, the deoiled cake is used as fertiliser.
Thus, an integrated, low cost and sustainable tree based farming system can be
developed to meet the local production and employment needs.
Electricity can be generated using Pongamia oil and it will reduce the transmission
costs and losses. Carbon credits from growing the trees, producing Biodiesel and
using by products could be icing on the cake by generating additional income.