In an interview, Chief Administrative Officer of Indian Railways Organisation for Alternate fuels (IROAF) Ravinder Gupta talks about the organisation’s plans of expanding biodiesel blending and looking to develop alternate sources of fuel in a bid to reduce the carbon footprint and the energy bill of the Indian Railways.
What are the main areas IROAF is currently working on?
IROAF was set up 8 years ago to look alternate fuels for Indian Railways. It was envisioned as an organisation for bio diesel and CNG but slowly it began working on projects in other alternate areas – bio-diesel, CNG, solar energy on trains, solar energy on rooftops of production units and CNG in the workshops as industrial gas, fuel cells etc. We are now expanding this scope. We are a knowledge searching organization. We are looking at the future – what will happen to Railways’ energy needs in ten years? This organization is looking for future fuels.
There has been a slowdown in bio-diesel blending for Railways. What are the reasons for the slow uptake?
It was thought that biodiesel will become a possible alternate fuel for Indian Railways. We thought of taking the biodiesel path. Biodiesel is used by several countries but the limitation is the raw material which includes edible, non-edible vegetable or bio-oils. India earlier focused on Jatropha which is a plant of American descent and large scale plantations were carried out. Railways also planted Jatropha but it did not bear fruit as estimated and also the collection chain was not economically viable due to low quantity. The key issues are cost and availability of raw material. So, if you’re using costly raw material, biodiesel becomes costlier than diesel. We also don’t have any surplus edible oil for making biodiesel. In India, several biodiesel plants have been setup in the private sector and, except a few, they are becoming sick because they don’t have feed. If they take feed from costlier seeds the production cost per plant would became significantly higher. Therefore, other than imported palm stearin, today there is no real feedstock available for biodiesel in India.
At present, what does the Railways use then?
We buy biodiesel from the domestic market and thus the quantity which we can buy is limited. Also, some people are selling it at rates which are slightly costlier than diesel. It makes the economics of biodiesel weak but at the same time its positive impact on the environment remains. The good thing about biodiesel is that it can be cheaper than diesel, it mixes with diesel completely, it does not have sulphur and other contaminants. So, it becomes a better option for the environment. biodiesel has low freezing point. Even in blending it separates at a certain temperature at which it freezes and diesel does not. So, it settles at the bottom. That is why we use biodiesel in Indian railways except in peak winter months. Railways is using 5 per cent biodiesel blend. It costs somewhere between Rs 48- Rs 54 per litre.
What is the share of biodiesel in Indian Railways’ total energy cost?
At present, railways’ usage is not significant. There is a potential to substitute up to 5 per cent of diesel with biodiesel the cost of which would come to around Rs 750 crore at the present level of diesel bill of around Rs 15,000 crore for railways. The sellers are selling it at a premium. So, it is a little costlier than diesel at many places. We are also setting up two plants for producing biodiesel. One plant has been commissioned in February 2017 at Tondiarpet in Chennai. This plant will make 30 tonne per day. The second plant is in Raipur, Chhattisgarh which will be ready by end of this fiscal. They will sell only to the railways and at a rate cheaper than diesel. This will become an option for economical biodiesel and we will be able to get 60 tonnes of biodiesel per day. In the long run, 5 per cent blending will not take us far. Prices have also been fluctuating because of raw material costs. Conversion cost of feedstock to biodiesel is quite fixed but the base cost, if increased, affects the total cost. The dilemma before the country is where to get the raw material from. How to collect seeds is a very major issue.
Is biodiesel the only fuel the railways blends, do you plan to explore more options?
At the moment, we are only blending biodiesel. We don’t have enough capacity for 5 per cent but we can take it up to 10 per cent. If the entire country starts blending 5 per cent biodiesel Rs 30,000 crore worth of imports can be stopped. But if you are producing this biodiesel by importing palm stearin then the gain is not much. We are also ways of producing Methanol.
The Railways was also planning to use solar power for the upcoming stations under the station redevelopment programme under its ‘net zero energy’ scheme. How feasible is that plan?
If you have a multi-storey building, you cannot use only roof-based solar power for all of its needs. You may have to haul the energy from outside. You cannot feed large consumers until you have centralised solar plants. This area will need constant development.