India will farm wasteland for biodiesel

The state government of Uttar Pradesh, a populous northern region, plans to turn 40 percent of the state’s wasteland into biodiesel farms of jatropha, a poisonous plant that produces oil-dense seeds. This initiative is expected to contribute to India’s plan to be energy independent by 2012. The country is notably lacking in indigenous energy sources, which is why it has historically relied mostly on coal (to its citizens’ respiratory distress) and nuclear power.

India already has a thriving jatropha cultivation program under way, assisted by jatropha-specific subsidies, and several states have begun assisting farmers in switching to the fuel-worthy plant. In regions prone to drought, jatropha makes a lot of sense, because it requires very little water and can be grown in the desert. Indeed, many developing economies are considering jatropha as a potential cash crop for just that attribute. It also grows quickly and thrives in warm climates.

The governments of Ghana, Tanzania, and Kenya have all set aside funds to assist in jatropha cultivation, and the crop is also expanding its presence in southwest China, all mostly on land considered under-utilized. But some doubts remain about several aspects of the growth and refinement of jatropha into fuel. For one, the lands that are supposedly barren may not in fact be quite so unused — rural peoples may use the land to collect wood for fuel, for example. As for its economic viability, in theory it is competitive with oil at $43 a barrel, but that depends on its yield, where much uncertainty lingers. While jatropha does grow in deserts, it doesn’t yield as much fuel per acre as it would on fertile cropland or in an area with higher precipitation. So while the seeds of jatropha plants remain attractive (each seed is said to be about 30 percent oil), there’s no guarantee that it won’t end up competing with agricultural land or, in the case of wasteland in Uttar Pradesh, that it will be as profitable as it’s been touted.

But that doesn’t mean that the developed world isn’t also leaning on jatropha as its silver bullet for high oil prices. Air New Zealand, for example, plans to fly a 747 jumbo jet this fall with one of its engines run on jatropha-derived jet fuel. This summer, the airline also announced plans to use biofuels for 10 percent of its jet fuel needs by 2013.