Farmer as ‘stakeholder’ & ‘decentralised supply chains’ are ultimate solutions for robust upstream in biofuels sector: Colonel Rohit Dev, Founder, Reveille Energy

The story of the biofuels industry in India has been a mixed one. Be it ethanol, CBG, biomass or pellets & briquettes, some segments have experienced remarkable growth while some are yet to show some results. At this pivotal moment, I Am Renew engages in a candid discussion with Colonel Rohit Dev, a seasoned expert in the biofuels industry. In this conversation, he addresses some pressing questions currently facing the sector. Colonel Dev is the founder of Reveille Energy and has been actively associated with key organizations such as the Indian Biogas Association (IBA) and the Indian Federation of Green Energy (IFGE).

1. We recently celebrated World Environment Day with great enthusiasm. How does the development of biofuels contribute to environmental sustainability?

Colonel Rohit Dev: Biofuels is a Sustainable Non-Fossil Fuel option which has ample possibilities in both domestic and commercial sectors and in supporting industrial growth. There is no fuel in the world that is going to last forever; depending on the fact that rate of consumption will rise and such that fossil fuel timelines to replenish the naturally formed reserves is limited. Bharat will account for nearly 25% of global energy demand in next two decades and biofuels pathway, including CBG, E2G, SAF etc. will play a stellar role, as they will also spruce up our Rural Economy and maybe assist in retarding the current migration rate of more than 4% from rural to urban habitats. With enhanced population growth and lower mortality rates, there is growth of everything that a population wants, be it houses, vehicles, public places, consumer goods etc. Hence, energy consumption will eventually rise at a faster rate and for non-fossil fuel options to grow faster, would need a focused approach and quite independent and different for each country. Currently, there is not enough quantum of renewable energy that would effectively support consumption and the gap has increased over a period with growing aspirations and rapid utilisation of energy sources. Hence, there must be a convergence of sustainable solutions midway down the time machine so that fossil fuels requirements keep going down and renewables output keep coming up.

Unless people make choices at micro-level, the industry itself can’t make a choice to support the envisaged Energy Transition. Unless people and industry make choices, the Governments can’t enforce choices beyond a point. Hence, society must make right choices now and bolstering biofuels is necessary for a green future and a ‘Just Energy Transition’.

2. You have been deeply associated with the biofuels industry for a long time now. What’s the purpose of establishing Reveille Energy?

Colonel Rohit Dev: Reveille Energy is an avenue to enable better curation of the upstream of bioenergy, biofuels and biomaterials and we also work in the midstream and downstream spaces, both in India and across the globe. We provide consultancy with curated energy transition roadmap for MNCs and governments and conduct field surveys like Biomass Assessment Studies too. We are also connected as partners with leading biofuels associations and companies, and we promote both partnerships with stakeholders in the value chain and also promote entrepreneurs. As various foreign & Indian technologies want to get associated with Indian partners to develop biofuels projects, we evaluate them as needed. We also offer due diligence services to global investors who intend to invest in bioenergy space in India.

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In the future, in the upstream, we will commence forward integration and work in creating supply chains for the biofuels industry through ‘Partnership Models.’ This will benefit our farmers and enable establishing ‘Decentralised Renewable Energy Supply Chains’ to support projects directly and make the ecosystems more sustainable.

3. How do you see the situation of the biofuels and especially CBG segment in the country?

Colonel Rohit Dev: The CBG sector has now nearly stabilized in midstream and upstream with the government rolling out many enabling policies and schemes. However, the success of the CBG sector would depend on the success of upstream. Biomass is finite in collection today and might become finite in future, even after plantation etc. eventually. Five years back companies used biomass but today the demand is much higher than supply.  It’s because now there are avenues where projects are becoming viable and CBG is something that could be sold even locally. There will be challenges till production and technology come up to scale. There should be a rapid growth in CBG Sector till 2030 and many LOIs that have been issued since 2018, might see fructification with Projects coming up, as current active LOIs are more than 1950.

Global Biofuels Alliance and government schemes will give a boost to investments, best practices and technology infusion for all biofuels projects in Bharat.

4. How are firms performing in terms of upstream and feedstock sourcing and how can we strengthen it?

Colonel Rohit Dev: Many of the private limited companies and middlemen have failed in the upstream as they are not looking at it with a sincere eye to enable the farming community but are merely creating P&L cases from only a business perspective. The best model today is interacting with farmers directly and creating a Partnership Model with them as a stakeholder. The farmer needs support like capabilities to draw down finances, acquire land, machines, biomass processing & selling themselves with minimal ecosystem to projects. This is reliable for them collectively as input cost for him would be near zero and profit is high in the Upstream. This model can do wonders for both Bioenergy and Biofuels because the risks in the upstream will be negated. I term this as the ‘PPPP Model’ where the fourth ‘P’ stands for people who are farmers here.

The biofuels plants produce intermediary chemicals or products that have got different niche values; perfumes for instance. If we can create industries around these intermediaries & byproducts, we can get more value and cross subsidize our processes. Thereafter, if you pay a percentage of profit to the Farmers, they would be receiving much more than money than selling the feedstock itself. Farmer becomes a real stakeholder now. Hence, rural communities can create avenues, earn more and generate employment.

5. The ethanol story is already touted as a success in India. What key challenge do you see for our ethanol industry?

Colonel Rohit Dev: It’s still at a nascent stage and technology support is still elusive and investments are waiting on the sidelines for now. First generation ethanol is going fine. The impetus is coming on the second-generation ethanol (E2G) and we have no plant that is yet performing satisfactorily. If an ethanol plant doesn’t plan the upstream segment, through more ownership of resources including machines, people, land etc., it is bound to fail. The biggest challenge is that big power plants are mandated to take feedstock in huge quantities which is almost impossible to get. There is no policy advocacy to delineate Command Zones for the finite biomass. Biofuel plants should be marked geography wise based on feedstock generated in a particular location otherwise feedstock supply shortages will mar the Projects. Biomass has multiple uses and its demand is skyrocketing.  The ‘miscellaneous’ value chain like packing materials, straw, paper, crockery & cutlery, stationery, clothing, etc. from recycled biomass is highly profitable today. With the growth of these industries in future, policy advocacy must be right so that there is no feedstock shortage for biofuels.

6. What are the real impediments in the biofuel industry?

Colonel Rohit Dev: There are many issues but a major one is that Renewable Energy is in the ‘Concurrent List’ and while the Central Government has introduced enabling policies, for some political reasons we have delays and disinterest creeping in. Unless we have a flow of policies for a longer tenure, biofuels will keep suffering. Energy Security is akin to National Security, and it must be brought to the Union List.

Also, foreign conglomerates are aggressively attempting to get a hold on Policy Advocacy and there is a fear that our own energy needs in future might need costlier and niche technologies, in case we allow perennial exports etc. Their focus on control of Value Chain through Technology Infusion, Investment and creating Standards with control over Carbon Credit Markets and other domains like Skilling etc should be monitored. We must promote Make-in-India and seek African markets of the future.

7. What has been the role of big businesses in the biofuels segment?

Colonel Rohit Dev: The role of big companies is encouraging and inspiring as many Indian companies have stepped up. Good companies like Reliance Industries, Adani Group, Praj, GPS Renewables etc. have stepped up in the biofuels sector. Some have had good learnings thus far and today they are even looking to enter SAF and Green Hydrogen segments in a big way, while investing in R&D too. These companies will bolster rural development and enable additional income for farmers in a big way. Even if they have limited success and have just 50% of efficiency over a 30-year cycle, they will succeed. These companies will invest heavily in biofuels that will meet the government’s aim of putting money into the rural economy, usher in jobs, encourage circular economies, facilitate financial inclusion and social development. When there are jobs, land leasing, warehousing etc., the scales will also come eventually. Skill Development is an area that needs immediate attention from all stakeholders.

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8. What’s your message to our readers about environmentalism and message to entrepreneurs?

Colonel Rohit Dev: When you want to match your dreams with environmental considerations, you need to “Be the Change that You Want to See”. One should believe in the developing structures, partnerships and collaborations, support the government policies, invest oneself for a long-term and be faithful to the cause for the larger good of our nation.

Entrepreneurs should be bootstrapped for the longest time and not fall prey to a valuation game where they are consumed and they pass on ownership to a foreign entity, especially in the upstream segment. Collaborations will strengthen individual companies and also bring about higher collective revenues. An entrepreneur must keep a close watch on cash flows, resource management and consolidation versus diversification and escalatory growth.

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