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Report


Sweet Electricity

By Mario Osava *

Sugarcane pulp may be the salvation for Brazil. The world's leading sugarcane producer is suffering a profound energy crisis, but turning this biomass into fuel could add at least 4,500 megawatt hours to the national energy production system within three years.

RIO DE JANEIRO - The energy crisis plaguing Brazil is paving the way for alternative sources of electricity that have well-known advantages but have never been extensively implemented. Sugar cane waste pulp stands out as an option that has largely been ignored - until now.

The Sao Paulo-based Sugarcane Agro-Industry Union (UNICA) calculates that, using the waste left over from sugar and alcohol production, 4,500 megawatt hours could be added to the national energy system within three years.

This represents 6.7 percent of Brazil's current capacity and is nearly the same annual amount the government believes is necessary to overcome the current energy crisis that is being blamed on drought and poor planning.

But the UNICA estimates are considered conservative because, theoretically, there is enough agricultural biomass to generate 12,000 megawatts, pointed out Onorio Kitayama, UNICA consultant, in a conversation with Tierramérica.

According to Jayme Buarque de Hollanda, director of the National Institute of Energy Efficiency (INEE), the contribution of sugarcane pulp would then be approximately 10,000 megawatt hours.

This fuel option is particularly important now, as Brazil has had to impose strict energy rationing in order to prevent blackouts. The population must reduce household consumption by 20 percent during the June-November period or face having their electrical service cut off.

Companies that are big energy consumers must cut consumption by 25 percent, and residential customers who use more than 500 kilowatts in a month will have to pay a 200 percent surcharge.

Meanwhile, illumination of streets in urban areas will be slashed 35 percent. Nighttime outdoor events, such as soccer matches, have been called off because of the vast amount of electricity used for stadium lights and services.

Brazil's energy deficit is the result of the lack of investment in electrical generation and transmission systems over the last few years, say experts. The continued drought in several states, reducing the reservoirs for hydro-electric production, has served to complete the disaster.

The situation illustrates that it would be foolhardy to ignore the energy contribution sugarcane could make, UNICO's Kitayama said.

Brazil is the number one sugar producer in the world. This year's sugarcane harvest is predicted to reach 250 million tons. A third of that volume will be made into sugar or alcohol, and the rest is biomass that can efficiently be turned into electricity, he explained.

Existing technology permits the generation of 100 kilowatts of electricity from each ton of sugarcane pulp, he said.

The greatest amount of pulp is available between May and September, coinciding with the dry season for most of Brazil, when reservoirs tend to be at their lowest. Hydro-electric dams provide more than 90 percent of the electricity produced in the country.

In addition, sugarcane waste is a resource found near the major urban energy-consuming centers, meaning lower costs and losses in electrical transmission. Nearly 60 percent of Brazilian sugarcane is grown in Sao Paulo state, the most populated and industrialized in the country.

Energy production from sugarcane is less harmful to the environment, explained Antonio Carlos Alves de Oliveira, energy expert for the Environmental Secretariat of Sao Paulo state. Sugarcane plantations absorb more of the gases responsible for the greenhouse effect than are emitted throughout the entire cycle of this crop's production and consumption. Furthermore, the efficient burning of the pulp waste reduces emissions of pollutants, he said.

In Sao Paulo, the sugar processing plants and alcohol distilleries take advantage of the cane waste to generate approximately 650 megawatts of energy during the harvest season for their own consumption. Currently, just 80 megawatts are sold to electricity distribution companies.

But the efficiency in the utilization of pulp remains low because there are no policies in place that stimulate co-generation of electricity. The pulp is burned mostly to get rid of this agricultural ''waste'', says INEE's Buarque de Hollanda.

Current legislation in Brazil prevents sugar mills from engaging in long-term contracts to sell electricity, so efforts to contribute to the national energy system are not very profitable.

The looming threat of blackouts, however, has focussed attention on these laws.

Simple changes, such as boosting pressure in the boilers, could multiply the sugarcane industry's production of electricity ten-fold, says Buarque de Hollanda.

A sugar mill that process 1.8 million tons of cane and provides 24 gigawatt hours per year could increase its output to 284 gigawatts (one gigawatt = one billion watts), with an investment of 17 million dollars, according to an INEE study.


* Mario Osava is an IPS correspondent


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