By Mario Osava *
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
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,
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
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
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