Energy symptoms of sugarcane reanimation

Though the increase in sugar production in the last three years is moderately lifting spirits, the potential to produce derivatives, especially energy, motivates businesspeople and researchers to the same extent or more.

The bagasse or biomass that remains as waste from sugar production can be turned into raw material for the production of multiple derivatives, including energy.

After almost having fallen into a coma during the last decade, the industry that once was the queen and mistress of the Cuban economy is beginning to send signals of reanimation. Though still way below the record of the late 1980s, sugar extraction registered advances in the last three harvests. But the symptoms of recovery are not limited to a growth in sugar production.

The exponent and principal symbol of the island’s economy for more than two centuries dropped to a historic minimum of 1,160,600 tons of crude sugar in the 2005-2006 harvest. And in the 2009-2010 harvest it again produced an almost similar amount, 1,168,200 tons. Starting then, it has undertaken a still short increase in time to call it an escalade, but already with determination. Sugar production has grown at an annual average rate of 12 percent in the last triennium to reach around 1.5 million tons in the 2012-2013 harvest.

But it’s probably not the sacks of sugar that are attracting the most attention, from inside and outside the country. The potential of other productions derived from sugar cane has led to the representatives of the Azcuba business group to sit at the negotiation table with businesspeople from other countries, especially Brazil.

The Brazilian Odebrecht transnational opened the way for foreign investments in the Cuban sugar agribusiness when its subsidiary Works and Infrastructure Company (COI) signed in 2012 with Azcuba a contract for the joint management of the 5 de septiembre sugar factory in the province of Cienfuegos. The agreement points to producing a larger amount of sugar and derivatives, including electricity.

Other companies from the South American giant seem interested in following those steps, judging by the meeting they held in Havana prior to the 12th International Congress on Diversification, to be held October 14-18 at the Hotel National of the Cuban capital.

Representatives from 17 Brazilian companies came to exchange experiences and carry out field studies, interested in achieving a greater approach and cooperation with Cuba that includes the production of renewable fuels, like ethanol and biodiesel and power generation. The energy face is acquiring an increasingly greater importance in the island’s sugar discourse.

The round of negotiations assessed the Brazilian technologies for the cultivation and processing of sugarcane to extract sugar, Francisco Lleo, director of Azutecnia, one of the participating Cuban companies, said to the press. In his opinion, sugar production has perspectives for growing at a rate of 15-16 percent in the largest of the Caribbean islands if an investment programme is undertaken, which evidently is awakening the interest of the Brazilians.

Lleo emphasised on investments that aim to increase that agribusiness’ power generation through the gradual installation of up to 19 bioelectric plants, to the extent in which sugarcane production increases. The first six units of this type foresee their installation in two of Cuba’s most efficient sugar factories today: the Jesús Rabí and the Ciro Redondo, in the country’s western and central regions, respectively.

Luis Gálvez, director of the Cuban Institute of Research on Sugarcane Derivatives, is more drastic in his assessments. Diversification is today the only way out for the sugar industry, which is unprofitable just with the production of sucrose, he said to Prensa Latina agency. But he did recognise that diversification today presupposes power generation, which had previously not been included.

Power generation using bagasse, the main waste of sugar production and the major renewable source of biomass on the island, appears as one of the most attractive alternatives to strengthen that veteran industry as well as the Cuban economy. Researchers – and behind them the businesspeople and events dedicated to analysing the convenience of diversification – insist on its enormous perspectives for power generation throughout the year and not just during harvest time. The limit today is the low availability of sugarcane and the inefficiency reigning in the sugar factories.

“The Cuban sugar industry has an annual production on renewable bases of 5.2 million tons of fuel equivalents, of which 4.2 million tons are currently being used to produce the thermic energy required for the production of crude sugar and for power generation,” Drs. Alfredo Curbelo, Bárbara Garea and Antonio Valdés affirmed in a study published by FAO. These researchers warn, however, that the process occurs “with a low efficiency that enables the production of 17.5 kW/h/t of grinded sugarcane, which represents 9.5 percent of the total produced in the country.”

Despite the poor efficiency of the boilers in the sugar factories, the Cuban sugar industry today generates enough electricity to cover all its demand and contribute some to the national power generation system. According to the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), in 2012 it generated 554.6 GW/h. But in 1991, with a bigger harvest and higher volumes of bagasse, it placed 13,163 GW/h in the electricity grids.

“Increased efficiency in the production of electricity in that industry,” the mentioned study concludes, “makes it possible to cover an important part of what is generated at present in the thermoelectric plants.” Cuba would have to import, therefore, much less oil. There are many who are wondering if the consequent saving in such a scenario would not be more profitable than the revenues from the traditional export of sugar. (2013)

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