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CUBA: Sugarcane – Source of Renewable Energy, But Not Ethanol

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Jun 1 2007 (IPS) - Like other Latin American countries, Cuba is focusing on the development of renewable energy sources. But unlike Brazil, a leader in biofuels, this Caribbean island nation has ruled out the production of ethanol fuel based on sugarcane, because of President Fidel Castro’s opposition to using food crops to produce biofuel on a large scale.

Cuban researchers continue to see the sugar industry, for decades the motor of the Cuban economy, as a strategic sector capable of producing food products for human and animal consumption, generating electricity from bagasse – the fibrous by-product of sugar extraction from cane stalks – or producing alcohol and even pharmaceutical products.

When the sugarcane industry was at its height, producing harvests of up to eight million tons, it generated around 10 percent of the electrical power produced in Cuba. But with the drop in production seen over the past decade, the proportion of electricity that it produces shrank from 10 to 5.6 percent, between 1990 and 2002.

In 2002, the sugar industry underwent a major restructuring that involved the closure of half of the country’s 156 sugar mills, in order to bring production levels into line with international prices, which had dropped at that time to around six cents a pound.

“The first source of renewable energy remains sugarcane biomass, and if the strategy for the future is to produce energy in a decentralised manner and with diversified sources, this should be one of them,” Cuban expert Julio Torres commented to IPS.

A large part of the mills that survived the restructuring and remain active upgraded their installations in order to generate their own energy supplies, although they do not yet produce a surplus to sell to the national grid.

“Investment must be made in technological changes to make the electricity generating industry more efficient,” said Torres. “The problem does not lie in the number of mills that are working, but in the quality of the mills.”

“Sugarcane biomass could be the start of the road towards sustainable energy production for our country,” he added.

The expert said there are plans to increase sugarcane production, but argued that researchers “must begin studying the best way to deal with the problems posed by climate change, which has a major impact on agriculture.”

This year, unseasonal rains hindered the sugar harvest, which ended in mid-May with an output no higher than last year’s poor showing: 1.2 million tons, according to preliminary estimates.

The cost per kilowatt of burning biomass is four times lower than that of burning fossil fuels. In addition, biomass is a cleaner source of energy that does not release into the environment heavy metals and other toxic substances.

Although the residues produced by the alcohol industry do pollute the environment, there is technology that allows such waste to be used in the production of biogas, which would replace the fuel oil used in the distillery itself.

Biogas is produced by the anaerobic digestion or fermentation of organic matter. It is a low-cost, renewable biofuel that can be used for cooking or generating electricity. At the same time, the process generates a subproduct that can be used as fertiliser or as feed for fish or birds.

“Biogas has several uses, but the most important aspect is its impact on reducing the pollution produced by the country’s sugar and coffee factories,” Luis Bérriz, president of Cubasolar, the Society for the Promotion of Renewable Energy Sources and Respect for the Environment, told IPS.

In his view, what is needed is “greater development of this source of alternative energy in the country,” which already uses hydroelectricity and solar power and is also interested in harnessing wind power.

A year ago, sugar industry officials announced during an international conference in Havana an ambitious programme to expand the alcohol industry, including the modernisation of 11 distilleries and the installation of seven new ones, which would make use of the waste products by means of different solutions.

The project was aimed at increasing the production of alcohol, including dehydrated alcohol to be mixed with gasoline on the domestic market and for export, Luis Gálvez, director of the governmental Cuban Institute of Research on Sugarcane Derivatives, told IPS at the time.

But the industry has ruled out its plans to produce ethanol fuel – an issue on which the convalescent Castro has launched a heated debate, in which he focuses on the danger posed to food security by using food crops to produce biofuels on a large scale.

In a congress on renewable energy last week, Conrado Moreno, a member of Cuba’s Academy of Sciences, said the upgrading of 11 distilleries would allow an increase in alcohol output – mainly for use in producing rum and pharmaceutical products – to 150 million litres a year.

“That ethanol will not go towards the production of fuel,” said Moreno, who added that “There has never been large-scale production in Cuba” of ethanol for fuel.

The Cuban government signed an agreement with Venezuela in February for the construction of 11 plants to produce ethanol and the expansion of sugarcane cultivation towards that end in that South American country.

As Alí Rodríguez, Venezuela’s ambassador to Cuba, later explained, the fuel will cover already existing demand in Venezuela, by providing the 15 percent ethanol in gasoline exports and by replacing the leaded gasoline that is no longer produced in the country.

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