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U.S. Sugar sees the future in plant waste: ethanol

Miami Herald - 11/17/2008 12:00:00 AM
by Jane Bussey

Egrets, herons and other birds circle as a sugar harvester rolls slowly through a cane field, slicing the stalks at the base, loading them into transport trucks and then blowing the thrash back onto the ground.

The harvested cane will be milled into raw sugar in a mere seven hours. But someday there may also be value in what is left in the fields.

Judy Sanchez, spokeswoman for Clewiston-based United States Sugar Corp., pointed to the piles of leaves and other plant material blanketing the cane field. ''All that can be used as biomass,'' she said as she watched the birds swoop in to feast on insects churned up in the harvest.

Alternative energy production is a promising new business and one of the compelling reasons for keeping the Clewiston mill and refinery operating under U.S. Sugar's control.

Rather than distilling sugar cane into ethanol, U.S. Sugar is interested in using the estimated one million tons of plant waste generated in sugar production -- the biomass -- to make lower-cost ethanol.

''We believe alternative energy is a very viable alternative for facilities like ours,'' said Robert Coker, senior vice president of public affairs.

U.S. Sugar is already into energy generation. Crushed cane stalk, called bagasse, fuels boilers that create steam to generate the electricity that powers the company's state-of the-art sugar mill and an adjacent refinery.

''We generate 45 megawatts a day,'' Sanchez said. The Clewiston plant uses 30 megawatts, and the rest is sold to Florida Power & Light for its grid.

Generating alternative energy is still in the future for U.S. Sugar, but the company has plenty of ways to come up with biomass. Not only are bagasse and thrash potential sources, but new technology may one day strip the leaves from cane stalks. Currently, the leaves are burned off in controlled fires to make cane easier to harvest.

Most U.S. ethanol is made from corn -- sugar cane is not cost-effective -- but using biomass should bring costs down.

In September, U.S. Sugar said it had been in discussions with a number of firms about alternative energy production and had been ''particularly impressed'' with the Warrenville, Ill., renewable energy company Coskata.

But those discussions were put on hold during the negotiations with the South Florida Water Management District. Now, with a new deal to purchase 181,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar for Everglades restoration in the works, those talks may resume.

''Having resolution on this allows discussions to move forward between our companies,'' said Wes Bolsen, chief marketing officer at Coskata, which bills itself as a biology-based renewable energy company offering the ''next generation of ethanol'' technology.

It says it can turn biomass, municipal solid waste and other carbon sources into ethanol for less than $1 a gallon. Bolsen said that producing biomass fuel potentially could not only reduce burning in the cane fields but also reduce greenhouse gas and fit into Gov. Charlie Crist's desire to boost Florida's ethanol production.

Congress has mandated the use of ethanol in gasoline and also offers a 51-cent-a-gallon excise-tax credit to refineries for the blended fuel. New rules call for increased production of nonfood-based ethanol.

Some critics have lashed out at the federal mandates for contributing to higher corn prices and interfering with the free market.

However, Coker said that without the corn-based ethanol program, it would have been hard to create a market for alternative fuels. ''It led the way politically,'' he said.