Producing ethanol from sugarcane could reduce fossil fuel imports in Latin American countries other than Brazil, where sugarcane is already a big part of the energy mix.
According to a study that analysed the potential of sugarcane as a cleaner energy source in the region, bagasse — the pulp left after juice is extracted from sugarcane — can also improve electricity access in many countries.
Brazilian and Colombian researchers evaluated the potential benefits of this crop for the energy supply, for cutting greenhouse gases emissions savings, and for decreasing oil imports in the region. The results confirm that benefits across all three can be achieved with US$35 billion over ten years, which is "around the same investment in renewable energy in LAC from 2012 to 2014, excluding Brazil".
“In many countries in Africa and Latin America, access to electricity is insufficient. If they can use sugarcane residue to offer surplus electricity, they can improve electricity access, and people begin to change their views regarding bioenergy”
They also suggest that Guatemala, Nicaragua and Cuba could replace 10 per cent of their gasoline use just with current supplies of molasses. And if Bolivia expands sugarcane production to 1 per cent of its pasture land, the country could replace 20 per cent of its gasoline and diesel use, with a surplus of ethanol that it can then export.
Published in the journal Renewable Energy, the study also suggests that electricity access in many countries could be improved just by boosting the use of current quantities of bagasse: in Bolivia, El Salvador and Honduras, it can supply 3.5 per cent of the current electricity demand.
Two scenarios were used to estimate the potential supply of bioenergy from sugarcane in Latin America. One was a short-term framework, which considers existing sugarcane production levels. The second was a medium- to long-term approach, where sugarcane cultivation takes up over 1 per cent of current pasture land, and ethanol is produced not just from molasses but also directly from sugarcane juice; this also assumes a gasoline-ethanol blend of up to 20 per cent.
"For countries like Colombia or Mozambique we suggest to start producing ethanol from molasses, like Brazil did," says Luis Barboza Cortez, an agricultural engineer from the University of Campinas and a co-author of the study. Cortez coordinates the five-year project, funded by the Brazilian research foundation Fapesp, which is evaluating the prospects of bioenergy production in Mozambique, South Africa, Colombia and Guatemala.
Brazil's sugarcane-based ethanol programme dates back to the 1970s, when it began in response to the oil crisis. Currently, Brazil is the world’s largest sugarcane producer. The country mandates a 27 per cent blend of ethanol with gasoline, and 16 per cent of the national energy supply comes from sugarcane products.
"When we talk about ethanol, we assume that the results we had in Brazil will be the same in other places, but it doesn't happen like that", says Cortez. He suggests that countries aim for a 10 per cent gasoline-ethanol blend to begin with.
Cortez also believes that producing energy in rural areas is great for generating jobs and other economic activities.
Suani Teixeira, coordinator of the Bioenergy Research Group at the University of São Paulo, told SciDev.Net that many countries are interested in making the transition to cleaner and renewable energy, but they often face difficulties in implementing bioenergy policies.
“For instance, Mozambique has a law mandating the gasoline-ethanol blend, but is struggling to put it into effect. They don't know exactly how much the ethanol production would cost, which subsidies have to be placed, and so on,” she says.
Texeira was a supervisor of the Cogen for Africa project of the UN Environment Programme, whose goal was to scale up the use of energy cogeneration systems in Eastern and Southern African countries.
She suggests that sometimes it is better for a country to make a start by using plant residues, instead of liquid biofuels. "In many countries in Africa and Latin America, access to electricity is insufficient. If they can use sugarcane residues to offer surplus electricity, they can improve electricity access, and people will begin to change their views regarding bioenergy."