U.S. industry renews interest in sugarcane

By Ryan C. Christiansen | October 06, 2008
Companies in the coastal and island regions of the United States are moving forward with projects that aim to produce ethanol from sugarcane.

Brawley, Calif.-based California Ethanol & Power LLC has enlisted Fagen Inc. in Granite Falls, Minn., to act as the lead contractor for construction of a 60 MMgy sugarcane-to-ethanol plant in California's Imperial Valley. According to David Rubenstein, chief operating officer for CE&P, Fagen is working diligently to determine construction costs for the project, which has been pre-estimated at $500 million. He said the company is looking at product offerings from Dedini S/A Indstrias de Base in Brazil for processing sugarcane and also ICM Inc. in Colwich, Kan., for producing ethanol. Construction of the plant could begin within a year and is expected to take two years, with the plant slated to go on line in 2011. The facility will be located near Imperial, Calif.

More than 37,000 acres of sugarcane will need to be planted to support the facility's expected capacity, Rubenstein said. Currently, CE&P is growing more than 650 acres of more than 10 varieties of sugarcane to be used for seed. The company plans to plant 3,500 acres next year.

Rubenstein said the plant will produce more than just ethanol. He said the leftover plant material will be used to heat a boiler that runs generators to produce the plant's electricity. The generators are expected to produce 50 megawatts, 15 of which will be used by the plant. The company aims to enter into a power sales agreement with San Diego Gas & Electric for the remaining power, he said.

A byproduct from the production of ethanol will be used as fertilizer for the sugarcane fields, Rubenstein said, adding that the company plans to sell the fertilizer to other agricultural businesses, as well.

Meanwhile, Pacific West Energy LLC in Kaumakani, Hawaii, is in negotiations to lease land and other assets from sugar producer Gay & Robinson Inc. in order to grow sugarcane and produce ethanol from sugar juice and molasses at a proposed 12 MMgy plant on the island of Kauai. After 119 years, Gay & Robinson is closing its doors, according to company President Alan Kennett. It operated a 7,500-acre sugarcane plantation and sugar mill on the island, and produced approximately 50,000 tons of sugar annually.

Coskata Inc. in Warrenville, Ill., has been in discussions with Clewiston, Fla.-based United States Sugar Corp., the nation's largest producer of cane sugar, about building a 50 MMgy to 100 MMgy ethanol plant adjacent to United States Sugar's mill in Clewiston, according to Coskata spokesman Matthew Hargarten. He said Coskata may be interested in building multiple sugarcane-to-ethanol plants in Florida. However, discussions between Coskata and United States Sugar were put on hold in June when United States Sugar announced it was negotiating a $1.75 billion deal with the state of Florida. Under that agreement, United States Sugar would sell its nearly 300 square miles of land south of Lake Okeechobee to the state for Everglades restoration. United States Sugar is continuing to negotiate the deal with the state, which might include allowing some sugar assets to be used for ethanol production.