The pros and cons of cane ethanol production in Jamaica

by Mike Buday

Due to a lack of fossil fuel reserves, Jamaica relies heavily on energy imports, despite an abundance of solar radiation, wind energy, fresh water, and arable land. Given its abundance of natural resources, Jamaica has the opportunity to pursue clean energy projects. In particular, Jamaica is in a good position to transform its existing sugar industry to facilitate the expansion of in-country cane ethanol production. This opportunity is fraught with obstacles and must be weighed against other possible pursuits. Land dedicated to growing cane is not available for other purposes and traditional methods of slash and burn cane harvesting lead to significant carbon emissions.

Introduction

Jamaica is a land rich in natural resources as well as a developing nation overwhelmed by debt, crime, and a lackluster economy. It also lacks the infrastructure necessary to facilitate a robust industrial economy. Due to a lack of fossil fuel reserves, the country relies heavily on energy imports, despite an abundance of solar radiation, wind energy, fresh water, and arable land. Jamaica ratified the Kyoto Protocol in June of 1999, but is not classified as an Annex I country. This means that it has no specific emissions reduction target and cannot trade emissions with other countries, but that it can benefit from the implementation of clean development mechanisms (CDM) as outlined in Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol. Jamaica, in conjunction with the government of the Netherlands, has already realized a CDM with its Wigton Wind Farm.

Given its abundance of natural resources, Jamaica has the opportunity to pursue several other clean energy projects. In particular, Jamaica is in a good position to transform its existing sugar industry to facilitate the expansion of in-country cane ethanol production. This opportunity is fraught with obstacles and must be weighed against other possible pursuits. Land dedicated to growing cane is not available for other purposes and traditional methods of slash and burn sugar cane harvesting lead to significant carbon emissions.

Background

Jamaican Minister of Tourism, Ed Bartlett, went on the record against cane ethanol saying that “ethanol is dead end street for the island because even if you planted cane over every square inch of Jamaica , it still would not yield enough cane to supply one third of the vehicles on the island” (Lee 2007). This is not accurate. Given that Jamaica consumed approximately 267,682,000 gallons of fuel for transportation in 2006, it would require 210,000 hectares of land to produce enough ethanol to meet its transportation needs. Refer to Table 1 below. Jamaica has over 175,000 hectares of arable land. If Jamaica were to dedicate all of its arable land to cane, it could produce almost enough ethanol to supply its land transportation needs. But this is not realistic and Minister Bartlett’s point is well-made. Biofuel production is land intensive. So, does that mean that Jamaica should not produce cane ethanol?

There are many obstacles and drawbacks to a cane ethanol industry in Jamaica. The island lacks the land mass to realize the economies of scale of other major ethanol producing countries, such as Brazil, the United States, and Australia. Many of the jobs created by the need to harvest sugar cane have poor labor conditions and are low paying. (AP 2007) Jamaica, in particular, also suffers from high production costs of ethanol due to low land productivity, low cane quality, high content of extraneous matter, inefficient field and factory operations, high transportation costs, weaknesses in administration and management structures, mechanical breakdowns in factories, other structural and institutional weaknesses, run-down capital assets, and a poor network of roads (Anonymous 2007). Also, wide fluctuations in energy prices mean instability.

There are also several reasons why an ethanol industry is a good fit for Jamaica. Jamaica is already quite experienced in sugar cane cultivation, the distillation sugar into alcohol, and cogeneration of electricity (Anonymous 2008). The climate is well-suited to the crop and though small by comparison, Jamaica better suited to a cane ethanol industry, in terms of its climate and size, than any other Caribbean island nation, with the exception of Cuba. Ethanol production also represents an opportunity for Jamaica to maintain a diverse economy. Finally, sugar cane is a fast growing crop that can be harvested every year in Jamaica’s climate. This offers the industry a steady income stream.

Despite the low productivity of Jamaica’s ethanol industry, the potential exists to improve ethanol yields through a combination of increased in cane yields, sugar content, fermentation efficiency, and sugar extraction (Goldemberg 2008). The Brazilian industry expects to be able to boost its yields by nearly 30% over the next decade and Jamaica can benefit from the examples set by more successful cane ethanol producing countries.

Cane ethanol also exhibits a positive net energy ratio. A lifecycle assessment of energy content to fossil fuel inputs yields an energy balance in excess of 9:1 with the potential of exceeding 11:1 by 2020 (Macedo et al. 2008).

Most biofuels suffer from a food versus fuel dilemma. Unlike other biofuel feedstock crops such as corn and soy, sugar cane does not represent true food value. Shifting away from the consumption of refined sugar would have a positive impact on human health. As unrealistic as it may seem, if people could curtail their appetite for refined sugar, large tracts of additional cropland would not be necessary to grow cane for ethanol. Jamaicans consume approximately 46 kg of sugar per year per capita. This requires approximately 29,000 hectares (at 4.5 tonnes of sugar/ha and a population of 2.8 million). To put this into perspective, Americans consume approximately 31 kg of sugar per year per capita. If Jamaicans were to reduce their sugar consumption to US levels, over 9,300 hectares of land would be freed up. Many people would also enhance their quality of life, as sugar is a main contributor to diabetes, obesity, and other health problems.

Economic impacts must also be considered and Jamaica might be better off by focusing on it economy on other industries. Jamaica’s top industries include tourism and bauxite (for aluminum) mining. Tourism typically brings in nearly $2 billion a year to the island, but the industry is extremely susceptible to recession. Bauxite mining has generated $200 million in recent years. This too is sensitive to economic conditions as commodity prices fluctuate with the economy. Neither industry is likely to suffer to by the expansion of cane ethanol production, other agricultural crops might.

In 2007, the Jamaican sugar industry employed 38,000 people and exported nearly $80 million in raw cane sugar and could produce nearly $600 million if it dedicated all of its arable land to sugar cane. Of course, this is both unrealistic and unadvisable. The government’s hopes to increase cane production from 1.4 million metric tons (21% of arable land) in 2008 to 2.0 million metrics (31% of arable land) is reasonable and sufficient to ramp up ethanol production. Given the wide fluctuations in energy costs, it’s difficult to estimate the value of ethanol, but prices in recent years indicate that Jamaica could produce between $1.2 and $4.5 billion worth of ethanol. Bananas are another major crop in Jamaica. In 2007, Jamaica exported over $9 million of bananas. At current prices, if Jamaica dedicated all of its arable land to bananas, it could grow nearly $3 billion worth of bananas. Of course, this is as unrealistic as using 100% of arable land for sugar cane. And bananas trees, with their shallow root system and top-heavy structure, are much more vulnerable to storm and hurricane damage.

Conclusion

Jamaica is already a net importer of both food and energy, but that is no reason to abandon agricultural and energy industries altogether. Diversity is essential to a thriving economy and by increasing the production of cane ethanol, Jamaica can produce a majority if its food and energy needs, while driving down its trade deficit.

Over half of Jamaica’s emissions result from its petroleum-based electricity generation system. Another twenty percent comes from the transportation sector. If harvested green without slash burning, cane ethanol can lead to a 78% reduction in GHG emissions compared to traditional gasoline (US DOE Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center). This is a greater reduction than achieved by the use of corn ethanol. Refer to figure 1 below. Meanwhile, surplus bagasse and residual biomass provide valuable electricity feedstock. Expansion of the cane industry and cogeneration can help to reduce emissions from both transportation and electricity energy sectors.
Even with its disadvantages, Jamaica should push forward with cane ethanol, especially since it already meets most of the industry’s prerequisites. It needs the jobs, the diversity in its economy, and a degree of insulation from dependence on fossil fuels.

table-1-copy

ir2-figure-1-copy

References

Anonymous. Projects: Rural Development Accompanying Measures to Sugar Protocol Countries –2007. http://www.deljam.ec.europa.eu/en/jamaica/projects/Rural%20Development/amspc2007.htm

Anonymous. The future is Ethanol. Jamaica Gleaner. October 25, 2008.
AP. Ethanol’s dark side: Harsh working conditions mark production of

Brazilian biofuel. Jamaica Gleaner. October 21, 2007

Fry, J. Regional Competitiveness of the Sugar Industry. FAO Corporate Document Repository. 1999.

Goldemberg, J. “The Brazilian biofuels industry”. Biotechnology for Biofuels 1 (6): 4096–4117. May 2008. http://www.biotechnologyforbiofuels.com/content/1/1/6.

Lee, M. Ethanol production no, remittances no, investments yes says Jamaican Tourism Minister. www.abegnews.com. December 2007.

Macedo, I et al. Green house gases emissions in the production and use of ethanol from sugarcane in Brazil: The 2005/2006 averages and a prediction for 2020. ScienceDirect. 2008.

Thangavelu, S. Tonnes Cane Per Tonne Sugar (TC/TS) – Quality Ratio of Wugarcane Genetic Stocks at Different Stages of Growth. Sugarcane Breeding Institute. Volume 6 (3). 2004.

Global Sugar Consumption. World Health Organization. 2005. http://www.whocollab.od.mah.se/expl/globalsugar.html

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2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    mrred said,

    Love this blog I’ll be back when I have more time.

  2. 2

    Baruani said,

    Despite all the negative consequences of cane ethanol in Jamaica, you still suggest that the country should push for cane ethanol? Does not make sense. Also, you contradict yourself with your criticism of the Minister in the first few paragraphs: you say that requires 210,000 arable land to meet Jamaican transport energy demands and Jamaica has over 175,000 hectares of arable land. I think over 175 is well less than 210, right? So there is no enough arable land as the minister points out and therefore your critic of the Minister is incorrect, wrong? I found this blog somehow confusing.


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