When sugar cane is ground up, a wet, fluffy, fibrous byproduct called bagasse is produced. Sugar mills burn it to create their own energy. But there’s always a lot left over, and much of it ends up in massive piles around the mills or packed down into pits.
Bagasse has been converted into various products, such as high-quality particle boards and paper. Ceiling tiles made from bagasse were used in the construction of the Louisiana State Capitol’s House and Senate chambers, says Jim Simon, general manager of the American Sugar Cane League in Thibodaux.
But maintaining an economically viable market for bagasse has proven difficult.
“We keep swinging at the ball here, hoping we’re going to hit on one that makes a difference for us, because we really want to find a use for it,” Simon says.
Next up to the plate is American BioCarbon, formerly known as NFR BioEnergy, which is partnering with the Cora Texas Manufacturing sugar mill in White Castle and building a plant that it says can convert 600,000 metric tons of sugar cane waste annually into 200,000 tons of biofuel pellets. It’s the first of what state officials say could be 10 or more such facilities throughout south Louisiana, requiring a total of $312 million in capital investment and employing 450 people by 2019.
Philip Keating is CEO of American BioCarbon. He’s also a managing director with Loeb Partners in New York City, an investment banking, wealth management and private equity firm that is the primary owner of the project.
The waste will be heated, dried and cooked to produce “bio-coal.” While natural gas might be used to get things started, Keating says, a gas produced during the process can be recycled to power the system.
“It’s self-sufficient, so it’s very green,” he says.
And unlike coal, bio-coal doesn’t produce toxic emissions. While it’s generally more expensive than coal, it also has a higher energy content than some types of coal, producing up to 10,000 BTUs per pound, Keating says.
The primary markets for biomass fuel sources are in Europe, where bagasse products and wood pellets are in demand to meet government mandates to “green up” coal-fired power plants, says David Dismukes, who directs LSU’s Center for Energy Studies. Drax Biomass, part of a company that owns the largest power station in the United Kingdom, is producing wood pellets in Louisiana and Mississippi for that very reason.
“I don’t see a big role in the near term for a whole lot of biomass” in Louisiana’s energy production, Dismukes says, except in “unique, niche applications where all the pieces happen to come together.”
Biomass is harder to work into the energy mix than traditional fossil fuels or other renewables, Dismukes says. But it can be economically feasible when there’s a ready supply of residual material, especially when there’s already a cost associated with disposing of that material.
As Ben Legendre, head of the LSU AgCenter’s Audubon Sugar Institute, describes the situation, bagasse seems to fit both of Dismukes’ qualifications. About 15% to 20% of the bagasse produced at a mill like Cora Texas will be left over once the mill has burned all it can to fill its own energy needs, Legendre says, and that percentage could be as high as 25% if mill owners had an economic incentive to make their boilers more efficient.
Eventually, all that waste has to go somewhere. It can be used to fertilize sugar cane fields, but doing so can cost up to $750,000, Legendre says. Bagasse, being wet, light and fluffy, isn’t easy to haul.
“If you’re going to spend that kind of money, let’s look for a way to utilize that extra bagasse,” Legendre says.
The EPA might have spurred a biomass market in the United States when it proposed the Clean Power Plan, an effort to reduce carbon emissions from electricity production. When coal is burned, carbon that otherwise might have stayed in the ground is released into the atmosphere. Carbon already is being released when bagasse is burned or allowed to rot, so the idea is that using bagasse for fuel doesn’t add to the nation’s carbon footprint.
“We’re not adding any carbon to the system,” Keating says. “We’re just harvesting the carbon that exists.”
“It’s definitely preferable to coal,” says Casey DeMoss, CEO of the New Orleans-based Alliance for Affordable Energy. “It might not be a long-term answer, but it’s definitely a short-term answer.”
DeMoss says biomass policies should ensure that only waste products, not live plants, are converted to energy. Some wood pellet producers have been accused of using whole trees rather than just forestry leftovers.
DeMoss says the market for biomass should be “appropriately sized”: large enough to take advantage of available waste materials, but small enough so that it doesn’t compete with other needs. She notes that a push toward corn-based fuel drove up the price of a crop that is a staple of many diets.
The low cost of natural gas in the United States undermines the competitiveness of other fuel sources, but DeMoss says the price of natural gas is likely to rebound. Using varied sources might help protect ratepayers from price spikes.
“I would think that [biomass] would be a small but important part of the mix,” DeMoss says.
And as Keating notes, natural gas isn’t cheap everywhere in the world, and he says a utility has to make significant capital investments to switch from coal to natural gas. Coal-fired plants can add bio-coal to the mix or switch to bio-coal altogether without expensive retrofitting.
Keating says his company’s product also has uses in agriculture and plastics manufacturing. Along with Europe, Asia also is looking for energy alternatives, so the U.S. may or may not be the first market for American BioEnergy, Keating says.
“We would like it to be,” he adds. “But we definitely are not counting on that.”
Outside of the Capital Region, there is at least one other project in Louisiana that aims to turn sugar cane into fuel. Virdia, a U.S.-based biotech firm owned by a Finland’s Stora Enso Oyj, last year announced plans for a $60 million biochemical processing facility next to Raceland Raw Sugar in Lafourche Parish. Plans are to convert 80,000 tons per year of the mill’s bagasse into industrial sugars and biofuels.
American BioEnergy expects to begin producing biomass pellets on a commercial scale next summer. Keating says the company is negotiating with other mills as it looks to expand its presence in Louisiana. It’s fair to assume that the state’s sugar industry will be watching their efforts closely.