Monday, June 13, 2011

Philippines Diaries, Day 3, Part 3 - The Bioethanol Plant

I was recently part of an International Fact Finding Mission to the Philippines. Our group investigated the impact of a biethanol project that uses sugarcane as its feedstock on the local environment, food security, land grabbing, and human rights. This diary covers the May 31, 2011 visit to the bioethanol plant, which is currently under construction.

The group who went to the plant were welcomed by the resident manager. He briefed them on the bioethanol project. I was not in this group, so this diary is based on the notes and memories of Edna Maguidad and Simone Lovera, who were in the group that visited the plant.

The plant is owned and run by Green Future Investment, Inc. (GFII), which is a joint venture mostly owned by a Japanese company called ITOCHU. They have contracted with ECOFUEL Land Development, Inc. to create a sugarcane plantation. No representative from ECOFUEL was at this meeting, so there were some questions that the GFII resident manager could not answer.

Members of our group visiting the bioethanol plant.

The bioethanol plant is currently under construction, and there are three contractors building it. They are targeting March 2012 to open the plant. The plant, once open, will be able to accommodate 3000 tons of sugarcane per day. The waste material from the sugarcane (bagasse) will be used to fuel the plant and to generate electricity that will be sold to the grid. The sugarcane juice will first have its water removed, then it will be made into alcohol. It will initially be 95% alcohol, but they need it to be 99% alcohol, so they will go through another process to extract the remaining water so that it is is "fuel grade alcohol." It will be stored in a storage facility with 6 million liters of storage.

The facility will also use anaerobic digestion to produce methane biogas. The wastewater will be returned to the local environment, which they call "ferti-irrigation." The plant itself is 30 hectares, and they need 11,000 hectares for the sugarcane plantation. They will use 6000 cubic meters of water every day. They plan to source it from wells (local groundwater), and they say it won't impact local residents. They said they had an environmental impact assessment in 2010, and they will not pollute the air at all. Before releasing any air, they have an electrostatic precipitator that will capture any solid elements in the air.

When the group asked about the sugarcane plantation, the resident manager said we should direct those questions to ECOFUEL. The sugarcane plantation will first prioritize idle and abandoned lands for use, but they realize that some of the lands they are already using for sugarcane are land where food crops were previously grown. At this time, they did not say how much of their land was previously used for food crops. They also don't have a good definition for "marginal land."

Our group asked about competition between using land for sugarcane for biofuels and using it for reforestation, the manager from GFII said he did not know. He added that when there is land that is in dispute, their policy is to back out. Thus, they say, they have no impact or influence on land grabbing. He said they have a process for ensuring that the person they contract with for their land is the actual owner. At this time, the resident manager did not know the process to explain it to our group.

They said they will bring many benefits to the community.
1. Jobs. They will directly hire 260 people, and for the 11,000 hectares of the sugarcane plantation, they need many workers and most will come from the local area. They said they need one worker for every one to one and a half hectares of sugarcane. And, again, this will be contracted by ECOFUEL.
2. Jobs for Trucking. They also said they need 200 trucks per day. (This worries us, as it will do a number on local roads and traffic.)
3. Free organic fertilizer. They promised to provide ECOFUEL with organic fertilizer for free to use on the farms. ("Ferti-irrigation")
4. Fourth, the employees will bring demand for housing.
5. Fifth, they will supply power (for a charge!) to the community.

Simone, our forests expert, asked about the viability of the project. What is their plan B? They said off-season, they will augment their ethanol plant with molasses when they can't get enough sugarcane. They need a minimum of 8000 hectares of sugarcane to keep the plant running. And that depends on the price of molasses - if it's too expensive, it won't work. Also, the viability of the project depends on getting the sugarcane from within 40 km from the plant. Beyond that distance, it will cost too much for trucking to make it viable.

Right now they have an estimated 3000 hectares planted in sugarcane and a 300 hectare sugarcane nursery. They say they will provide all of the technology and the inputs for the sugarcane. They will mostly lease land from farmers for their sugarcane plantation, but they also have an option for farmers to do contract growing.

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