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Sugarcane: California's triple threat?Sugarcane: California's triple threat?

Harry Cline 1

June 20, 2001

6 Min Read

When Paul Sebesta, wheat breeder and superintendent of University of California’s Desert Research and Extension Center in El Centro, Calif., began looking into the possibility of cane providing another raw product for the Imperial Valley Holly sugar beet processing plant four years ago, he had no idea sugar would soon be relegated an almost secondary focus of his research.

Today sugar is for all practical purposes No. 3 on Sebesta’s list of reasons to continue desert sugarcane research. Energy sources are No. 1 and No. 2. California’s electrical and gas energy crises and high fuel prices have given Sebesta’s research even greater impetus.

There are less than 200 acres of cane growing in the Imperial Valley this year. However, Sebesta believes there is a potential for 20,000 to 45,000 acres in the desert and even more elsewhere in California. "There is a lot of interest from growers in sugarcane for a variety of reason. One is its potential as a source of co-generation material and another is a possible source for ethanol production. Another is they are looking for an alternative to alfalfa," said Sebesta.

"What we are looking at is the idea of growing cane for a low cost source of sugar; its fibrous byproduct bagasse for ethanol production and the crop residue to generate electricity — and do it all in one location," said Sebesta. Plus, cane byproducts can also be compressed into building material and used for making paper.

The idea has captured the attention of the California Energy Commission, according to the UC researcher.

It has also attracted the attention of cane processors in Florida and Louisiana, even to the point that a custom harvester brought equipment to Imperial Valley last fall to gather cane.

"We commercially harvested 11 varieties, and they averaged 64 tons per acre with an average sugar yield of 20,000 pounds of sugar per acre," said Sebesta. Yields in Florida, Texas and Louisiana are 30 to 40 tons of raw product per acre, according to Sebesta. Much of that is production is non-irrigated.

Left in the field was an average of 25 tons of dry leaves and tops that could be used for co-generation. Unlike cane production in Hawaii and elsewhere, Sebesta said there would be no pre-harvest field burning because of California’s strict air quality laws.

"We know the idea of co-generation is feasible because there are several Florida sugar mills generating electricity from crop residue," Sebesta said.

It takes 14 months to produce a sugarcane crop in the Imperial Valley. Planted in September on 60-inch wide beds, the cane is mechanically harvested the following November.

Unfortunately, cane is a heavy water user, much like alfalfa. It takes about six acre feet to grow a crop under flood irrigation in the desert. However, Sebesta has a drip irrigation research trial under way and the Imperial Valley Water District and Western Farm Service are collecting water use data to try to reduce water use. Drip has long been used to irrigate sugarcane in Hawaii.

Unlike alfalfa, which has a single market outlet as forage for cattle or horses, cane has more uses as an energy crop, sugar crop and its byproducts have value, as well, said Sebesta that gives greater value to the water used to produce it compared to alfalfa.

Sugarcane has its pests, mostly borer type insects, but Sebesta said there are insect-resistant varieties available. With a canopy closing quickly, weeds are not a major problem. "There is not a lot of tractor work involved with sugarcane," said Sebesta.

Sebesta believes sugarcane also has potential elsewhere in California. "My goal is to look at it at other research locations in the state," said Sebesta. He may get a lot of invitations because of the energy potential of the crop has quickly been increased.

California’s electricity and natural gas crises are well-documented. And now a gasoline/diesel crisis is looming with the federal government’s recent decision to deny California’s request for a waiver to stop using the oxygenate MTBA or any oxygenate in gasoline required as part of the federal air regulations.

MTBE was scheduled to be banned in California at the end of 2002 because it has been found to be polluting groundwater. California is one of 11 states that have ordered MTBE banned. The substitute for MTBE is ethanol.

About two billion gallons of ethanol are produced annually, mostly in the Midwest from corn. That production is expected to reach 3.5 million gallons by 2003. This expansion is being fueled by state and federal tax breaks for ethanol production and use.

According to a recent article in The Wichita Eagle, ethanol plants are springing up throughout Kansas, turning not only corn but grain sorghum and wheat into ethanol.

Ethanol demand in California when MTBE is banned has been projected to be from 580 million to 1.5 billion gallons annually. Some believe ethanol producers cannot meet that demand, even with expanded production. This does not take into account the ethanol to meet demands in other states banning MTBE.

The Renewable Fuels Association says the demand can be met because ethanol has twice the oxygen content of MTBE and refiners will need only half as much ethanol to meet the oxygen requirements.

This shortage fear is one reason California Gov. Gray Davis requested the waiver. After the Bush administration shunned California’s waiver request, Davis administration officials say they may have to lift the California MTBE ban to hold down gasoline prices brought on by ethanol shortages. Already, skyrocketing electricity and natural gas costs are hammering the state’s economy. A marked increase in fuel prices because of a shortage of ethanol is something Davis does not want.

California gasoline refiners claim they can meet new California clean air requirements without MBTE or ethanol or any other additive. This RFG III fuel supposedly runs cleaner than gasoline with ethanol, but that plea has fallen on deaf ears like Davis’ request for wholesale electricity cost caps.

Midwest farm groups lobbied the Bush administration to reject the waiver. American Farm Bureau lauded Bush’s decision. Midwest corn producers are licking their chops at the prospect of a huge new market opening up. It could drive up the prices not only for ethanol, but corn as well.

Sebesta counters by saying why not develop a home-grown ethanol industry to benefit California farmers using sugarcane, corn or other California grown feedstock for ethanol production. Sugar beets bagasse also can be used to produce ethanol.

One of California’s largest refiners, Tosco, has already stopped using MTBE and switched to ethanol. The result has been a measurable improvement in Lake Tahoe water quality, according to William Rukeyser, assistant secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

Ethanol is two-edged sword for California farmers. It could provide a source of added income from cane or other crops used to produce it, but any shortage would drive up the cost of all fuels, including diesel.

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