The island of Negros is not only distinguished as the country’s “sugar bowl” for producing half of the country’s sugar output, it is also at the forefront of producing biomass for power generation.
In its mills, sugar and renewable energy go hand in hand as bagasse, a sugarcane byproduct, is used to power equipment.
Negros has already been using biomass, or fuel from organic waste, for over a century. The island is home to 13 out of 29 mills operating in the country, giving it an enormous agricultural fleet that could easily supply bagasse to meet fuel demand.What is bagasse?
Bagasse, or the pulp from shredded sugarcane, contains cellulosic fibers with almost 50-percent moisture content. This gives bagasse a high heating value, making it a good source of fuel.
Bagasse is first fed to a boiler where it is burned to generate heat that will be used to produce high-temperate and high-pressure live steam. Mills and turbine generators use the energy produced in the process to manufacture all kinds of sugar, whether granulated, brown or white. Recent technologies have also allowed mills on the island to throw as little waste product as they can.
At Victorias Milling Corp. (VMC), one of the oldest refineries in the country that has been operating since the 1920s, this is called a “closed-loop production system.”
VMC president Minnie Chua shares that processing sugar comes with a lot of downstream products.
To reduce the company’s waste, it uses ethanol from molasses to make bioethanol fuel and rubbing alcohol, a business segment that lifted the company at the height of the pandemic, while bagasse is heated to generate the company’s electricity needs. Wastewater released from the sugar production is also treated and recycled back to the factory, while organic byproducts are returned to the field for use as fertilizer.
“Using this business sustainability model, we have seen rapid growth across our areas of business with increased sugar, alcohol and power production and efficiency of our operations,”
—VMC president Minnie Chua
VMC owns the biggest biomass plant in the Philippines today. Located in Victorias City, Negros Occidental, the plant’s four units have a combined capacity of 63 megawatts.
Generating electricity from agricultural waste is not an easy feat and requires a huge investment. VMC roughly spent P2 billion for a 40-MW unit.
But as with any worthwhile enterprise, the gains can be quite exponential.
In 2016, global investment firm Thomas Lloyd opened a P16-billion loan facility for three projects that generate power from sugarcane waste. These BioPower plants with a combined capacity of 70 MW can convert over 600,000 tons of feedstock all year round.
One of the units, San Carlos BioPower, is the first plant in the world to purely run on sugarcane waste and the first to solve the logistical collection problem of sugarcane leaves. The other plants—North Negros BioPower and South Negros BioPower—are also in the process of growing their capacity.
The plants failed to connect to the grid upon completion in 2019 after National Grid Corporation raised the issue of congested lines. After appealing their case to regulators, the BioPower units are now preparing to connect to the national grid by the end of the year while expanding Negros’ green footprint.
“For over a century, sugarcane leaves are burned. This does not only violate the law but also adds to global warming.Through our plants, we are now advocating the use of these leaves to generate power. We are the proof that it can be done, and we are proud to say that other countries like Australia are looking at us to replicate our model.”
—BioPower president Arthur Aguilar, former president of VMC
Besides fuel for their mills, industry players can have an alternative income stream if they sell excess power to distribution utilities, electric cooperatives, power companies, aggregators and other customers.
This sustainable blueprint is not unique to the companies mentioned, as it is also being followed by other large refineries in Negros including Universal Robina Corp.’s SONEDCO sugar mill in Kabankalan and Binalbagan Isabela Sugar Company, Inc.Several others are now beginning to cash in on the use of biomass, but it remains a small sector in the energy industry, more so on the renewable energy side. The Sugar Regulatory Administration (SRA) said that only about 288 gigawatt hours were generated from biomass plants in 2010—just 0.42 percent of the country’s total.
Nonetheless, the SRA wants industry players to see biomass power generation as the future of the industry. In a development roadmap, the SRA stresses sugar is not just the industry’s primary product anymore.
“[The] industry now looks at sugarcane as its main product. Sugarcane can produce many other products, not only sugar. For the Philippines, we want to start the diversification towards the logical products of ethanol and power,” it said. A lot of sugar companies are already increasing their capacity to produce and utilize renewable energy not just to boost their financial health but as an answer to the climate crisis. Agriculture, being the main source of methane and nitrous oxide, produces 25 percent of the world’s human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.
The use of bagasse for power makes economic sense for Negros given its economic reliance on sugar, but it is not the only byproduct that can be transformed to fuel. Sugarcane is only one of several agricultural commodities in the country that could generate biomass.
With almost half of the country’s agricultural landholdings dedicated to rice, coconut and tropical fruits that yield large volumes of rice straw, husks and other wastes, the potential for biomass power plants in the country is boundless.
In Isabela, rice farmers and millers are beginning to warm up to the idea of renewable energy. Isabela Biomass Energy Corp., established by a consortium of rice millers in 2015, operates a 20-MW power plant that uses rice husks as its primary energy source.
Regardless of how one does the math, renewable energy sources like biomass are geared to be one of the most attractive ways for agricultural companies to make profit and trim losses, as farm byproducts that are often discarded or thrown can be repurposed.
With the right legal framework and government support, biomass players are optimistic of their prospects.
This story was first published in the August 27, 2021 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Road to Clean Energy special report.