Sugarcane Trash – A Wonderful Resource that Indian Sugar Industry is Wasting

In Indian sugar mills, the frequent cycles of ups and downs in the core business of selling sugar has led to the concentration towards the trend of ancillary businesses, like cogeneration power plant and ethanol production, becoming the profit centres. These units, which were introduced as a means to manage sugar mills’ own byproduct, like bagasse, are now keeping several sugar mills financially afloat. Thus, the concept of ‘Integrated Sugar Mill Complex’ has now become a new normal.

Limitations of Bagasse

Bagasse is a ubiquitous primary fuel in cogeneration plants in sugar mills, which adds more than 2,000 MW of renewable power to the Indian energy mix. The inclination of cogeneration plant managers towards bagasse is primarily because of its virtue of being easily available on-site, and no requirement to purchase it from the external market.

This remains true despite its several significant shortcomings as a boiler fuel, prime among which are very high moisture content and low calorific value. As a result, the fuel-to-energy ratio remains abysmally low and the consequent lesser power generation is depriving these sugar mills from achieving true revenue potential from their ancillary power business vertical, which is pegged at ~10,000 MW.

Sugarcane Trash – A Wonder Waste

Though, there is a much neglected high calorific value biomass which is available in proximity of every sugarmill and is also a residue of the sugarcane crop itself, which could enable the cogeneration units to achieve their maximum output potential. This wonder waste is sugarcane trash the dry leaves of sugarcane crop – which is left in the farms itself after sugarcane harvesting as it has no utility as fodder and generally burnt by farmers, which harms the surrounding air quality substantially.

Given its favourable properties of having very low moisture content with moderate-to-high calorific value, it could be used in most of the high pressure boiler designs in a considerable proportion along with bagasse.

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Undeniably, sugar mills should not discontinue using bagasse as the primary fuel, but surely complement it with sugarcane trash as it would lead to an increase in their revenue generation and would also allow them to expand operations of their cogeneration plant to off-season, as using sugarcane trash with bagasse in season would leave more bagasse for off season usage.

Hurdles to Overcome

Despite these evident benefits, the major obstacle in development of sugarcane trash as an industrial boiler fuel has been its difficult collection from thousands of small and fragmented farms. Moreover, the trash becomes available and needs to be collected simultaneously during the operating season of the sugar mills, which makes deployment of resources, human or otherwise, for managing the procurement of trash very difficult for any sugar mill.

As a matter of fact, the sugar mills which initiated the pilots, or even scaled commercially, to utilise sugarcane trash along with bagasse, had to sooner or later discontinue its use, owing to the mammoth challenges discussed above.

The Way Forward

Thus, in order to utilise this wonder waste, there is a dire need to outsource its procurement to professional and organised players, like RY Energies and others, which establish the biomass supply chain infrastructure in the vicinity of the cogeneration units to make on-site availability of sugarcane trash as convenient as bagasse and enable them to procure the rich quality biomass at sustainable prices which leads to an increase in their profits.

sugarcane-trash-burning

Burning of cane trash creates pollution in sugar-producing countries

These biomass supply chain companies offer value to the farmers by processing their crop residues in timely manner, thus prevent open burning of the crop residue and contribute to a greener and cleaner environment.

Indeed, owing to its favourable fuel properties, positive environmental impact and now, with ease in its procurement, sugarcane trash biomass is the fuel of today and future for the Indian sugar mills.

Cogeneration of Bagasse

Cogeneration of bagasse is one of the most attractive and successful energy projects that have already been demonstrated in many sugarcane producing countries such as Mauritius, Reunion Island, India and Brazil. Combined heat and power from sugarcane in the form of power generation offers renewable energy options that promote sustainable development, take advantage of domestic resources, increase profitability and competitiveness in the industry, and cost-effectively address climate mitigation and other environmental goals.

According to World Alliance for Decentralized Energy (WADE) report on Bagasse Cogeneration, bagasse-based cogeneration could deliver up to 25% of current power demand requirements in the world’s main cane producing countries. The overall potential share in the world’s major developing country producers exceeds 7%. There is abundant opportunity for the wider use of bagasse-based cogeneration in sugarcane-producing countries. It is especially great in the world’s main cane producing countries like Brazil, India, Thailand, Pakistan, Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Philippines and Vietnam. Yet this potential remains by and large unexploited.

Using bagasse to generate power represents an opportunity to generate significant revenue through the sale of electricity and carbon credits. Additionally, cogeneration of heat and power allows sugar producers to meet their internal energy requirements and drastically reduce their operational costs, in many cases by as much as 25%. Burning bagasse also removes a waste product through its use as a feedstock for the electrical generators and steam turbines.

Most sugarcane mills around the globe have achieved energy self-sufficiency for the manufacture of raw sugar and can also generate a small amount of exportable electricity. However, using traditional equipment such as low-pressure boilers and counter-pressure turbo alternators, the level and reliability of electricity production is not sufficient to change the energy balance and attract interest for export to the electric power grid.

On the other hand, revamping the boiler house of sugar mills with high pressure boilers and condensing extraction steam turbine can substantially increase the level of exportable electricity. This experience has been witnessed in Mauritius, where, following major changes in the processing configurations, the exportable electricity from its sugar factory increased from around 30-40 kWh to around 100–140 kWh per ton cane crushed. In Brazil, the world’s largest cane producer, most of the sugar mills are upgrading their boiler configurations to 42 bars or even higher pressure of up to 67 bars.

Technology Options

The prime technology for sugar mill cogeneration is the conventional steam-Rankine cycle design for conversion of fuel into electricity. A combination of stored and fresh bagasse is usually fed to a specially designed furnace to generate steam in a boiler at typical pressures and temperatures of usually more than 40 bars and 440°C respectively. The high pressure steam is then expanded either in a back pressure or single extraction back pressure or single extraction condensing or double extraction cum condensing type turbo generator operating at similar inlet steam conditions.

Due to high pressure and temperature, as well as extraction and condensing modes of the turbine, higher quantum of power gets generated in the turbine–generator set, over and above the power required for sugar process, other by-products, and cogeneration plant auxiliaries. The excess power generated in the turbine generator set is then stepped up to extra high voltage of 66/110/220 kV, depending on the nearby substation configuration and fed into the nearby utility grid. As the sugar industry operates seasonally, the boilers are normally designed for multi-fuel operations, so as to utilize mill bagasse, procured Bagasse/biomass, coal and fossil fuel, so as to ensure year round operation of the power plant for export to the grid.

Latest Trends

Modern power plants use higher pressures, up to 87 bars or more. The higher pressure normally generates more power with the same quantity of Bagasse or biomass fuel. Thus, a higher pressure and temperature configuration is a key in increasing exportable surplus electricity.

In general, 67 bars pressure and 495°C temperature configurations for sugar mill cogeneration plants are well-established in many sugar mills in India. Extra high pressure at 87 bars and 510°C, configuration comparable to those in Mauritius, is the current trend and there are about several projects commissioned and operating in India and Brazil. The average increase of power export from 40 bars to 60 bars to 80 bars stages is usually in the range of 7-10%.

A promising alternative to steam turbines are gas turbines fuelled by gas produced by thermochemical conversion of biomass. The exhaust is used to raise steam in heat recovery systems used in any of the following ways: heating process needs in a cogeneration system, for injecting back into gas turbine to raise power output and efficiency in a steam-injected gas turbine cycle (STIG) or expanding through a steam turbine to boost power output and efficiency in a gas turbine/steam turbine combined cycle (GTCC). Gas turbines, unlike steam turbines, are characterized by lower unit capital costs at modest scale, and the most efficient cycles are considerably more efficient than comparably sized steam turbines.