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 sugar mill 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, sugarcane trash could be used in most of the high pressure boiler designs in a considerable proportion along with bagasse.
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 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.
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 is the renewable fuel of today and future for the Indian sugar mills.