Riopaila Castilla, Columbia’s largest sugar producer by market share (20%), recently announced that its board of directors approved a proposal that would allow the company to build a 35-megawatt biomass cogeneration plant at a cost of around $48 million.
The facility, to be powered by a fibrous sugar cane processing byproduct called bagasse, will be built in Zarzal, a town of about 50,000 in the western part of the country known for its sugar operations and access to expansive cane fields. It is expected to be operational sometime in 2014.
News of the project comes at a time when Columbia is pushing to develop renewables like biomass and biofuels.
Sugar figures prominently into that pursuit. And the fertile, cane-rich plains of the Valle del Cauca region stand at the center of it all. Following neighboring Brazil’s lead, the Columbian government has stepped up efforts to capitalize on its sugar resources—it currently mandates that all gasoline contains at least 8% ethanol.
The South American nation’s ethanol industry is expanding fast but still emerging. Although it only produces about 100 million gallons annually (far less than the leading producers, the U.S. and Brazil), increasing numbers of sugar cane plantations are focusing solely on growing feedstock for refiners in the business of ethanol production.
They are not alone. Ecopetrol, Colombia’s largest oil and gas company, has said it will invest $516 million by 2020 in sugar-cane ethanol and palm oil biodiesel (in recent years, many ex-coca farmers have swapped the illicit cocaine-derivative coca leaf crop for palm)