PERC intern Johanna was inspired to write this article while visiting the island of Guadaloupe in the French Carribean, and witnessing all of it’s sustainable energy infrastructure.
In 1983, Hubert was sixteen years old and was pulled out of school to work full time on his family’s sugar cane plantation. Every morning he would wake up at 4 am along with his brothers and dad, and together they would head out to the fields with their “coupe coupe’s” (machetes). They would cut the sugar cane stocks by hand, one by one, perfecting a clean cut free of leaves and straw. Hubert would cut two rows at a time, and beside him, his dad would cut the adjacent two rows. Together they would throw the cut cane behind them in the center row. His mom would follow them and bundle the sugar cane typically in bundles of about fifteen stalks.
At around 11 am, Hubert and his brothers would stop cutting sugar cane and take a break to have lunch. They would gather rocks and some wood and make a little fire in the field and cook some of their harvested vegetables from their mom’s garden. At around noon, the tractor would enter the roadway of the sugar cane fields; their plantation was among many other neighbors’ sugar cane farms as well. The boys would wait to see which farm the tractor would choose to go to first. If it weren’t theirs, they would stay eating and resting- if it were them, they would get up and run so that the tractor wouldn’t miss their turn.
They would follow the tractor through the rows they cut and throw in the bundles their mom compiled. To load the 18-20 tonne tractor would take about 2 hours, and then they’d help their neighbors out. On the days where it was too rainy, the tractor could not come into the fields. Instead, they would harness their taurau’s (bulls) to a wagon and guide them through the sugar cane fields. They would fill the cart with the cane and then meet the tractor on the road and transfer the sugar cane from the bull’s wagon to the tractor and avoid getting the tractor stuck. At the time, you could also drop off your sugar cane loads pulled by bulls directly to the mill.
The sugar cane they grew and harvested was very rich; their rich-ness level quantified between 10-12. Every “quinzaine” (15 days), they were paid by the weight of the tractor and the richness of the sugar cane. Hubert’s family worked in sequence with the Gardel mill that opened in 1870, a local sugar cane mill in Guadeloupe that processes sugar cane. This is a story familiar to many families in Guadeloupe.
“The ancestral movements of processing sugar cane by hand has the precision of a well-known ritual.” -Damoiseau Distillery
Today Gardel is recognized as a symbolic icon in the identity of the Guadeloupean Nation. They create the famous Gardel Sugar, which is available in all restaurants, grocery stores, and markets sourced from there “local treasure”.
In order to process the sugar cane, after it is harvested and delivered to the mill, the billets are fed into large units and then crushed by a series of rollers which produce three primary bi-products:
- Sugar Juice which is used to create raw and later refined sugar
- Bagasse a fibrous left-over material used to develop renewable energy and electricity
- Molasses which is used to produce bio-ethanol fuel (an alternative to petrol)
Gardel produces over 50 000 tonnes of sugar cane each year. During the harvest season daily, Gardel processes 4500 tonnes of cane. For every 3 tonnes of sugar cane processed, about 1 tonne of bagasse (biomass) is produced.
The Gardel mill continues to modernize and revolutionize its relationship with the harvesting of sugar cane and is becoming a leader in eco-responsible mills. Gardel is the first European mill to be ISO 50001 certified.
ISO 50001 is an International Framework for the supply, use, and consumption of energy in industrial operations such as Gardel. Through this certification, Gardel follows an Energy Management System (EnMS) that helps the organization establish sustainable processes to improve energy performance, reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and lower energy costs. One of their highlights is that they have created a system where they use all bi-products of the sugar cane and do not generate any organic waste.
In Guadeloupe, Albioma is an organization that operates a Thermal Biomass Power Plant, which supplies 31% of the electricity available to the grid. In 1998 Gardel partnered with the corporation Albioma to begin working within a circular economy model. Gardel provides Albioma with bagasse (an otherwise wasted product), and in return, they are supplied with renewable electricity to power their mill in a sustainable manner; the remaining energy is distributed to the grid. Together, Albioma and Gardel contribute to the energy autonomy of Guadeloupe, a territory not connected to mainland networks by producing electricity from local biomass (Albioma also has various other photovoltaic solar energy plants).
The combustion of bagasse organic matter generates electricity. It is burned at such high temperatures that minimal particles are released into the air during energy production, making it a clean source of energy over traditional processes such as coal. Albioma’s climate plan is to phase out coal entirely and convert plants to all-biomass based operations. Every sugar cane crushing season bagasse biomass is an abundant resource that is still under-recognized, and so this is possible. The potential for biomass energy production is still only beginning to gain traction.
Sugar cane also has the potential to produce ethanol which is a renewable biomass fuel. Guadeloupe has not yet tapped into this market however in Canada farmers are becoming increasingly aware of this new market opportunity. In Canada, the local ethanol is obtained from the fermentation of sugar or converted starch contained in grains and other agricultural or agri-forest feedstocks; at the moment it is primarily from corn and wheat. Given Canada’s vast forest resources and agriculture croplands, the production of ethanol feedstocks can be supported.
The biomass used to make the ethanol absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows which lowers GHGs compared to fossil fuels such as gasoline. Some stations across Canada do have fuel-grade ethanol available such as participating Shell, Mobil, and Esso locations. Shell, for example, is one of the largest global biofuel blenders and distributors and they are always looking for more ways to invest in sustainable biofuels.
At the moment Shell has a joint venture with Cosan in Brazill called Raizen that demonstrates the opportunity for international collaborations to grow the bio-energy market. This joint venture is the leading manufacturer of sugarcane ethanol in Brazil and the largest individual sugar cane exporter in the global market. They produce one of the lowest CO2 emitting biofuels on the market today threw their sugar cane ethanol that reduces C02 emissions by 70% compared to petrol.
There is a growing demand for biofuel worldwide at a local and commercial scale as it is a competitive solution to fossil fuel. The development of a substantial ethanol industry in Canada or in Guadeloupe would create construction and operations jobs at ethanol production plants it would also help strengthen and diversify rural economies and allow a cleaner fuel source when pumping at gas stations.
Beyond sugar cane’s vast renewable energy capabilities it is also amazing for fueling the body!
Its richness in natural electrolytes and magnesium are excellent for fighting dehydration and replenishing protein levels within the body. Furthermore, its rich content in antioxidants fight infections and boost immunity. A glass of cold raw energy: sugar cane juice tastes incredible and is fantastic for your health and re-hydrating your personal energy levels. Perhaps in a few years, you and your car will be recharging with the same fuel!
ISO 50001: https://campaigns.sgs.com/en/certification/iso-50001-energy-management-system-solutions?gclid=Cj0KCQiAvc_xBRCYARIsAC5QT9lSnE-UUhdWhet4-qUPzlEKDRij2EwWZoWROgSrtLeB-_D3LPaAHqgaAvu0EALw_wcB
Sugar Cane Information: https://www.csrsugar.com.au/csr-sugar/about-sugar/
Bionenergy Canada: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/energy-sources-distribution/renewables/about-renewable-energy/7295#bio
Ethanol Information: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/energy/efficiency/energy-efficiency-transportation-and-alternative-fuels/alternative-fuels/biofuels/ethanol/3493