Can the green fuel economy save us?

If the entire Lowveld was to provide Zimbabwe with green fuel and all the by-products, the nation could make significant savings on its national import bill and create the much-needed employment to help local communities, writes CLEMENCE MACHADU.

Chisumbanje ethanol plant
Chisumbanje ethanol plant

Although Zimbabwe is acting as if ethanol production and blending is a new thing, the innovation has been with us for decades. Zimbabwe actually pioneered the production of fuel ethanol for blending with petrol in Africa, more than three decades ago. The Chisumbanje ethanol project is, therefore, nothing new.

I was privileged to grow up in the Lowveld areas, where ethanol production was pioneered. Triangle Limited mooted the idea to produce ethanol in 1975, and the ethanol distillery was built in 1978.

The plant was built at a capital cost of US$6.4 million (at 1980 prices), which is said to be the lowest capital cost per litre for any ethanol plant in the world.

Production of ethanol began in 1980 and the plant was producing 120,000 litres of ethanol per day. Initially the blending ratio of E15 (15 percent ethanol and 85 percent petrol) was used, but the ratio later fell to E12 due to increased consumption.

By 1983, we produced 40 million litres of ethanol, and it was costing between US$0.35 and US$0.40 per litre, as compared to the landed cost of petrol in Harare of $US0.50 per litre.

During that time, an average tonne of sugar cane would give 125kg of sugar and 7.5 litres of ethanol. In the following years, the need to supply the increasing demand for domestic sugar limited the output of ethanol when the cane harvest was low.

Ethanol production was also reducing the amount of sugar available for export, thereby reducing foreign exchange earnings.

The 1987 drought reduced ethanol production to 37 million litres.

Production was, however, brought to a halt by the severe 1992 drought, when cane production fell to only two tonnes per hectare, leading to massive job losses. I remember how the cane fields turned into children’s playgrounds around 1993.

Almost two decades down the line, ethanol production resumed in 2009, at Triangle, after installation of a dehydration plant. About 27 million litres are being produced per annum, the bulk of which is exported to South Africa.

At the time of resumption of ethanol production, Tongaat Hullet argued that ‘’clarity on the Zimbabwean blending policy is still required to facilitate sales of fuel grade ethanol in the local market.’’ The Chisumbanje Ethanol Project has now stolen all the thunder on the subject of ethanol production, overshadowing the Triangle plant and its long history in that game. Part of the reason could be that the US$600 million ethanol plant in Chisumbanje is the first large-scale ethanol factory manufacturing anhydrous ethanol from sugar cane in Africa.

The Chisumbanje Ethanol Project is going to change the way we look at fuel consumption in Zimbabwe, especially with the introduction of mandatory blending. The question many would want to know is the impact of mandatory fuel blending on our economy. Fuel is currently our biggest import, amounting to about US$2 billion per annum.

The Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA) said the current mandatory blending at E10 will see the country saving US$4 million per month. Government indicated that it would increase the mandatory blending to E15 in November, a ratio which is believed to result in annual savings of US$180 million per annum. Government plans to reach a mandatory blending of E20 by March 2014, which implies even more savings. Other countries like Brazil are already on a mandatory blending of E24.

The main benefit of fuel blending is that it reduces our dependence on foreign oil and increases the nation’s energy independence. High dependence on foreign petroleum supplies puts Zimbabwe at risks of trade deficits, supply disruptions and price changes.

That would reduce dependency on foreign fuel imports and vaccinate the nation against unstable price rises. Oil prices rose by 150 percent over the past decade, from US$40 per barrel in 2003 to more than US$100 per barrel. Blending can therefore make us less vulnerable to these external shocks.

Ethanol is good for the environment as it produces lower carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions and it also improves fuel octane. E10 reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 12 to 19 percent.

However, the good thing about a mandatory blending of E15 is that it will see Chisumbanje Ethanol Project being able to generate electricity from bagasse (a cane by-product) amounting to 18 megawatts — sufficient to power about 30,000 households.

When the project reaches its peak, it would generate 50 megawatts of electricity, capable of powering about 90,000 households. This would help reduce the energy deficit woes we currently face.

Further, the project was expected to create about 10,000 jobs – making ethanol production one of the single largest job creation ventures in recent years. The Chisumbanje community was set to benefit, as 10 percent of the project’s land, or 4,000 hectares, was allocated to individual farmers to try out cane farming. A number of downstream industries — including fertiliser manufacture, the cosmetics industry, explosives and beverage makers are also likely to benefit from the venture.

Post published in: Business

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