NOTE: Recently someone in the media found my website on Hawaii, including articles on sugar cane harvesting, etc., and asked, “What is Hawaiian sugar cane’s role in making ethanol or bio fuels for part or all of America? How does it differ from using corn based bio fuels? Which is best?” I sent the questions to Ted Vorfeld, an engineering consultant who knows the workings of the sugar cane industry better than most people. Here’s his response:
Compared to sugar cane or sugar beets, corn is a very poor source for making ethanol but there are vast areas of the US that grow corn and the federal and state subsidies are keeping corn-to-ethanol alive.
I’ve heard that there are other high starch crops being developed that are even better for ethanol than sugar cane or sugar beets.
Hawaii sugar cane is nearly extinct. Gay and Robinson stopped planting cane last year and will be totally out by end of this year. HC&S on Maui is having difficulties. Neither have produced ethanol from sugar although both have investigated it thoroughly. Hawaii’s high labor cost make growing sugar cane for ethanol or any other need non competitive with other foreign countries. Brazil has a very large government mandated sugar to ethanol program, but their labor costs are very low.
It has been my experience throughout the years that food for people is the highest value use for food crops, followed by food for animals followed by food crops for energy-so long as no government subsidies are involved.
If I were to guess, I would say that countries like Brazil, India, China and other low cost sugar producers will shift their surplus sugar to ethanol but gradually (as in Indonesia) a rising standard of living will consume more sugar in country until they have no surplus. Cane sugar in the tropical countries is highly politicized since it employs so many low income people.
With regard to other biofuels, the Hawaiian sugar industry has in the past been a major provider of electric energy to the local utilities using the residue of the cane for fuel for their boilers.
There is a lot of interest today in processes that turn cellulose from many sources into a diesel or ethanol fuel, but no plants on line in Hawaii as yet. The State of Hawaii has set high goals for energy independence using home grown resources but as yet no realistic plans have developed.