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IID looking into sugar cane crop as energy source

April 12, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

With the idea that sugar cane could become not only a new crop in the Imperial Valley but a renewable energy source, the Imperial Irrigation District board approved spending $60,000 on sugar cane research.

That money will go to the University of California Desert Research & Extension Center, which has been working with local farmers to study whether sugar cane can be a viable crop here.

Studies show sugar cane can become a success in the Valley, according to Paul Sebesta, director of the desert research center near Holtville.

In a presentation to the IID board Tuesday, Sebesta said sugar cane could do more for the Valley than be a new crop.

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He said unlike other areas in the United States where sugar cane fields are burned to prepare for the next season, all aspects of the sugar cane stalk would be used here and burning would not be done here.

He said portions of the stalk could be sold as feed for livestock. Residue from the cane could be used as a power source and source of ethanol.

Sebesta said his goal is to see a facility built near the Holly Sugar plant near Brawley that could work in "synergy" with Holly Sugar, which produces sugar from the Imperial Valley sugar beets.

He said Holly Sugar could produce sugar from a local sugar cane crop and a plant built near Holly could produce electricity and ethanol.

He said such a facility could create as many as 350 jobs.

Sebesta laid out a timeline for the board, stating by 2004 he would like to see a plant built that would produce power and ethanol from sugar cane. The ethanol would serve as a fuel additive.

Construction on such a project would start in 2003, according to the timeline Sebesta offered.

Sebesta estimated it could cost up to $150 million to build such a facility. He said the funding for the construction of such a plant would come from the private sector.

"Typically in these kinds of projects there are a number of people who come to the table bringing various contributions to the overall project," Sebesta said this morning.

He thanked IID for its contribution to the sugar cane research.

IID's funding, which equates to $20,000 a year over the next three years, came after the Imperial County Board of Supervisors approved spending $15,000 a year over three years for the research.

Sebesta said that money, along with $285,000 from the UC system — which will spend an additional $140,000 in the next fiscal year — will lead to a selection of a variety of sugar cane that can grow best in the Imperial Valley. Holly Sugar and local farmers also have contributed money to the research.

As plans move forward on building a renewable energy and ethanol plant, acreage of sugar cane will steadily increase as it becomes a commercial crop for the Valley.

Sebesta said the sugar cane project can succeed.

"It just takes a concerted effort and a dedicated effort," he said. "We need to decide that this is something we should be doing."

IID directors agreed, stating Tuesday they are pleased to see such an effort moving forward.

They said the project to raise sugar cane and build a renewable energy and ethanol plant could spur economic growth.

They said it could boost agriculture, increase jobs and provide a new revenue source.

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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