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EU regulations can benefit bioethanol production in South Africa

European Union (EU) regulations that are supportive of bioethanol use will provide an opportunity for South Africa in terms of the production of ethanol fuels through various manufacturing methods.

South Africa produces just over 400-million litres of ethanol a year, of which 180-million is used for potable purposes and traded within Africa at a good price, but it does not have a “very vibrant” ethanol sector yet, largely owing to the country’s unsupportive regulatory framework.

In addition to this, EcoSasa Developments director Annie Sugrue laments that there delays in the policy development process, restrictions on feedstocks, price volatility, uncertainties, as well as insufficient incentives have impacted on this small industry.

However, new EU regulations – which aim to see the region reaching complete climate neutrality by 2050 – set a target of 32% renewable energy use by 2030, 14% of which must come from transport, including aviation, and the region is, therefore, looking to import larger quantities of bioethanol as an alternative, and cleaner, fuel source.

With 55% climate neutrality in the region expected by 2030, the EU will need 100 advanced bioethanol manufacturing plants with the capacity to produce 200-million litres a year. While capacity is being developed, Sugrue says the region still “has a long way to go”.

Considering that bioethanol production in South Africa is limited (the fuel source is currently largely being produced through sugarcane and sorghum), Stellenbosch University Department of Process Engineering professor Johann Gorgens suggests that South Africa’s least expensive option would be to consider producing ethanol fuels from triticale starch.

An internal return rate of 20% is needed to make this a viable investment opportunity, he says, but based on a study by Gorgens' department, triticale starch is anticipated to produce ethanol at a cost of about $0.43/ℓ.

Production from sugar molasses will cost about $0.55/ℓ, similar to that of hydrolysis-fermentation of paper waste sludge (PWS), which will cost about $0.57/ℓ to produce.

However, these options will see the sugarcane remaining largely energy self-sufficient, compared with triticale and PWS, which will need external energy and will experience volatilities in feedstock and co-product prices.

PWS is viable, Gorgens suggests, despite a small production scale, as it is an attempt to avoid disposal and having the waste transported to landfill waste sites.

He explains that triticale grain is considered an unconventional feedstock, but that it has the ability to produce up to 400-million litres of ethanol a year, while PWS will produce about 200-million litres a year.

Meanwhile, invasive alien plants (IAP) as biowaste from which to produce ethanol can produce up to one-billion litres of ethanol a year. The use IAPs is also a large and underused source of lignocellulose, he adds.

Lignocellulose hydrolysis-fermentation via sugarcane ($0.63/ℓ) will be cheaper than IAPs (at between $0.71/ℓ and $1.14/ℓ), and off-gas fermentation (between $0.66/ℓ and $0.90/ℓ) will be dependent on yield supply of renewable electricity, and will have low processing costs but also low yields, he explains.

South Africa’s sugarcane industry, meanwhile, already produces about 400-million litres of ethanol a year, but Gorgens notes that there is an opportunity to harvest the residues to expand bioethanol production, leading to about one-billion litres of additional ethanol production.

Additionally, Sugrue suggests that South Africa’s emphasis on socioeconomic imperatives and sustainability requirements provides an opportunity for the country, as its Biofuel Regulatory Framework introduces the potential for subsidies for farmer support and manufacturers.

This is in line with the EU’s policy mandates, where there is an emphasis on social issues and decarbonisation, she says.

South Africa also intends to grow the sugarcane industry through the Sugar Masterplan, with bioethanol and aviation fuel key diversification strategies for the sugar sector.

The demand for aviation fuel, for example, could be up 1.8-billion litres, Sugrue says.

Further, she points out that advanced bioethanol (as well as those from other origins) has a significant potential for export to the EU as it is a more sustainable fuel and requires no land expansion, while simultaneously expanding value chains from waste as part of the bioeconomy.

Ownership of the supply chain from farmer to mill will mean optimal benefits when regulations are in place and sustainable aviation fuel will require a local partner, Sugrue adds, noting that other opportunities for the country lie in bioplastics, biomaterials and furfanol.

Gorgens and Sugrue both presented during a virtual bioethanol-focused media roundtable event on June 9.