Biomass projects developing in shadow of energy reform

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Mexico’s 2014 energy industry reform generated a great deal of interest among foreign energy companies eager to participate in the the newly opened sector. Although most of the media coverage has focused on oil exploration and extraction, proponents of non-fossil-based fuels are hoping that the regulatory changes will spur growth in renewables as well.

In 2012, Mexico became one of the first countries to pass a national climate change law, setting ambitious targets for emissions reductions by 2020. Despite the legal directives, renewable energy development has been largely slow to galvanize, with most new investment channeled into wind power. While media coverage has focused on high cost mega-projects such as wind farms in the south and a small number of large scale solar plants in the north, proponents of biomass energy are working hard to develop some important new projects in this area.

One case of biomass-based fuels grabbing media attention is the announcement earlier this year by state-run oil and gas monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) that it plans to begin producing gasoline mixed with ethanol for sale at its network of gas stations. Under the plan, ethanol for the new fuel will be produced from locally sourced sugar cane and sorghum. The company has made false starts in this direction in the past, however contracts to supply the bio-ethanol reportedly have already been awarded.

In the food and agriculture sector, an industrial producer of corn dough and tortillas in the western state of Michoacán reportedly has implemented a system that uses decomposing nopal cactus to produce biogas used to fuel a cogeneration electricity plant. The nopal biodigestors currently produce 800 cubic meters of biogas per day, the company reports.

Supporters of biomass energy in Mexico have long sought to take advantage of the country’s sugar industry to develop projects, and initiatives in this area appear to be taking shape. The San Rafael de Pucté sugar refinery in the southeastern state of Quintana Roo, for example, is reportedly building an electricity cogeneration plant that will use sugar cane bagasse as feedstock to power steam turbines. The organic byproducts will replace fuel oil currently used to run the operation’s generators. In the eastern Gulf coast state of Veracruz, the Ingenio Tres Valles sugar refinery is already operating an electricity generation plant fueled by sugar cane bagasse. The system uses a 40Mw turbogenerator and produces enough power to run the refinery and deliver surplus electricity into the national grid, according to reports on the project.

In recent years, numerous methane recovery projects have been proposed although many have struggled to come to fruition. One such project that has come on line following repeated setbacks is the electricity generation facility at the landfill of the municipality of Atizapán, just outside the limits of Mexico City. The plant was launched with an estimated capacity of 0.6 Mw per day fueled by methane from the site, with plans to ramp up capacity to 6 Mw per day. A much larger methane recovery operation has been proposed for the new international airport in development for Mexico City, which would draw on an enormous landfill adjacent to the new airport site. The federal government has included such a power plant in plans for the airport however details have not yet been provided. Considering the vast scale of the airport, designed by London-based Foster + Partners, a biomass fueled power plant at the site would surely provide a major boost for the technology in Mexico.

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