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Power company to produce ethanol from sugarcane in Imperial Valley

When you think of alternative energy sources, the first thing that may pop in your head is the sun's rays or natural wind. How about sugarcane?

A company in the Imperial Valley is betting on a technique -- used in South American -- to create a reusable energy source, and is building a plant to do so.

California Ethanol & Power LLC's plan to use sugarcane as an alternative way to create ethanol comes from Brazil, where the company's Chief Operating Officer David R. Rubenstein said the concept has been around for roughly 20 years.

"We are taking this model, but also improving on it," he said.

The company got started in 2007 and since then has been preparing to open its plant and headquarters where all the sugar, energy and technology will take place.

California Ethanol & Power will break ground in 2010 on a facility to convert sugarcane to ethanol.

California Ethanol & Power will use mature sugarcane, cutting the stalks an inch or two above the roots. The remaining roots are then regrown to maturity in another nine months, at which point the stalk can be harvested again.

"Each acre of mature sugarcane yields enough seed sugarcane to plant up to six acres of new sugarcane growth," Rubenstein said.

At the company's plant, the sugarcane will be opened up and compressed to extract 97 percent of the juice.

The extracted juice goes through treatment, fermentation and distillation to produce ethanol, with carbon dioxide as a co-product. The 3 percent leftovers of the sugarcane will be used to produce steam for plant operations and will also generate a "substantial" amount of electricity for internal use and sale back to the California electrical grid, according to Rubenstein.

In addition, the tops and leaves of the sugarcane plants may be used as forage or additional energy production like fertilizer.

During the past two years, California Ethanol & Power has been acquiring land and permits to start up the company and the plant.

The company grew 100 acres of sugarcane last year and by the end of 2009 it will have grown another 500 acres. Rubenstein said the company is looking to purchase somewhere around 120-200 acres to produce roughly 50,000 acres of sugarcane needed to start the first production of ethanol.

When the plant is at full power, it can produce about 66 million gallons of ethanol.

"The Imperial Valley is one of the best places to grow sugarcane (to produce ethanol) because of clear sunny skies almost every day, the proximity of water canals and the easy access by truck to the California and Arizona ethanol markets," Rubenstein explained.

The plant will be centralized a few miles southwest of Brawly, and the company hopes to break ground on it by the fourth quarter of 2010, with the plant ready to start production in April 2012.

It is estimated that the entire California Ethanol & Power venture will cost $570 million, with $365 million going toward the construction of the plant, $60 million in agricultural land acquisition and the rest going to other administrative and startup costs.

The plant will be constructed by Fagen Inc., which has built more than 60 percent of U.S. ethanol production capacity, according to Rubenstein. Fagen also will provide operations and maintenance services for the facility.

Another player on the project will be Dedini Industrias de Base. The Brazilian firm will provide sugarcane-to-ethanol and bagasse-to-electricity expertise in the form of specialty process engineering and design services, as well as the supply of selected major equipment components.

"Dedini Industrias are responsible for 80 percent of Brazilian ethanol production and about 25 percent of the world's production," Rubenstein said.

The plant is anticipated to create about 1,000 construction jobs and around 350 permanent jobs inside the facility.

Rubenstein added that the company also plans to build another four plants in and around the Imperial Valley, including one in Blythe.

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