10, September, 2012

From Manual to Mechanical Harvesting: Reducing Environmental Impacts and Increasing Cogeneration Potential

Mechanisation of sugarcane harvesting in Brazil has been shown to decrease environmental impacts and waste, while also increasing efficiency, energy cogeneration and thus sector profits and national energy security. Learning from Brazil’s years of trial-and-error, other countries could build an ethanol production system with these benefits from the outset.

The pre-harvest burning of sugarcane leaves is a common practice that enables manual pickers to collect the crop quickly, suffering less personal injury. The burning process, however, has negative impacts on the environment, on human health and on the potential energy value of the plant. Mechanisation eliminates the need for burning, speeding up the collection process, eliminating harmful emissions from smoke, reducing crop wastage and thus increasing productivity in terms of energy generation. Electricity generated from sugarcane biomass can also be sold to the grid, increasing both producers’ income and the national energy supply. This Brief uses the example of Brazil to illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of switching from manual to mechanised sugarcane harvesting, and shares Brazil’s efforts to gradually phase-out manual harvesting and improve infrastructure to take advantage of cogeneration potential. The lessons learned might be useful for countries from other regions as they consider how to structure ethanol production from the onset in their own countries.

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Key Lessons:

  • Mechanisation of sugarcane harvesting can increase productivity and income generation
  • Eradicating pre-harvest burning can reduce environmental harm and increase energy cogeneration potential
  • The cogeneration of electricity from sugarcane biomass has been shown to be more efficient when using high pressure boilers

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