Benchmark Renewable Energy plans $95m biofuel plant in Jamaica

The company plans to produce biofuel from sweet sorghum, which is less subject to market volatility than corn or sugar.

US biofuel company Benchmark Renewable Energy (BRE) has signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Jamaican government to build a sweet sorghum biofuel plant to replace most of the country’s ethanol imports. 

BRE will a construct 10 million gallon a year biofuel plant and develop 9,000 acres for sweet sorghum cultivation to feed the plant. The agricultural land will be managed by Illinois-based Holesinger Farms. The project is expected to cost $95 million and to go online by the end of 2017.

BRE hopes to eventually double the plant’s capacity, helping to make Jamaica a net ethanol exporter, the company’s business development director Juan Briceno told Agri Investor.

Briceno said that the plant’s capacity is equivalent to roughly 80 percent of Jamaica’s annual ethanol imports. He added that Jamaica is a logical location for sweet sorghum production because of the country’s wealth of experience in sugar cultivation.

As a non-commodity crop, sweet sorghum is not subject to the market volatility as corn or sugar, making it a better source for biofuel. It also has a short growing season, allowing for multiple annual harvests in Jamaica’s tropical climate, according to Briceno. Sweet sorghum can be also grown on poorer quality land.

Jamaica is aiming to increase its renewable energy output. A national energy policy established in 2009 aims to increase renewable energy use to 20 percent of total consumption by 2030. However, higher margins for sugar and rum have made the sugarcane sector resistant to shift towards biofuel, Jamaican newspaper the Observer recently reported.

The Jamaican Ministry of Energy has signed a power purchase agreement for the 3-4 megawatts of electricity the plant is expected to generate from the biomass fibre that will be a byproduct of ethanol production. Another revenue stream could come from growing camelina as a rotation crop on its sorghum fields. Briceno also said he believes the project will qualify for carbon sequestration credits.