The Revolution’s Dashed Bioethanol Dreams

Five years on, PDVSA's big plans to turn sugarcane into bioethanol to fuel cars is rusting away in a Cojedes scrapyard.

The CADCA Ethanol Plant in Cojedes is in the middle of nowhere. I went there last year as part of an engineering team that was working on the project. It’s surrounded by farms a half hour drive from San Carlos de Austria, the state capital. They say it’s near a caserío called Mata Oscura. If any such place exists, none of us saw it.

The plant was made up of a handful of administrative buildings, some warehouses, the ethanol tanks, and the milling area concrete structure. What made it feel odd  is that few people seemed to be working there. It felt almost abandoned.

That’s not a good sign for a place that, at the time of our visit, had been under construction for five years.

Walking under the white hot llanero sun through endless blocks of carefully arranged equipment, the scene looked more like a cityscape of scrap metal than a storage yard. I saw all kinds of machinery: instruments, pumps, gears, beams, motors, generators, chains, big, small, you name it. There were even tractors originally intended to work the sugarcane plantation.

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All of it had been resting in peace for at least 4 years, waiting for someone to remember that they aren’t supposed to be there forever. I went on the 7 meter high milling concrete structure that is home to the mills and their gearboxes, the only machines that have been installed so far, (while being watched by angry looking wasps that resided there). The detail is that when I looked up I could only see the sun, the blueprints lied to me, I should have seen a roof 25 meters above me.

Some equipment was stored in containers, some was covered with plastic tarps. Some of it was inside rotting wooden boxes designed to store things no longer than six months. Someone had the kindness to move some electric control panels inside the warehouses to protect them from the elements.

Much of the rest of the machinery was not so lucky. There was a terrible sadness as I watched the boiler tubes (which are supposed to work with high pressure steam and demineralized water), partially submerged in mud and rainwater. Most of them were rusted through and unusable by now.

It’s was all terribly dismaying, because bioethanol wasn’t a bad idea. Caracas Chronicles is always going on about how wasteful the policy of giving away gasoline is. Bioethanol was a proper initiative aimed at reducing domestic gasoline consumption. The idea was to free up gas to be sold abroad, saving millions in gasoline subsidies.

Ethanol is basically just alcohol. It’s a biofuel that can be safely mixed with gasoline without having to modify existing engines. It can be produced from a variety of crops, including sugarcane, corn, yucca…pretty much anything.

The Venezuelan ethanol production facilities were named CADCAs, Sugarcane Derivate Agroindustrial Complex (Complejo Agroindustrial de Derivados de Caña de Azucar). As the name implies, the plan was to use sugarcane as a raw material. Ethanol was just one of the products of the plant: animal feed supplements and fertilizer were some others. The framework project also covers the cultivation of the additional sugarcane that the plants would need, as well as trucks and tractors like the ones you see above, etc.

The project was launched in 2005, as the oil boom was gathering steam, and aimed at creating four CADCAs in the first stage of the plan: Barinas, Cojedes, Portuguesa and Trujillo states would each get one. Each was expected to handle 10,000 tons of sugarcane per day to make 700,000 barrels of ethanol per year.

The first part of the process for making ethanol from sugarcane is not that different from making rum: ethanol is really just alcohol, after all. So you start by making juice by milling the sugarcane. After that, the juice is purified, evaporated, fermented and distilled.

At the beginning, the agro branch of PDVSA, PDVSA-Agrícola, hired the Cuban company IPROYAZ to do the engineering for the project, and Brazil’s Odebrecht to do the construction part.

The Cubans mainly took apart their own sugar mills and other equipment from their sugar centrals, refurbished them, and shipped them here. Some of the key equipment dates from the Soviet era, others bits of machinery are completely new. Procurement happened between 2008 and 2010.

At some point around 2013, already way behind schedule, the Cubans were taken off the project for reasons that were never really explained, and PDVSA hired Venezuelan consulting companies to finish the engineering.

Building work on the CADCAs all but stopped last year when oil prices fell. Odebrecht abandoned the project and workers were sent home; leaving behind all the equipment I could see rusting away all around me.

Even if they had been properly stored, they would have suffered corrosion damage, plus the risk of theft. Even in the best of cases they would need major maintenance at this point. Instead, much of it had turned to scrap.

I know that reading Odebretch, Cuba and PDVSA in the same paragraph can’t help but draw suspicions. I’m not going to allege corruption because I have no specific evidence of any.

Even if the money wasn’t stolen, it’s enraging that work on a potentially useful project was scrapped, and that millions of dollars in equipment are rusting away quietly in storage yards at a moment of such deep economic crisis. It’s also kind of creepy that little of this have found its way to the press, and makes you wonder how many cases like this exist.

 

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