When the sugar factory at Maryborough closed two years ago it was the end of 126 years of crushing; now a new deal could see it brought back to life as a bio-energy hub.
- The Maryborough Sugar Factory was closed in 2020 with two years left to run on supply agreements with growers
- An Australian-Japanese joint venture hopes to buy the mill and use it to make renewable diesel from sugar cane
- If it goes through, work on the $100-million project would start immediately, with crushing resuming in 2023
Advanced Energy Group (AEG), an Australian-Japanese joint venture, announced it was close to finalizing a deal to buy the mill and use the surrounding cane to make renewable fuels.
“This will only serve to advance the region by strengthening further investment into current farming practices, bringing back jobs and increasing the economic outputs of the region.
“In basic form, this means also assigning the mill for alternate energy production [i.e. biofuels] in using all of the cane material as well as the implementation of new energy cane varieties.”
AEG expects to finalize the acquisition in a few weeks, and while the purchase price of the mill has not been disclosed, it is understood the project to transition the sugar factory to a fuel hub will cost $100 million.
Recommissioning would start immediately, with a view to crush cane again in 2023.
Pivot from food to fuel
Since crushing began in the late 1800s, mills have opened and closed as the industry shifted and consolidated.
But since the 1990s, the numbers have been in steady decline, with the last new mill built in 1998.
Former Canegrowers Maryborough chairman and now special projects officer Jeff Atkinson says the reopening of Maryborough is unique.
“Growers are excited about it. Obviously, a sugar mill in your local area is certainly an advantage to growers.”
While the factory would produce sugar, the focus would be on producing bio-fuels like renewable diesel, which is considered a green energy source as it does not contain any fossil fuels.
Mr Atkinson said it was a natural evolution for the industry, which always used its cane waste product (bagasse) to make its own electricity.
“I think it’s a great idea,” he said.
“If we can use the whole crop and get an advantage out of a bigger return to growers it’s certainly the way forward.
Converting the crop to fuel over sugar would require the development and planting of different varieties, but Mr Atkinson said it could mean instead of contracting, the industry could expand.
“There’s work taking place at the moment looking at varieties that are more suitable for what AEG want to do,” he said.
“These new varieties, they’re higher production tons per hectare … they will grow with less water and on poorer soil.
“You pick up some of that cane further south that probably would have been lost under the current situation.”
Reopening a ‘double-edged sword’
Since the mill closed, growers in the Maryborough district and further afield on the Sunshine Coast have had to truck cane to the Isis Central Sugar Mill in Childers to be crushed.
But the supply agreement for next year is not yet in place, and the cost of transport and lost quality as it travels has growners like Garry Petersen considering an exit strategy.
“It is actually for us a double-edged sword,” he said.
“The news that Maryborough may reopen has changed our perspective on everything.”
Mr Petersen’s family has farmed along the Maroochy River since the 1950s, on land that is not suited for much else.
While he does not think any new growers will enter the industry, he says moving into energy production makes for “interesting times” for those who have stuck with it.
“The idea has been floated around for a long time, but for someone to actually take up the reins and do something about it is pretty exciting,” Mr Petersen said.
“If this all goes ahead and we get a supply agreement with Maryborough, we’ll probably plant some more cane and get the farm operational again.”
The deal is expected to be finalized in August.