Small-scale biofuel initiatives to produce sugarcane ethanol are claimed to be a sustainable opportunity for ethanol supply, particularly for regions with price-restricted or no access to modern biofuels, such as communities located far from the large ethanol production centers in Brazil and family-farm communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, respectively. However, smallholders often struggle to achieve economic sustainability with ethanol microdistilleries. The aim of this paper is to provide an assessment of the challenges faced by small-scale bioenergy initiatives and discuss the conditions that would potentially make these initiatives economically feasible. Ethanol microdistilleries were assessed through a critical discussion of existent models and through an economic analysis of different sugarcane ethanol production models. The technical-economic analysis showed that the lack of competitiveness against large-scale ethanol distillery, largely due to both low crop productivity and process efficiency, makes it unlikely that small-scale distilleries can compete in the national/international ethanol market without governmental policies and subsidies. Nevertheless, small-scale projects intended for local supply and integrated food–fuel systems seem to be an interesting alternative that can potentially make ethanol production in small farms viable as well as increase food security and project sustainability particularly for local communities in developing countries.
Illustration Photo: Harvesting sugar cane in Brazil (credits: Shell / Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))