In the heart of Queensland’s coal country, a large regional city is increasingly powered by another enterprise — sugar cane. 

Mackay is a well-known hub for the nearby central highlands coal mining industry. 

But for all the political posturing over the local resources sector, this coal town’s electricity is already 30 per cent powered by renewables.

The diversification was not an intentional shift; it comes from a by-product of Mackay’s other biggest industry, sugar. 

Crystallised success

Sugar cane makes more than the white stuff that sweetens your tea; the milling process creates a by-product called bagasse, a biomass energy source. 

A fuel source, bagasse is added to the electricity grid through a steam turbine at Mackay Sugar’s cogeneration plant. 

But sugar cane has potential far beyond even its capacity to produce electricity. 

Since opening a decade ago, the Queensland University of Technology’s bio-commodities pilot plant has worked on converting biomass into a variety of different products including a successful trial this year to turn bagasse into jet fuel.

At Sarina, just south of Mackay, milling company Wilmar has the nation’s largest factory for sugar-based ethanol, producing both alcohol at the Sarina Distillery and fuel for ethanol blends of petrol. 

Two men wearing orange hard hats examine equipment and pipes of a biorefinery plant.

A pilot project in Mackay is trialling turning bagasse into jet fuel.(ABC Rural: Melanie Groves)

Even local buses in Mackay and Sarina will soon be powered by locally grown sugar cane in a trial.

CEO of the Greater Whitsunday Alliance, an independent regional economic development body, Kylie Porter said the sugar industry’s potential to drive economic growth in the region was vastly underestimated. 

“When we talk about our region’s role in a new economy, or a lower emissions economy, we’re very well placed and we’re already well on our journey,” Ms Porter said. 

A sweet future

While the by-product of sugar cane can produce fuel, electricity and even bioplastics, at present there is not much in it for the farmer. 

“Our current cane payment systems are not mature enough to take into account any other new considerations,” Mr Schembri said. 

But he was confident that as the diversification of sugarcane evolved farmers would be a part of the conversation. 

And while sugar milling has not changed much in the past century, the federal government, through the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA), has this week given Mackay-based Townsend Industries nearly $700,000 to fund a new pilot project to use more of the product.

Aerial view of a sugar mill near Ayr in north Queensland

Sugar mills, like this one in Ayr, can use the by-product of the milling process to contribute electricity input to the grid.(ABC North Queensland: Tom Edwards)

The project will trial a new facility that will separate the cane components into skin, wax, fibre, rind, and juice, vastly different to how sugar cane is currently processed into just juice and bagasse. 

Director of Townsend Industries and fourth-generation farmer Graham Townsend said innovation was essential for future generations. 

“We need this to go forward, get out of the old ways, [to] get out of the square box and do something new,” he said. 

Ms Porter agreed there was much work to be done. 

“There’s a whole lot of operational and logistics we need to work through as we move into the commercialisation phase,” she said. 

Cane and coal capital

The potential for the cane industry to grow Queensland’s biofutures industry has been captured in the state government’s biofutures 10-year road map and action plan.

But plans to develop the industry would not necessarily be to the detriment of the coal sector, Ms Porter said. 

A female mine worker walks past a mine dump truck at a coal mine in central Queensland.

The north Queensland town of Mackay is a hub for the coal industry and mining services sector.(AAP: Dan Peled)

The Bowen Basin, west of Mackay, holds Australia’s largest reserves of metallurgical coal reserves, which produce steel. 

“The reason Mackay has this really well-developed mining services sector is because of the expertise developed through sugarcane production and milling.”

As the nation looks to a lower emissions future, Mr Schembri also thought the cane and coal industries could work together.

“We need to co-exist,” Mr Schembri said.

“It may well be the case that [the sugar industry] produces biofuels, which may be something that some of the mining companies need to buy as part of the carbon budget.”

In the heart of coal country, this city is already 30 per cent powered by renewables
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