Belize Plans $50 Million Sargassum-to-Fuel Plant
Belize Prime Minister John Briceño (left) met with several German government officials, including Dr. Tobias Lindner (right), Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, to discuss opportunities and climate-related priorities, on his trip to Germany in 2022. He led a delegation of technical experts there to explore modern technologies in waste management and renewable energy.
Belize plans to develop a $50 million facility to convert sargassum -- the rotten-egg-smelling seaweed that has swamped Caribbean coasts for a dozen years -- into fuel, according to Prime Minister John Briceño.
In a public-private partnership with the German company, Variodin, the project would convert 10,000 tons of sargassum into electric power and biochar, according to the firm’s website, and 10,000 tons of household waste into electric power. Biochar is the lightweight black residue, made of carbon and ashes, remaining after the burning of plant material and animal waste. It is a form of carbon.
More than 24 million tons of sargassum blanketed the Atlantic Ocean in June 2022 as compared with 18.8 million tons in May 2022, according to a monthly report published by the University of South Florida’s Optical Oceanography Lab that noted “a new historical record”. In July 2022, the amount of sargassum was sustained, neither increasing nor decreasing, optical oceanography professor, Chuanmin Hu, told The Associated Press (August 3, 2022).
The multipurpose waste-to-energy plant could be scaled up with more financing, said the Prime Minister, adding that Belize would sign a power purchase agreement for energy generated from the plant.
It would be the first waste-to-energy facility in the Caribbean.
Close-up of sargassum, which shows the air bladders that help keep it afloat
“We must take immediate action against the sargassum seaweed invasion damaging Caribbean economies. This initiative comes at no financial cost to the Government of Belize, and this is one of the values and advantages of a public-private partnership,” said Prime Minister Briceño at a virtual meeting of the 7th session of the SIDS DOCK Assembly on September 25, while the United Nations General Assembly held its 78th session in New York, according to a SIDS DOCK press release (September 27).
SIDS DOCK (Small Island Developing States) is a United Nations-recognized organization established in 2015. During the virtual session, it elected Prime Minister Briceño, by acclamation, as Vice President, a role he will assume in January 2024. The group has all the rights and privileges for addressing climate change, resilience and energy security in small islands. It represents 32 small islands and low-lying developing states, as is Belize, across the globe. It is designed as a DOCKing station, thus the group’s name, to connect the energy sector of its members with global markets for finance and sustainable energy technologies. The organization’s work is coordinated by the Secretariart in Belmopan, the capital of Belize.
The Prime Minister said that the sargassum and municipal waste would be converted into biofuels as diesel replacement fuel.
Variodin, based in Redefin, Germany, described itself on its website:
“We process waste and residual materials of all kinds into electrical, thermal, cooling and hydrogen energy in accordance with the guidelines of the closed production cycle for a decentralized energy and hydrogen supply.”
The company’s website lists seven current projects, including the two in Belize, both to be commissioned in 2024.
Variodin listed nine representative projects, dating back to 1977, including a 2019 project in Denmark to convert 1,000 tons of poultry manure into gas, electric energy and thermal energy and a 2022 project in Norway to convert fish waste to synthesis gas and synthetic fuel. Both projects have been completed and handed over, according to the firm's website.
Prime Minister John Briceño said that Belize, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and SIDS DOCKS have found a way to mitigate the ongoing sargassum seaweed invasion that is now hampering the region’s post-COVID recovery.
In 2022, the Prime Minister led a technical team, representing the groups, on an educational and exploratory trip to Germany, where they met with Variodin representatives, reported the Government of Belize Press Office (September 2, 2022), which also wrote:
“Sargassum seaweed has invaded Belize’s coastline, causing substantial loss of livelihoods and economic opportunities in the fisheries and tourism industries. Therefore, seeking solutions to mitigate the threat of the sargassum surge has become a top priority for the Government of Belize. The excessive accumulation of sargassum on the shores contributes to coastal erosion and harms marine ecosystems. The collection and disposal of sargassum has proven to be a costly necessity for the local governments of Belize’s top beach destinations.”
Belize’s Barrier Reef, the second largest coral reef system in the world, includes more than 200 cayes and islands. It contributes millions of dollars to the Belizean tourism industry and provides significant employment, according to SIDS DOCK.
The Caribbean spends an estimated $120 million annually to collect and dispose of sargassum. It also faces a challenge in implementing basic solid waste management infrastructure, which reportedly requires investment of as much as $2.5 billion.
Elimination of sargassum is not possible now, but control is within reach, said Prime Minister Briceño, who encouraged his fellow heads of state to support the initiative, noting that their “investment in collective efforts is not just financial: it’s an investment in our shared future and the well-being of all citizens.”
Speculations about causes for the mass sargassum blooms are varied, including nitrogen-rich fertilizers in agricultural runoff, sewage waste, a rise in water temperature due to climate change, and dust blowing west from Africa’s Sahara Desert, reported EuroNews (July 5, 2022).
National and local governments, tourism and fisheries groups, and businesses and residents have accepted the challenge of finding creative ways to confront and prevent the onslaught of sargassum seaweed.
Efforts to use sargassum as fertilizer, food, construction material and medical products abound in the region, where the algae first swamped the shores by as much as three feet in the spring and summer of 2011, reported The Associated Press (August 3, 2020).