JUIZ DE FORA, Brazil (Reuters) - Brazil on Tuesday opened the world's first ethanol-fueled power plant in an effort by the South American biofuels giant to increase the global use of ethanol and boost its clean power generation.
State-run oil giant Petrobras and General Electric Co, which helped design the plant, are betting that increased use of ethanol generation by green-conscious countries will boost demand for the product.
Brazil, the top global ethanol exporter, is already in talks with Japan to develop biofuels power generation there.
"We have great expectations to show the viability and economy of generating electricity from ... an alternative feedstock to fossil fuels," Maria das Gracas Foster, head of Petrobras' natural gas division, said.
Petrobras with the help of GE upgraded the 87-megawatt power plant to switch between running on natural gas or ethanol instantaneously. Brazil primarily relies on hydroelectric power but needs backup thermoelectric generation during the dry season.
John Ingham, Latin America Products Director for GE, said tests showed switching the plant to ethanol reduced carbon dioxide emissions without lowering energy output.
GE has around 770 turbines like those used in the Juiz de Fora plant, including many in Japan, that could be converted to run on ethanol, he said.
"A plant like that consumes a lot of ethanol, so it has to be in a place that makes sense (such as) places that have no access to gas, like Japan, some islands, or places that depend heavily on diesel like the Amazon region," he said.
Brazil is expected to produce a record 27.8 billion liters of ethanol in the 2009/2010 season. It began its biofuels program 30 years ago and now mandates a minimum 20 percent of ethanol in gasoline.
Petrobras itself is only starting to enter the ethanol market. Brazil's ethanol production comes from sugar cane milled by companies such as Cosan or commodities giants including Cargill Inc, Bunge and ADM Co..
Domestic demand for ethanol is being driven by the popularity of the flex-fuel car technology that was launched in 2003 and now makes up around 90 percent of new vehicle sales.
(Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Marguerita Choy)