January 18, 2008 / 8:47 AM / 13 years ago

INTERVIEW-Japan's first rice ethanol plant sees 2009 start

By Risa Maeda

TOKYO, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Japan’s first commercial plant to produce ethanol fuel for automobiles from locally grown rice will reach full capacity of 1,000 kilolitres (220,000 gallons) a year by March 2009, a few months behind schedule, said a senior manager in charge of the project.

The project in Niigata, central Japan, for which the Japanese government is paying half the plant construction cost of 1.6 billion yen ($15 million), is one of the nation’s three such government-backed commercial production schemes.

It is managed by the National Federation of Agriculture Co-operative Associations (Zen-Noh) and will use non-food rice.

Ippei Koike, a general manager of Zen-Noh’s farming planning department, said the delay is partly due to paperwork for construction approval.

He said farmers were planting two types of super-harvest rice in more areas than planned this year after the 2007 harvest of one type gave a yield some 25 percent less than expected.

"We had expected this type to consistently harvest 800 kg per 10 ares — 30 to 40 percent more than that of ordinary rice. But last year’s experience made us realise that’s hard to achieve," Koike said. An are is 100 square metres (1,076 sq ft).

"We won’t give up. Japanese farmers are accustomed to much tougher conditions," he said, referring to unusually low temperatures in July last year, preventing the number of rice kernels from increasing.

The Niigata project involves engineering company Mitsui Engineering & Shipbuilding Co (7003.T) and Satake Corp, a food processing machinery maker based in Hiroshima, western Japan, and is seen more viable to apply across the country than the other two in the northern island of Hokkaido, which each have a capacity of 15,000 kl.

Unlike Brazil, Japan lacks competitive locally grown farm produce to make ethanol to mix with gasoline and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The project aims to use non-food rice planted in abandoned farmlands, which now account to some 10 percent of Japan’s total farmlands, as cheaper imports drive farmers out of business and into the cities. ($1=106.65 Yen) (Editing by Michael Watson)

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