At approximately US$30 million, the South African firm Bosch Engineering is finalising work on six tasks at the problem-plagued Skeldon Factory and taxpayers will have to foot the bill after the Chinese firm originally contracted signed off with myriad issues still unresolved.
The figure of US$30M disclosed to Stabroek News will add on to what was a costly US$200M project that five years on is still not delivering anywhere near its projected 110,000 tonnes of sugar per annum. Indeed, deep into the second crop, it is yet to begin production. Today has been given as yet another starting day for grinding.
Government and GuySuCo officials have been coy on the cost of the remedial/repair works. They have also not answered why the original builder China National Technical Import and Export Corporation (CNTIC) did not deliver a fully-functioning turnkey factory.
When Stabroek News visited the factory on Thursday, one of the outstanding rehabilitation projects was still incomplete and during dry testing failures were found. The scratcher that required additional work after it was found to still be giving problems due to a cut wire. The scratcher is responsible for feeding bagasse, the fibrous byproduct after grinding cane, through system to eventually produce biofuel.
Factory management said that the rehabilitation works were being finalised but the factory still requires additional work. So far, Bosch Engineering is responsible for fixing one of the large conveyors and upgrading the heavy-duty knives used to crush the cane.
The first project handed to the South African firm was the construction of a 600-tonne condensate tank followed by the installation of a plow boiler along with pipe support. Following a tour of the factory, Stabroek News learnt that Bosch was responsible for an additional installation of a super heater, which is a letdown station for the steam.
On the tour, the massive factory was almost empty, with little activity as no grinding has officially commenced due to the rains. Workers at the factory told Stabroek News that starting up the factory made little sense as there was not enough cane being harvested to take advantage of the factory’s output capabilities.
While so far there is no contract in place to turn the current hydraulic punt dump system into a winch-based system, the factory workers and management were clear that a new system is needed if the factory is to ever realize the 350-tonnes cane per hour grinding.
Stabroek News was told by a senior technician that a hydraulic system is designed based on a time period for each rotation so there was no speeding up the process. “A winch system would be better for the punt dump, the current hydraulic system takes about three minutes for a full rotation,” the technician stated.
Stabroek News was also told that the punts hold around 6.5 tonnes and the while the minimum number of lifts is about 35, the maximum to date is only 38. Multiplying the maximum number of lifts by the amount of cane in the punt dump would mean the ability of the factory to grind cane had never been 350 tonnes an hour but instead 247 tonnes.
Moreover, without the use of mechanical harvesters, the manual harvesting component at the factory is able to average around four tonnes of cane, leaving the punt dumps to operate at a sub-par level. Stabroek News was told by a technician that “this factory can operate continuously for 136 hours and can produce…but there is little the factory can do without the cane to grind.”
He also said that the size of the factory was dependent completely on the mechanical capabilities to harvest cane and that the manual component meant that grinding would be four hours a day and then then stop. “This factory is designed to keep going… this is a 24-hour operation, but it just can’t happen at this time. The diffusor technology is very good but it doesn’t like the work. ‘Stop. Work. Stop.’ That is currently the case,” he said.
The dilemma underscores the point that while the Skeldon estate was meant to be fully mechanised to adequately feed the factory, this is still not a reality because the rainy weather has created interruptions and more fields have to be transformed. Industry experts have also doubted that Skeldon estate has anywhere near the 1.2 million tonnes of cane that would be required to feed the factory all year-round.
According to the factory’s management during Stabroek News’ visit on Thursday, it was not just the punt system that was an issue but the rehabilitated heavy-duty knives could only crush a maximum 250 tonnes an hour. “The heavy-duty knives speed will be up to 250. That will at least test the field operation. We may be able to do the 250 tonnes an hour,” one of the factory managers explained. He noted that “we are not sure where this vision of 350 tonnes came from,” while adding that this notion has been a continuous debilitating aspect of the plant. A technician told Stabroek News that since there was no comprehensive testing prior to China National Technical Import and Export Corporation handing over the plant, the 350 tonnes per hour was never proven to begin with. He said that through the continued perpetuation of this myth, Skeldon will always be seen as a failure when in fact the factory does perform.
Stabroek News was told that the last year between September and October, Skeldon was actually grinding 11.9 tonnes of cane for one tonne of sugar. The tonne of cane to tonne of sugar (TCTS) ratio was not “excellent” continuously, but when there was enough cane and the factory was continuously grinding the TCTS increased, this newspaper was told.
Moving forward, Stabroek News was told that the factory had major works planned and is awaiting information on additional contracts. There is still work to be done on the shredder, the diffusor, the mills and the process house. The need to assess the factory cost per tonnes of sugar was also identified by factory management. The troubled factory is the centre piece of the Skeldon Sugar Modernisation Project, which had been conceived by former President Bharrat Jagdeo. The factory was to
have been completed in October, 2007 but was not finished until May, 2008 and then a series of problems surfaced. These included problems with the bagasse handling system, low sugar purity levels and the shredder. Work began on the factory in 2005.