Beet ethanol plants considered in N.D., California

Published online: Mar 23, 2014
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Facilities proposed in North Dakota and California would test the feasibility of raising sugarbeets specifically for making ethanol.

David Ripplinger, a North Dakota State University agricultural economist, researched the economics of a sugarbeet ethanol plant that would yield 20 million gallons of biofuel per year. It would be supplied by 30,000 dryland sugarbeet acres in central North Dakota, where beets aren’t currently grown but could provide a rotation option to break up soil compaction.

The developers also chose to raise beets in a new production area to avoid potential concerns about fuel crops competing with food crops.

Project backers with Green Vision Group in North Dakota and Iowa-based Heartland Renewable Energy hope to break ground as soon as 2016. NDSU has scheduled grower meetings for this month to discuss the economics of growing beets for industrial purposes. To minimize transportation costs, Ripplinger said smaller plants are economical. The developers envision about a dozen or more beet ethanol plants scattered throughout North Dakota.

Ripplinger also has U.S. Department of Energy funding to study the economics of sugarbeet ethanol production in different regions of the country.

“Nationally, there could be huge opportunity,” Ripplinger said.

Recently, beets forfeited by USDA due to low commodity prices have been sold at a considerable loss to ethanol plants. Ripplinger emphasized that was finished sugar, and the proposed plant would use beet juice as a feedstock, cutting out several refinement steps and fully utilizing other forms of sugar found in beets that are wasted in table sugar production.

Ripplinger said NDSU has overseen five years of beet trials, including varieties bred specifically for making biofuel. The DOE project involves working with a Maryland company that’s developing genetically modified biofuel sugarbeet lines with higher sugar content and increased water and nitrogen use efficiency.

Compared with corn, the most common ethanol feedstock, Ripplinger said beets can yield about double the sugar per acre, and in immediately usable form rather than corn starch that must be converted prior to fermentation. He said beet-based ethanol releases about half of the carbon dioxide of gasoline and may qualify as an advanced biofuel.

Duane Grant, chairman of Idaho’s Snake River Sugar Co., has heard of the efforts in North Dakota but knows of no such emphasis on beet ethanol in the Gem State. Ripplinger said he’d be happy to visit with interested individuals in Idaho, where he sees potential for beet ethanol.

In Tracy, Calif., near San Francisco, Frank Schubert believes his company, Tracy Renewable Energy, is poised to open the first U.S. sugarbeet ethanol plant. He hopes to start construction this summer on a $190 million ethanol plant in a former sugarbeet processing facility. His plant would produce 40 million gallons of sugarbeet ethanol per year, supplied by sugarbeets grown on 43,000 acres. His company will harvest growers’ crops and is now pursuing contracts with growers, who will plant a Betaseed variety bred for biofuels, for the spring of 2015.

“I think what you’re going to see is a lot more sugarbeets being grown for ethanol in the next 5-10 years,” Schubert said.