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Published December 14, 2010, 09:09 AM

Exploring energy beets

WEST FARGO, N.D. — A North Dakota company pushing for the development of beet-fed ethanol plants in North Dakota now is seeking funds for a $5 million “pilot-scale” demonstration plant they hope will be built in 2012. This would be followed by a string of $40 million commer-cial-scale plants in subsequent years.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

WEST FARGO, N.D. — A North Dakota company pushing for the development of beet-fed ethanol plants in North Dakota now is seeking funds for a $5 million “pilot-scale” demonstration plant they hope will be built in 2012. This would be followed by a string of $40 million commer-cial-scale plants in subsequent years.

“The reason for the demonstration plant is to attract capital investments,” says Maynard Helgaas, president of Green Vision Group, a Fargo, N.D.-based company that has been studying “energy beet” fuel production for the past four years.

A pilot-scale plant would produce 3.5 million gallons a year and, if built, would be the nation’s first biofuel plant fed by any kind of beets.

The group has named its project “BeetsAllBiofuel.” After the pilot-scale plant demonstrates the profitability of the process, Green Vision Group has identified a dozen or more plant locations in “targeted areas” to be scaled at 20 million gallons of production per year each. The plants would be associated with proven production areas and demonstration plot areas, involving nonirrigated or irrigated beet and mixed production.

Laying out plans

A demonstration-scale plant may be collocated near existing coal-electricity plants — Spiritwood (N.D.) Energy Park, or near the Blue Flint Ethanol plant in Underwood, N.D. The demonstration plant would cost up to $6 million without a boiler. Design and construction engineering would come from Heartland Renewable Energy of Muscatine, Iowa.

Processing beets into ethanol includes many of the same steps as making corn ethanol, except you go straight to sugars, rather than starch-to-sugar, in corn.

Helgaas says the group will go to the North Dakota Legislature for help in funding the demonstration-scale plant.

One idea is to ask the Legislature to establish a $20 million pool for “sustainable biofuel and biomass demonstration plant development” — including loan guarantees. If established, the pool could be managed by the North Dakota Industrial Commission, managed through the state Renewable Energy Council. Energy beets only would be one of the potential applicants for pool funding.

Possible producer contracts

For farmers, Helgaas says the project likely will offer a $42-per-ton contract, based on a projected $1.84 per gallon price of ethanol. The gross return per acre for energy beets would be $83 per acre compared with $386 for corn and $292 for soybeans, according to Cole Gustafson, a North Dakota State University agricultural economist.

Beets for the plants would be grown on contract, similarly to how sugar beets are grown in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.

The beet-to-ethanol “stillage,” a waste material after fermentation, would be made into a high-energy powder.

In co-location with coal-fired electricity plants, the powder could be sprayed on coal in the generation process. If used in a free-standing ethanol plant, this stillage powder could be burned to generate 70 percent of the thermal energy needed in the distilling process. A remaining ash would contain 33 percent “potash,” which is a potassium fertilizer, beneficial to crop production..

Agronomics for the beets have turned out much better than expected, Helgaas says.

“It’s after our plot work and our demonstrations on energy beet production that we realized these things would do much better than we had thought in central North Dakota, dry-land fields,” Helgaas says.

The company ran test plots in five locations, most for the past two years. They’ll continue that work in 2011.

“These plots also establish federal crop insurance,” Helgaas says. “The first year a grower grows for a plant, he’d need to be covered for risk management.” says Helgaas, originally an implement dealer and agribusinessman from Jamestown, N.D., and now of West Fargo, N.D.

Made for energy

He says energy beets are a sugar-type beet that is bred for the energy market by companies such as Syngenta-Hilleshog and Betaseed.

“The varieties yield well, but have impurities and couldn’t be used for refined sugar production and instead will be used for energy,” Helgaas says.

Impurities are part of the genetics that make them unacceptable in the quality of end products for sugar.

Helgaas says the crop has rotation benefits and has lower market volatility than corn. Energy beets would be grown on a four-year rotation to minimize disease and insect pests. The tap roots penetrate 10 to 12 feet into the soil, making them efficient users of water, nitrogen “and other nutrients that have escaped the root zones of other primary crops.”

“Research has shown that energy beets improve internal soil drainage, have resistance to soil salinity, and require little nitrogen to grow, which could reduce fertilizer costs,” the company says.

Company officials and others are expected to answer media questions on the project Dec. 13 in Fargo, Jamestown and Mandan, N.D. Participants will include Rick Whittaker, president of Heartland Renewable Energy, Muscatine, Iowa, the construction engineer for ethanol plants; Gustafson, North Dakota State University Bioenergy and Products Innovation Center; Helgaas; and others. Other partners in Green Vision Group are Lloyd Anderson, a mechanical and industrial engineer, who has been involved in Eide Helmeke P.L.L.P.; Rod Holth, Grand Forks, N.D., a pioneer in the process potato farming business; and Ruidy Radke, a former NDSU Extension Service high-value crops specialist.

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