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Published April 26, 2010, 12:35 PM

New energy economics: NDSU and energy beet partners receive $330,000 grant

For the past two years, I have been working in partnership with Green Vision Group and Heartland Renewable Energy (HRE) to create an energy beet for the biofuel industry in North Dakota.

By: Cole Gustafson, NDSU Extension Service, INFORUM

For the past two years, I have been working in partnership with Green Vision Group and Heartland Renewable Energy (HRE) to create an energy beet for the biofuel industry in North Dakota.

Last year, an economic feasibility study of the project was completed and funding for yield trials at the Carrington Research Extension Center was obtained. To move the project forward in 2010, I developed a $330,000 grant proposal that was submitted and recently approved by North Dakota's Renewable Energy Council (REC). The grant proposal requested $165,000 directly from the REC, with the remaining funds coming from a variety of private supporters.

Funds from the grant will be used to accomplish four tasks in the next phase of the project:

1) Conduct a commercial test of HRE's patented process of drying the plant's fermentation stillage and utilizing the material to heat 70 percent of the plant

2) Conduct energy beet yield trials at five regional locations across North Dakota

3) Initiate an engineering study that seeks to extend the storage life of energy beet juice

4) Conduct producer and community education programs in up to five targeted regions but initially focused in Griggs and Steele counties

Tasks 1 and 3 are needed to finalize the plant design. Obviously, obtaining more of the plant's energy from dried fermentation stillage will reduce the size of the heating plant required.

Extending energy beet juice storage life also could influence the location of various processing steps. At a minimum, an extended life would lessen the need for immediate processing and biofuel conversion. Therefore, energy beets could be ground and the juice extracted at remote sites closer to farm production areas. The juice then would be shipped at a later time for biofuel processing. This would reduce overall transportation costs because only the juice and not whole beets would be shipped.

Offsetting this advantage, though, are the increased costs for storage facilities.

Another benefit of extended juice life is the opportunity for the plant to operate all year long instead of seasonally, which would improve profitability by spreading fixed investment costs over more gallons of biofuel produced.

A second use of the research results from tasks 1 and 3 will be to petition the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to qualify ethanol produced by the plant as an advanced biofuel. The EPA defines advanced biofuels as those that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent compared with gasoline. Advanced biofuels are expected to command a price premium in the marketplace.

The use of renewable energy resources, such as dried fermentation stillage, to heat the plant leads to a more favorable EPA determination because the reliance on carbon-emitting fossil fuels is reduced. Likewise, extended energy beet juice life reduces the use of fossil fuels for transportation.

Energy beet yield trials will provide information that eventually will be needed to obtain federal crop insurance for new production regions. The yield information also will be useful in developing production guidelines not only for energy beets, but for rotational crops as well.

The long energy beet tap root is expected to reduce salinity problems in poorly draining soils, utilize deep nitrogen reserves and more thoroughly use water in the soil profile. The extent of these advantages will have important implications for crops that are both planted before and follow energy beets. Moreover, less reliance on purchased nitrogen, which consumes large quantities of fossil fuel during production, would lead to a more favorable EPA designation.

The goal of the educational component is to prepare potential energy beet producers, rural communities, ethanol buyers and other interested parties for the development of this new industry. So far, Griggs and Steele counties have expressed a strong interest in the project. However, existing infrastructure, such as roads, natural gas pipelines and electrical service, may have to be upgraded depending on an eventual plant location being determined.

Gustafson is a biofuels economist with the NDSU Extension Service.

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