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Blaine Schatz, director of North Dakota State University's Carrington Research Extension Center, has been testing “energy beets” -- sugar beets without the latest improvements for sugar extraction – for about eight years. Photo taken July 18, 2012, at Carrington, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

EPA: Thumbs-up to 'energy beet' idea

WEST FARGO, N.D. — The Environmental Protection Agency predicted it might take six months to do an initial evaluation of "energy beets" for their environmental footprint as a feedstock for biofuels.

Six years — not months — later the agency has a thumbs up on energy beets as a feedstock — rating it for greenhouse gases and other environmental issues. Proponents say it's a the first of three hurdles in making it accepted as a viable biofuel.

Dave Ripplinger, a North Dakota State University bioenergy specialist, and Maynard Helgaas, an agricultural businessman who has been pushing the idea for eight years, say they're grateful for a positive report, despite the time lag, and look forward to the next phases that could finally create an industry that qualifies for the highest subsidies.

"This is a milestone in the commercialization of energy beets," Ripplinger says of the EPA's recent report.

The EPA decided to change the Renewable Fuels Standard in 2015, which reduced the momentum for advanced biofuel and cellulosic ethanol fuel. Every gallon of biofuel is given a 38-digit "RIN number" which is used to track the use of the fuels. Petroleum fuel marketers must blend biofuel ethanol into their fuel or buy the RINs.

High RIN goals

Standard corn ethanol recently has an 80- to 85-cent per gallon RIN value, while advanced biofuels are around $1.10 per gallon, says Kyle Althoff, president of Equinox LLC, a biofuels and agribusiness consultant in Fargo. Cellulosic ethanol is more than $2 per gallon.

Helgaas, 82, of West Fargo, is president of the Green Vision Group which has been studying the energy beet concept for eight years. The CVG looked at ten communities where a plant might be located and closely studied.

Energy beets produce C5 and C6 ethanol feedstock, which in turn produce aviation fuel and other products, including pharmaceuticals.

Blaine Schatz, the director of the NDSU Carrington Research and Extension Center, has worked with demonstration and testing plots in nine communities around the state, accumulating eight years of plot data. Besides the feedstock, the beets also have benefits for helping to rehabilitate soils that have become unproductive due to salts that have risen during high-water years.

Ripplinger was philosophical about the EPA delays. The agency received more applications than they expected and it took more computer modeling to complete the process, he says. He thinks it's just a coincidence that the energy beet proponents got an unofficial word that the initial process was completed in the first few weeks in the Trump administration.

Although North Dakota was an early proponent, Ripplinger says other energy beet projects across the country may be built first, noting California and Maryland projects have been proposed.

Helgaas says that in Europe 15 percent of the biofuels are from sugar beets, generally with significantly different breeding than for human consumption sugar. Syngenta and Betaseed are two breeding companies who already have developed seed for industrial beet breeding stock.