Energy beets slow to catch on in North Dakota
FARGO, N.D. -- Development of energy beets in North Dakota is still nebulous, while projects in California are moving forward. Attendance was light for a recent series of grower meetings about energy, or industrial, sugar beet production hosted b...
FARGO, N.D. -- Development of energy beets in North Dakota is still nebulous, while projects in California are moving forward.
Attendance was light for a recent series of grower meetings about energy, or industrial, sugar beet production hosted by North Dakota State University in March. Dave Ripplinger, an NDSU Extension bioproduct and bioenergy economist, says that's probably because it still seems like a "far off opportunity." A total of about 100 people -- half of them farmers -- attended a set of five recent meetings in central North Dakota.
Blaine Schatz, director of the Carrington Research Extension Center, says some field research will continue to verify the crop's viability and potential, but studies indicate the crop is viable after three years of studies in many locations across the state. State-supported field trials will continue at six or eight locations.
The Green Vision Group has been pushing for several years toward a community-scale beet factory that would create ethanol and specialized byproducts. Maynard Helgaas, GVG's president, says his group is working behind the scenes to gauge its opportunities, but declined more specific information.
"There are no refineries being built or contracts offered," Ripplinger says. "Farmers are interested but they don't know the price of the crop.
"To me, I think there's an opportunity there across the whole bioenergy space," he says, noting the hierarchy of value in crops starts with specialty chemicals at the top, then food, livestock feed and, finally, fuel.
So far, the discussion has been to look at budgets to grow beets at various locations -- all outside of traditional beet growing areas in the Red River Valley. Farmers are curious about the cost of toppers and lifters and the agronomics associated with the crop. Some are still curious about overcoming issues of herbicide carryover from other crops they grow.
Ripplinger says a beet-to-ethanol project would likely involve a 20-million-gallon factory-- about a fifth the volume output of some of the larger corn ethanol plants recently built. That would require beets from about 30,000 nonirrigated acres, probably in an area about the size of a typical North Dakota county.
Seven years ago, North Dakota was among the nation's leaders in seeking opportunities for sugar beets aimed at industrial and nonfood uses, Ripplinger says, but others seem to have moved ahead.
Mendota Bioenergy LLC's, a group of former sugar beet growers in Fresno County, Calif., produced the country's first low-carbon, whole-beet ethanol in a February demonstration phase at its plant.
Manager Jim Tischer tells Agweek the California Energy Commission now must approve Phase II of a demonstration plant, with a capacity of about 1 million gallons per year, or five tons per hour.
"We may not have that many beets, but we'll hit that on a spot basis," he says.
Phase II is expected to run in late summer when the crop is ready from about 10 acres.
The first phase of an eventual commercial-scale plant would be15 million gallons per year, with room to double. The area once grew 300,000 acres of sugar beets in the 1970s for Holly and Spreckles sugar companies.
Mendota Bioenergy sizes down the whole beets, warms them up and liquefies them using enzymes.
"We're substituting enzymes for the slope diffusers and tower diffusers in the standard sugar refinery factories, which cuts the amount of energy needed," Tischer says. The company will produce low-carbon, fuel-grade ethanol, feed byproducts, recycled irrigation water and perhaps industrial chemicals.