December 16, 2010 | 23 Comments
Sugar beets, already grown in 11 states and across the world have been modified for ethanol production. The new variety of the plant is called ‘energy beet’, something that ethanol users might want to be more aware of.
Green Vision Group, is working to develop energy beets as a cleaner, more efficient alternative to corn. The company’s figures from their small scale tests show that beets produce twice as much ethanol per acre as corn and require about 40 percent less water per gallon of ethanol produced. Using beets instead of corn also sidesteps the controversy associated with using a food product for fuel.
Green Vision Group president Maynard Helgaas said, “This is probably the most efficient use for an acre of land for biofuel as there is.” He might be right for the location, North Dakota, where it’s cold early in winter and late to see spring. The idea for doubling ethanol production per acre that far north is an impressive concept.
Along with the pilot growing effort is the development of the process. That comes from Heartland Renewable Energy, an Iowa company that developed much of the technology for the beet test plant. The technology includes a waste recycling system expected to provide about 70 percent of the plant’s power demand by burning the remaining beet material from sugar extraction. Once burned the ash can also be returned to the soil used as beet fertilizer.
Heartland president Rick Whittaker said he realized some time ago that corn wasn’t the most efficient candidate for ethanol. As he explored alternatives, he said, “It was clear to us the best bang for your buck was with beets.”
Green Vision hopes to produce 240 million gallons of ethanol per year out of North Dakota. The plan is to start a pilot beet ethanol plant due up and running by 2012. The test plant is expected to cost about $5 million. Green Vision Group is seeking money from the North Dakota Legislature. That’s the trouble spot. The bait for the legislators is the company plans to build a dozen larger production plants, with each expected to cost about $43 million. If it all works out commercial production of beets destined for ethanol could start by late 2013 or early 2014.
The problem isn’t the raw material; sugar beets are a common farm crop. The technology for processing isn’t especially new, sugar to ethanol is a huge business using sugar cane and the sugar cane remnants are used in part to power the plants. Nothing really new, not a huge risk – if any risk is seen from a process perspective.
The problem is the business model – getting the farmers to grow the energy beets and sell them to the processors. Its uncharted territory, and corn the competing crop, makes just fine money right now.
On the other hand, North Dakota has about 220,000 acres of sugar beets in the 2010 crop. That compares to 2,000,000 acres of corn – a bit more than 10% as much. The experience is there. Which brings us to the “but”.
Plants that produce sugar in appreciable qualities hold the sugar in solution with water. When a plant matures or is harvested the sugar changes over to much more stable starch. To get the prized sugar, the processing needs to take place very quickly, just minutes for sweet corn such as in the grocery store to days or weeks for some sugar beet varieties.
Keeping the sugar intact usually requires refrigeration or freezing, cooking, or drying the sugar solution to delay the change over and attacks by micro-organisms. The press reports aren’t discussing the Green Vision plans to deal with this.
That matter puts great pressure on the capital investment for processing. Now sugar extraction, a front-end process for sugar beets, takes place very quickly at harvest followed by drying to yield the sugar used for food. It’s not so capital intensive as ethanol production.
An ethanol plant should run 365 days a year for practical economic efficiency. That means a processing step to preserve and store the sugar over months would need to be in place. That investment and operating cost will come through to the cost to manufacture ethanol.
The question remains – can the sugar beet or energy beet processor pay more profit to farmers than a corn ethanol processor? When that’s answered the business model will be matured for the better or a failure.
It’s probably worth it for North Dakota to put up $5 million to find out. The Dakota’s are not in prime corn territory, and pretty far north for mainline grasses for cellulosic ethanol. To get deeper in the alternative energy business the energy beet idea is something worth a practicing look – out of the lab and test plots.
The flip side is that energy beets might just prove to be a huge advantage over corn, doubling the production and increasing the ethanol supply with less land. The sugar beet plant will grow all the way to the gulf coast.
Corn ethanol has shown the way – corn, soon sugar beets, sweet sorghum also with a nice sugar component, and likely macro algae in seaweed in the coming years will displace ever more petroleum gasoline perhaps as much as 75% – greatly improving the fuel supply.
Once the definitive cellulosic ethanol process is worked out at competitive to gasoline pricing, more investment will flow into ethanol feedstock plants across the planet. We’ll be using fuels for transport for a very long time and with any luck avoid government-imposed costs, that might lead to cheaper fuel supplies.
A salute to Al Fin for spotting the news up in Fargo.