Talking Tubers—Energy Beets to Ethanol

By Cole Gustafson | May 12, 2011

I am temporarily changing the name of this column from Taking Stalk to Talking Tubers to focus on a unique public/private partnership involving Green Vision Group, Heartland Renewable Energy and North Dakota State University to create a new energy beet-to-biofuel industry in the Northern Plains.

Why beets? The Northern Plains is the nation’s lowest-cost producer of sugar due to a favorable growing climate and cold winters that extend feedstock storage and processing. The energy beet industry is well established in Europe, where biofuel yields per acre are twice those of corn, reducing impacts on food production. Thus, the technology risk of producing a new advanced biofuel from energy beets is low compared with cellulosic processes. Energy beets are an ideal rotational crop in arid, small grain/oilseed rotations due to the plant’s deep tap root that seeks water and nutrients left behind by other crops. The crop requires less nitrogen fertilizer, a key contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Our partnership has worked the past three years to develop the industry by: 1) Completing an economic feasibility study for the region; 2) Conducting yield trials at five locations across North Dakota; 3) Commercially testing a patented process that uses a coproduct to provide 70 percent of the biofuel plant’s thermal need; 4) Conducting grower education to secure feedstock supply agreements; 5) Initiating juice storage research that would enable year-round processing and plant utilization; and 6) Documenting “field to wheels” life-cycle GHG reductions compared with gasoline to qualify as an advanced biofuel.

Thus far, results of all six projects have exceeded initial expectations. Central North Dakota research yield trials have averaged 28 tons per acre dryland and 38 tons per acre irrigated. Betaseed and Syngenta, beet seed genetic companies, have been key project partners. The commercial burn test indicated the coproduct could be burned at higher moisture levels than expected to provide process heat. Breakeven analyses show energy beet biofuel competes favorably with gasoline, without any subsidy.  Initial life-cycle analyses find energy beet biofuel may even qualify as cellulosic biofuel with over 60 percent reduction in GHG emissions.

These research findings are important steps to lower project risks at each production stage. Historical energy beet yield histories are needed to secure federal crop insurance for feedstock producers to mitigate production risks and compete with other commodity enterprises. Use of a coproduct to provide plant thermal needs minimizes energy supply risk. Extended storage alleviates fall and spring weather risk, which lowers the amount of crop that can be processed.

While risk management has been a priority, the real goal of the partnership has been to foster rural development. Several plants are being considered, with each plant to be 20 MMgy, sourcing feedstock from 30,000 acres within a 20-mile radius. A short radius improves transportation costs and emissions, which are again key to the life-cycle analysis. Each plant will employ 35 people from surrounding communities. Unlike granular sugar processing plants, the energy beet biofuel plants would operate year around and rely on novel juice storage processes now being researched. Since the plant provides the majority of its own thermal needs and energy beets are high in water, local infrastructure needs for water and natural gas are reduced.

The N.D. energy project is currently seeking an existing biofuel plant in the region to partner with. While all of the technologies used to produce energy beet biofuel have been commercially tested somewhere worldwide, they have not been utilized together. Co-locating the first commercial energy beet plant with an existing biofuel plant would enable shared services for railroad transportation, utilities, product marketing, lab work, etc.

One risk the project must yet overcome is securing a reliable feedstock supply. Agricultural profitability in the region has been at record highs for the past several years. Available labor poses a greater threat, however. Farm focus groups suggest that the region’s low unemployment rate (currently around 3 percent) presents challenges in finding additional labor for fall field operations. Energy beet production is labor intensive, as the bulky crop requires transportation from fields to local piling stations.

More information on the project’s status can be found at
www.BeetsAllBiofuels.com.

Author: Cole Gustafson
Professor and Biofuels Economist,
North Dakota State University
(701) 231-7096
cole.gustafson@ndsu.edu