Energy beet project gets funds, aims for advanced biofuel status

By Holly Jessen | February 08, 2012

A project aiming for energy beet-to-ethanol production in North Dakota hit some significant milestones recently. Putting the project a big step closer to reality is $1 million in funding and the fact that the U.S. EPA is now officially considering whether energy beet ethanol qualifies as an advanced biofuel. “We envision developing at least 12 sustainable ethanol facilities across North Dakota,” says Maynard Helgaas, president of Green Vision Group. “Each plant will use energy beets grown within a 20-mile radius and support job creation in rural communities. This grant will help us make significant progress toward that vision and help develop North Dakota’s energy beet biofuel industry.”

Green Vision Group has a partnership with North Dakota State University, which is providing research support, and Heartland Renewable Energy of Muscatine, Iowa, a company with engineering expertise. The public-private partnership has identified the site it wants to build its first 20 MMgy ethanol plant, but is not yet ready to release that information, Helgaas told EPM. The goal is to start processing energy beets at that location in the fall of 2014.

The funding comes in the form of a two-year $500,000 grant from the North Dakota Renewable Energy Council, plus matching funds from Betaseed and Syngenta and other in-kind contributions. The money will be used to help establish a USDA crop insurance program for energy beets, look into various processing technologies, expand yield trials for energy beets and more.

A separate grant from the North Dakota Agricultural Products Utilization Commission helped fund research into a life cycle analysis of energy beet ethanol. NDSU, which has been leading that effort, recently submitted an application to the EPA and has high hopes that the fuel will be qualified as an advanced biofuel. “We’ve been at it for two years, EPA has been very cooperative, informative and helpful on their end, but it’s just a long process,” said Cole Gustafson, NDSU Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics chair. The application will go through a review process, with NDSU working to provide additional information requested by the EPA. “It’s going to be a while before we work though all the information,” he said.

The focus is to produce low-carbon ethanol, with steps taken from the field to the plant to green up the process. “What’s important to us is a low-cost biofuel, but also biofuel that has a low-carbon footprint,” Gustafson said. “We’re going to be, I think, developing a number of technologies that are going to be able to uniquely combine both of those.”

For example, Gustafson said, farmers growing energy beets for ethanol production will be encouraged to greatly reduce the amount of nitrogen and chemicals used in the field. Helgaas added that by having a smaller-scale plant, feedstock supplies can be located within a 20-mile radius of the plant, saving on emissions due to transporting energy beets to the plant. In addition, farmers will be strongly encouraged to plant energy beets in a four-year rotation to reduce the buildup of insect populations and disease. “You might say almost make it mandatory,” he added.

Though there are similarities, ethanol production from energy beets would be less energy intensive process than sugar production from sugar beets. Unlike sugar beets, which produce sugar for human consumption, energy beets wouldn’t need as much processing to clean the feedstock at the front end of the plant, Gustafson said. In addition, while sugar beets are traditionally sliced and then heated, energy beet processing could utilize other technologies.