Energy Beets: Who will Leap First?

North American sugar-to-ethanol strategy differs from Brazil’s, Europe’s
By Holly Jessen | April 11, 2012

The technology isn’t the issue. Clear examples of ethanol production from sugar beets and energy beets already exist. And, yet—despite the potential of the feedstock—North America has yet to see a full-scale beet-to-ethanol production facility built.

However, there’s been some exciting progress lately. North Dakota-based Green Vision Group is resolutely moving forward with a plan to build multiple 20 MMgy dedicated energy beet plants in the state. The quest began in 2007 and took some big leaps in early 2012, when it received $1 million in funding from the North Dakota Renewable Energy Council and other sources, says Maynard Helgaas, president. Around the same time, North Dakota State University, which has been assisting with the project, submitted an energy beet ethanol life-cycle analysis to the U.S. EPA in an effort to get it qualified as an advanced biofuel. The group has its first location selected, although it hasn’t been announced yet, and hopes to begin processing ethanol by fall 2014. “It wouldn’t take us long once we complete our research to get the most efficient processing out of energy beets—then we will build the plant,” Helgaas tells EPM.    

Green Vision Group’s vision is ambitious—they want to build least 12, possibly 16, energy beet-to-ethanol plants in North Dakota. When asked if that’s feasible, Cole Gustafson, chair of NDSU’s department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics, points to the growth of the corn ethanol industry since 2004. At that time, it might have seemed out of range to imagine more than 200 U.S. ethanol plants, but that’s exactly what happened—and it can happen for energy beet ethanol too. “It certainly is a possibility,” he says. “It’s going to take us several years to get there.”

More than 3,000 miles due east, Canadian company Atlantec BioEnergy Corp. is building a 79,000 gallon a year energy beet demonstration plant in Cornwall, Prince Edward Island. The plant is expected to begin production of ethanol in July, says Ron Coles, vice president of agricultural resources and public relations for the company. The company is working with some North American groups interested in its closed-loop technology, which includes anaerobic digestion of the leftover beet pulp for power production.

In the meantime, others are waiting and watching, holding off until someone else is successful. “It’s kind of that idea of who moves first, who takes the first leap,” says Carl Christian Radinger, owner of Putsch Group, in a telephone call from Germany. “You know, everybody is waiting for somebody to do it to see how the economics really are, not just on paper. There needs to be a reference plant.”

Steve Libsack, director of business development and strategic accounts for Betaseed Inc., says the same thing. “It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg situation in that until the first plant is up and going, it’s a little blurry,” he says, adding that willing project developers and investors are needed.

Compare, Contrast
In Europe, some food-grade sugar producers have added ethanol production to their sugar beet processing plants, much like the Brazil sugarcane model, Radinger says. He and his colleagues at Putsch, manufacturer of beet processing equipment, couldn’t think of a single, dedicated, energy beet ethanol plant in Europe. Instead, the most common overseas use for energy beets is on-farm biogas production, an attractive option due to high energy prices.

Interest for U.S. ethanol production, on the other hand, is more focused on energy beets. Gustafson just doesn’t see U.S. sugar producers adding on ethanol production. For one thing, North Dakota’s proposed energy beet-to-ethanol plants will utilize a more efficient processing technology than existing sugar production facilities, he says. Still, it is technically achievable, and becomes more feasible if there are changes to the U.S. sugar program. In that case, granular sugar producers could conceivably convert or augment food-grade sugar plants. “It certainly is a possibility,” he says, “especially if we see changes in national farm legislation.”

In other words, it could be done, but it’s not likely, Betaseed’s Libsack agrees. For one thing, there’s not a whole lot of room for expansion in areas of the U.S. where sugar beets are already in production. By going the energy beet route, competition for land can be avoided.

At least one U.S. company is targeting sugar beets, but without following the European model exactly. This spring Iowa-based Energae LP signed a purchase agreement for the idled Alchem ethanol plant in Grafton, N.D., and said it would upgrade the plant for dedicated sugar beet-to-ethanol production, possibly by fall. The energy investment group was working to get sugar beet producers on board and was confident it could secure enough feedstock for the 10 MMgy plant, said Jerry Krause, general partner in Energae, in early March. He didn’t discount energy beets altogether but pointed out that sugar beets were already an established crop in that area.

So what’s the difference between sugar beets and energy beets? Clearly, either one works for ethanol production. To produce table sugar, producers are looking for sucrose, sucrose and more sucrose. Energy beets, on the other hand, contain multiple sugars, meaning sucrose as well as glucose, fructose and other minor sugars, called invert sugars, Libsack says. To create energy beet hybrids, plant breeders like Betaseed, a wholly owned subsidiary of German company KWS, select for traits such as high sugar yield, not just sucrose production.

Another difference has to do with the front-end processing equipment needed to remove stones and clean the beets. This isn’t as rigorous as is necessary for sugar beets, which ultimately end up in sugar shakers and birthday cakes.  The company, which operates as Putsch USA in Asheville, N.C., also makes equipment for slicing sugar beets or mashing energy beets as well as juice filtration.   

High on Sugar
Betaseed’s energy beet trials are being conducted around North America and prove there are many areas where energy beets would thrive, Libsack says. “We’ve literally had trials from Nova Scotia to southern California and from Alaska to Florida and I really haven’t found a place that I can’t grow beets,” he tells EPM.

The company has been working with groups looking at energy beet production in the northern states of North Dakota and Minnesota, as well as areas such as Kentucky, Florida and Mississippi. In southern areas, energy beets can be grown as spring and/or winter crops. For example, the Mississippi Delta Region has been identified as an area where energy beets can be grown as a winter crop without displacing or replacing any current crops. “We believe that the beet can be harvested on a year-round basis, weather permitting, to give us a year-round supply of feedstock,” he says, adding that Betaseed’s parent company KWS has a patent-pending technology for beet storage. “It isn’t for storage of a sugar beet for sugar production—we’ve looked at that for years and it simply doesn’t work—but for energy beets for ethanol production, the beet is very, very stable.”

Green Vision Group and NDSU are focusing on energy beets because they believe it will produce a truly green fuel, and they are confident the EPA will agree and bestow the coveted advanced biofuels designation. The group believes North Dakota, in particular, is an ideal place for energy beet-to-ethanol production. “This region has the lowest cost of producing sugar, nationwide,” Gustafson says.

Green Vision Group is focused on producing low-carbon ethanol, starting in the field all the way to actual production. That means encouraging farmers to utilize farming practices that reduce nitrogen and chemicals used in the field, Gustafson says. It’s also why they plan to build smaller-scale ethanol plants, so all feedstock supplies are within a 20-mile radius.

As a crop, energy beets increase soil health due to a deep tap root and are tolerant of drought and alkaline or saline soils, Helgaas points out. As a feedstock for ethanol production, high yields are a big attraction. Energy beet trials conducted in North Dakota demonstrated yields ranging from a high of 37.8 tons per acre on irrigated land, to 25.2 tons per acre on dry land. Overall, the group expects about 75 percent of the land utilized to produce energy beets to have at least some irrigation and average yield of 32 tons would add up to 1,000 gallons of ethanol production in just one acre of land. In other words, energy beets have the power to produce about double the amount of ethanol in one acre, when compared to corn, he says.

Another facet of the project’s attractiveness is the efficiency of the ethanol production process it will utilize.  As an example, Gustafson points to the partnership with Heartland Renewable Energy of Muscatine, Iowa, which brings a technology to the table to build a “self-propelled” ethanol plant. The engineering and consulting firm has a patent for a process to create spray powder, which will be used to produce up to 70 percent of the plant’s thermal needs. Stillage from the fermentation process will be spray dried—put through a nozzle at high pressure to evaporate water and produce a dry material, he says.

Besides ethanol, energy beet ethanol plants produce other valuable coproducts, including animal feed from the leftover beet pulp, much like distillers grains. “What we are also very excited about is the positives of producing renewable chemicals from these sugars in addition to biofuels,” Gustafson says. “We have to see what the marketplace is, that’s part of the research that we are addressing right now.”

Author: Holly Jessen
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
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