The processing of energy beets - something of a first cousin to sugar beets - into ethanol is under way in Five Points, Calif. and could be a boon to a state crop that had virtually disappeared from the central San Joaquin Valley.
Energy beets grown on a campus farm at Fresno State University are among those streaming into a demonstration plant on the Valley’s Westside.
The plant is expected to be a precursor to a commercial scale operation that would be the nation’s first whole beet to ethanol bio-refinery. It would produce up to 15 million gallons of advanced ethanol and cellulosic ethanol annually.
The project holds promise for additional jobs in a region plagued by high unemployment and for the return of a rotation crop that was a mainstay for more than a century until the closure of the Spreckels Sugar plant in Mendota in September 2008 that eliminated 200 jobs.
It would revive a good portion of the beet industry that went away when the plant shut its doors, says Jim Tischer, project manager for Mendota Bioenergy, a renewable biofuels company formed by the Mendota Advanced Bioenergy Beet Cooperative comprising a group of former sugar beet growers.
Tischer said the commercial plant would likely draw beets from 12,000- to 15,000-acres and 50-60 growers would be among suppliers. Previously, some 85 growers supplied Spreckels.
He says the plant will employ about 50 workers inside and outside the facility, and the economic trickle effect of its operation could bring more jobs to the region where unemployment ranges from 40-50 percent.
John Diener involvement
Grower John Diener, whose Red Rock Ranch is the site for the demonstration project, said the project owes much to Assembly Bill 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act, and to the state’s interest in finding alternatives to fossil fuel.
Diener explains that the California Energy Commission awarded $1.5 million for a technical feasibility study by the cooperative plus $5 million for the demonstration plant.
He says researchers at the University of California, Davis looked at the carbon footprint that would come with the plant and with the use of its product.
“The development of advanced fuels is essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to protect the environment and public health and to meet the state’s climate change policies,” said Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission.
Since energy beets have a higher sugar content per ton than corn, the crop delivers ethanol yields twice that of corn per acre, project participants say.
Diener says they have the added the virtue of pulling nitrates from the soil that could mean “bioremediation of land” at a time when the state’s water quality control officials are trying to cut down on nitrates that can enter the underground water supply.
“Energy beets mine the soil for nitrates,” Diener says.
That attracting of nitrogen is part of what makes energy beets a good rotation crop, says Frank Del Testa, who farms in the Tranquillity area and had to dispose of sugar beets for cattle feed two years ago since no market existed.
His return on that - “Nothing,” he says.
Del Testa is looking forward to returning beets to a rotation with cotton and dehydrator onions. He says beets can send roots seven feet into the ground to find water. They grow in poor and salty soils and can be nourished by lower-quality water.
Beets are typically grown in a crop rotation with feed, fiber, and forage crops including seed alfalfa, alfalfa hay, corn, and cotton. Beets help recover water and nutrients left behind by other shorter-season crops with shallow root systems. They also reduce damage by pests and diseases on associated crops.
Energy beets are a year-round crop and can be produced in winter when water usage is lowest.
Del Testa was among members of the cooperative who traveled to Europe to tour beet-based facilities. He said the plants use seeds from the company Betaseed developed to provide higher fermentable sugars. The plant tends to be larger than traditional sugar beets.
That size differential proved a challenge to the demonstration plant, Diener said, adding that operators had to modify an elevator used to move the beets in order to accommodate the larger beets.
By processing the beets for energy, the plant can use other sugars in the beet beyond the sucrose mined in sugar beet processing. The derived ethanol can be used in transportation fuels, and byproducts including high-value animal nutrition feeds, agricultural fertilizers, and recycled processed water for irrigation.
Beets are 75 percent water.
In time, Diener says an anaerobic digester could be added to create methane as part of the commercial plant.
Bill Pucheu, who also farms in Tranquillity and who – along with Diener and Del Testa is a member of Mendota Bioenergy board of directors – says he scrapped 10 acres of sugar beets last year since “there was no place to put them.”
For years, trucks carrying the huge, some say “ugly” beets streamed up and down the state’s highways. For seven years, they have been few in number. Only one Imperial Valley plant remains in the state processing beets into white sugar.
Pucheu and Del Testa say growers in the Valley had negotiated with Spreckels to purchase and reactive the old plant, but talks fell through.
“This will keep dollars local,” Diener says, “instead of going to Saudi Arabia.”
He explained how beets travel through a process in which they are macerated and how steam is used to soften them and speed digestion. A still has been repurposed to use for creation of what is called “beet beer.”
“But you wouldn’t want to drink it,” members of the cooperative quickly add.
The Fresno State beets were grown using drip and pivot irrigation in three soil types, says David Zoldoske, director of the Center for Irrigation Technology at Fresno State.
Elements of the school’s research include a look a yields in varying soil types, irrigation differences, and at the potential for the use of pivots, a technology that Diener has strongly embraced.
As to the demonstration project on Diener’s ranch, Zoldoske says, “The question will turn on ‘Can we convert beets to ethanol at a price that will be economical for farmers and will provide a good rate of return? Will it expand the opportunity to make money?’”