Energy beets for ethanol

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“Energy beets” have proven to produce double the ethanol of corn per acre in research studies. But what are the full economics and will a large-scale demonstration ethanol plant using beets as the feedstock prove enough value to construct an additional 11 large-scale facilities in North Dakota?

Almost anywhere in North Dakota has been identified as prime beet growing area, although a leader in beet seed development, Betaseed, claims to have proven that beets could possibly be grown from Alaska to Florida if the right varieties are planted for specific regions in the appropriate time of year.

Sugarbeets ready for pickup in a field after harvest. North Dakota State University and Betaseed oversaw 14 test plots in 11 locations around North Dakota in 2012. The beet harvest was quite reasonable in general, especially compared to some other crops grown in short moisture and high temperature situations.

Previous research has shown yields from 28 tons per acre for dryland production up to 41 tons per acre on irrigated acres, according to Craig Talley, Betaseed technology manager working with the NDSU Northern Research Extension Center near Minot.

Sugarbeets are commonly seeded at 54,000 seeds per acre and a producer can expect a 60 to 70 percent emergence rate, according to general university data for U.S. sugarbeet production. Higher emergence is being researched to allow a lower seeding rate. Sugarbeets can be used in a rotational system, with three-year, four-year or even longer rotations being best practices, according to most sugarbeet production specialists.


Betaseed’s Talley, during research plot tours in North Dakota, said, “Farmers who raise energy beets may see greater soil health because the tap root penetrates as deep as 6 to 8 feet, using nutrients, nitrogen and water that other crops don't reach.” Crop consultants and agricultural retail crop consultants are listening and looking for assisting new beet growers.

“Growers who add energy beets into a three-year rotation could expect a profitable income,” he said based on the North Dakota research.

Betaseed’s director of business development, Steve Lipsack, failed to reply to requests for information about how the company’s energy beets might differ from food sugarbeets, the extent of different seed research around the country and working relationships for beet ethanol production in North Dakota and elsewhere.

North Dakota research is being done under the BeetsAll Biofuel project, which is a partnership between the Green Vision Group (GVG) of Fargo, N.D., and Heartland Renewable Energy (HRE) in Muscatine, Iowa, with NDSU extensively involved in doing an economic feasibility study, energy beet yield trials, and juice storage research that enables year-round processing.

The BeetsAll Energy project came about in 2010 after initial discussion as far back as 2007. The latest website information from the group explains that plans are to begin construction on its first sugar-ethanol production facility in late 2013 or early 2014 and begin operation in the fall of 2014. The first crop of energy beets to support the plant should be grown in 2014. And success of the first energy beet ethanol plant could lead to the construction of another 11 plants.


When NDSU conducted its feasibility study for constructing a production facility, the research found that for a 20-million-gallon a year facility, break-even price for energy beet ethanol was $1.52 per gallon. Beet payments to farmers was estimated to be $31.7 million ($42 per ton x 754,717 tons), and additional net farm income was estimated to be $13.9 million.

A 20-million-gallon per year plant will require about 30,000 acres of energy beets grown within a 20-mile radius of each plant, or a total of 360,000 acres across North Dakota to supply 12 plants.

The promoters of energy beet production see the potential for energy beets being part of nearly every farmer’s crop rotation in the Upper Plains east of the Rocky Mountains. And energy beet research outside of North Dakota is underway, but plans for ethanol facilities are behind the North Dakotans.

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