Well the race is on.  Three visionary crusades are playing out in the ethanol industry right here in the United States.  With oil prices soaring and the uncertainty over ethanol and farm subsidies, plans to build the nation's first sugar beet bio-fuels processing plant in North Dakota was unveiled at statewide press conferences in Fargo, Jamestown and Bismarck back in December 2010.

Sugar beets will produce twice as much ethanol per acre than corn, according to project developers, and can be grown in most areas of the state.  They say "energy beets" may become an important new industrial crop for North Dakota. The processing byproduct, beet pulp, is a good livestock feed, too.

Media conference participants include Rick Whittaker, president, Heartland Renewable Energy; Cole Gustafson, director, NDSU Bio-energy and Products Innovation Center; and Maynard Helgaas, Lloyd Anderson, Rod Holth, and Rudy Radke, all of the Green Vision Group.

After the announcement from the groups in North Dakota; that makes three projects underway to build the ‘First’ Sugar Beet bio-fuel ethanol plant in the U.S…  The other two projects are located on opposite ends of the country. The first being in Lancaster PA, Paul Wheaton, CEO of Lancaster Propane Gas, is planning to build a production facility in Rapho Township, Lancaster County, to produce fuel from sugar beets and is hoping to break ground on the plant this year 2011.

The second is outside of Fresno, CA, the Mendota Bio-energy, LLC will be using a $1.5 million grant from the California Energy Commission to test the feasibility of converting sugar beets and agricultural waste into ethanol and other forms of clean energy.  If proven feasible, the project could convert 840,000 tons of sugar beets and 80,000 tons of farm bio-waste each year into 33.5 million gallons of ethanol; 1.6 million standard cubic feet of bio-methane for making compressed natural gas (CNG); 6.3 megawatts of certified green electricity; and high-nutrient compost and liquid fertilizer.  In addition, the project is expected to create approximately 250 direct and 50 indirect construction jobs in Mendota, along with 50 long-term jobs at the bio-refinery and an additional 50 jobs for feedstock operations.

1.2 million acres of sugar beets are being grown in the U.S., according to Steve Lipsack, director of business development and strategic accounts with Betaseed.  Even though sugar beets can be grown in all sorts of climates, Lipsack said growing them for food is difficult because the market is tightly controlled and influenced by international trade agreements.

But a mandate to produce 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022 opens the door for sugar beets to be used as an alternative fuel, he said.  We are in the process of proving that the sugar beet will grow anywhere, Lipsack said.  There are a total of 35 sugar beet trials, including ones in Florida and Alaska.

Corn ethanol currently produces around 13 billion gallons of ethanol each year. But Lipsack thinks it will top out at 15 billion gallons because of the fear that growing additional acres will cut into food production.  The door is open to produce about 20 to 25 billion gallons by 2022, he said.

Beets can produce 1,000 gallons of ethanol per acre, Lipsack said, compared with between 500 and 600 gallons of ethanol per acre in corn, assuming a yield of 175 bushels.  The key is successfully growing the beets. Anywhere between 25 and 30 tons of beets per acre is ideal, but more is better.

Greg Roth, professor of agronomy at Penn State and a researcher of alternative fuels, said sugar beets present an exciting alternative. But there are things to be aware of.  Beets can tolerate a light frost, so they can be planted earlier.  Tighter row spacing is ideal for maximum yields. Having good residue management and planting seeds in a uniform seedbed is essential to getting a good stand. Beets are seeded at 54,000 seeds per acre and a producer can expect a 60 to 70 percent emergence rate.

Beets can be used in a rotational system, with four-year or longer rotations being ideal, he said, to minimize root disease and herbicide carryover.  Harvesting is done in the fall, although according to Lipsack, the crop’s cold tolerance can allow it to be harvested much later than usual.  You can really harvest the crop at any time. You can just store them in the ground, he said.

Photo by awottawa.