Will changing economics, yields make sugarbeets a rival to sugarcane for the attention of the hottest companies in biofuels?
Sometimes the passenger traffic from the advanced biofuels industry in the US to Brazil gets so heavy that it seems like Brazilian airlines like TAM and Gol will be the primary beneficiaries of the biofuels revolution.
Why Brazil? For hot technology companies such as Amyris, Solazyme, LS9, Cobalt and Virent, it all comes down to low-cost sugars.
Which brings us to the case of that other sugar source: your friend, the sugar beet. The humble, often overlooked sugar-producing plant that is the mainstay of the French ethanol industry.
Why is it overlooked as a biofuel feedstock. In most cases, because the economics have not been historically as strong as cane sugar, and because there’s not that much sugar beet grown in biofuels producers such as the US, where it is limited to around 1.2 million acres, primarily in North Dakota and Minnesota, producing about 20 million tons of biomass in all.
Good, better, best
The good news about sugarbeets? You can make ethanol in the Midwest that, by all we have heard, will qualify as an advanced biofuel – that opens up the 21 million gallons of demand mandated by 2022 in the Renewable Fuel Standard that is segregated from corn ethanol. As many know, the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard, at this stage, bans Midwestern corn ethanol made from all but the most state-of-the-art methods, and production of ethanol from sugarbeets is a way into that huge fuel market.
Better news? The US is now allowing genetically improved energy beets to be grown in the US, that may have yields 20-30 percent in the 2010s.
Best news? The economics appear to be changing, and economists such as Cole Gustafson at North Dakota State University have put together some compelling feasibility backgrounders for expansion of ethanol production from sugar beet sugar, molasses and waste pulp.
Biofuels Venture Valuation Tool – new release, free download
We’ve added a case for Sugarbeet ethanol to our Biofuels Venture Valuation toolkit – in this release 1.1 for April 2011, and based on the economics we are reading about, the returns for sugarcane ethanol, while not quite as strong as corn ethanol, are very impressive and exceed those of any other advanced biofuel feedstock. Consider those a preliminary finding – we’ll look forward to confirming or revising those numbers as we get more feedback from researchers in the field.
The Changing Economic Case
This year, Cole Gustafson led a research project that looked at the feasibility of sugarbeet ethanol in North Dakota. The finding? A breakeven ethanol price of $1.52 per gallon for a 20 million gallon plant – well below the $2.58 per gallon price for ethanol reported yesterday in Chicago by OPIS, and the $2.78 prices OPIS is reporting for California. A copy of their report can be downloaded, here.
Partial deregulation of GMO sugar beets
In February, the USDA has partially deregulated the planting of GMO sugarbeet for this spring, going against a previous federal district court order. The new policy is effective until the agency completes a full Environmental Impact Statement is completed and a final policy decision is made.
Development of high-yield winter beets
Back in 2009, researchers from Christian-Albrecht University in Kiel commenced a project, titled “Bioenergy 2021: winter sugar beet as energy crop”, to improve breeding of winter sugar beet as a biofuel feedstock. The Institute of Plant Production and Plant Breeding said that, so far, the winter sugar beet is producing up to 30 percent more biomass, and contains more sugar, than conventional sugar beet, due to a longer growing season.
Upcoming Producers and Projects
In December, Green Vision Groups said it was developing a $6 million, 3.5 million gallon demonstration plant to produce ethanol from energy sugarbeets. The facility is set to open in 2012 and the company plans to open another dozen processing facilities throughout the state capable of producing 20 million gallons each. It would take 1.5 gallons of water to make 1 gallon of ethanol for beets, as opposed to 2.5 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol for corn.
Earlier in 2010, Green Vision Group and Heartland Renewable Energy joined researchers from North Dakota State University in a project to recycle sugar beet waste stillage from ethanol production for heat and power at the ethanol plant, replacing natural gas among other sources.
The project aims to make sugar beet ethanol more economically feasible and less greenhouse gas intensive, and utilizes a stillage recycling process initially developed by Heartland, which provides up to 75 percent of a plant’s heat needs through beet waste utilization.
Last fall, AdvanceBio unveiled a next generation ethanol production process capable of utilizing sugars derived from sugar cane, sweet sorghum, sugar beet and other similar crops as feedstock for the production of fuel ethanol and green power while generating zero liquid waste.
When built in conjunction with the sugar milling operation, plants employing AdvanceBio’s sugar-based ethanol process will have the same, low-greenhouse gas footprint found in Brazil’s existing cane-based fuel ethanol industry. The fermentation system is more than twice as productive as today’s starch-based processes and doesn’t require enzymes or major nutrient additions. The process eliminates the cost of transporting large volumes of liquid vinasse back to the cane fields.
Last July, Lancaster County Court Judge James P. Cullen dismissed a lawsuit by Kroesen Tool Co., Fairway Building Products, Lancaster Level-Flo Inc. and real estate developer Emanuel “Manny” Murry that sought to overturn permits for a $93 million energy beet ethanol plant planned by Maibach LLC for a site in Rapho township.
The proposed ethanol plant would provide renewable power to the grid as well as transportation fuels. The suit sought to overturn a county supervisors approval granted last August. Another suit, this brought by the developers against 98 conditions attached to the permit, has yet to be heard, that would require, among other provisions, for a $200,000 annual fee to the county for added emergency and water systems.
Feasibility research: ethanol, methane and power
In December, the California Energy Commission approved a $1.5 million grant to Mendota, to test the feasibility of using agricultural waste sugar beets to produce electricity, methane and ethanol. If the plant operates as envisioned, the project would consume 80,000 tons of agricultural waste and 840,000 tons of sugar beets to produce 1.6 million cubic feet of biomethane, compost, 6.3 megawatts of electricity, 33.5 MGy ethanol and liquid fertilizer.