Are sugar beets the answer for Scotland’s biofuels, net zero goals and job growth?

November 28, 2021 |

It’s barely December yet but some are already having visions of sugar beets, not sugar plums, dancing in their heads, thanks to a new Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) and Scottish Enterprise working on proposals to re-introduce sugar beet as a more sustainable alternative to fossil fuels used for bioethanol in Scotland. Their data shows the domestic bioethanol supply from sugar beets could reduce carbon emissions by more than 280,000 tons annually, it could create hundreds of jobs, and can support Scotland’s net zero goals.

In today’s Digest, how sugar beets could play an important role in sustainable fuel generation, how a Scottish sugar beet refinery – as the research project explores – could help both Scotland and the UK to meet sustainability and decarbonization targets, and more.

New vision of sugar beets in their heads

It’s a new vision for a bioeconomy in Scotland set out in the IBioIC report by Scottish Enterprise, with at least 815 jobs could be created and thousands more supported through the supply chain. Plus domestic bioethanol supply could reduce carbon emissions by more than 280,000 tons annually, making a significant contribution to the country’s net zero ambitions.

Such a project would also safeguard many of the 11,000 jobs in Scotland’s chemicals industry, which is increasingly moving towards alternatives to fossil fuels, and create new roles in the burgeoning biotechnology sector – many of which would likely be in rural and deprived areas.

On top of that good news, switching to a local supply of bioethanol, rather than relying on importing it from Europe as Scotland currently does, could significantly reduce the country’s carbon footprint by more than 280,000 tonnes of CO2 – the equivalent of taking nearly 61,000 cars off the road per year.

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Sugar extracted from sugar beet can be used in the production of ethanol as a natural and sustainable substitute for petroleum-based chemicals used in a range of household goods, as well as antibiotics, therapeutic proteins, and for transportation.

The study builds on crop trials conducted in 2020 that found Scotland can grow sugar beet at competitive yields. IBioIC’s report sets an initial target of growing 1 million tonnes of sugar beet annually, which could in turn produce 110 million litres of bioethanol per year – expected to be around 75% of Scotland’s current needs for transport.

Crop trials in 2020, provided evidence that Scotland can grow sugar beet varieties at competitive yields. Many Scottish farmers already grow sugar beet for feed and biogas production. Sugar beet is grown as a break crop in the rotation, and this means it provides a break or a rest from the more intensively farmed cereal crops that dominate most arable rotations.

A break crop is sown to provide diversity to help reduce disease, pest and weed levels and improve soil health. As a break crop, sugar beet ‘breaks’ the cycle of many pests, weeds and diseases, and without this, these threats could increase and ultimately could mean the land is unsuitable for growing some crops. Sugar beet as break crop also reduces the need for pesticides.

Scotland can grow sugar beet on a strip of land that roughly parallels the east coast of Scotland from Angus down to the Borders. While sugar beet can be grown across a wide area, bioethanol production from the refined sugar is most cost-effective if done at a single large site at scale. A centralised model has very little risk attached and, indeed, such centralised bioethanol plants already exist globally.

Creating smaller, regional processing units may be possible in the future, but the technology is still at an early stage of development and no commercial units are currently available, according to the report.

The locations

Dundee – for its proximity to suitable agricultural land and most lying within 50 miles of the city  – or Grangemouth, because of its access to power generation, water treatment, a major port, and existing presence of chemicals companies have also been identified in the report as the optimal locations for a bioethanol plant.

A realistic target would be to grow up to 1M tonnes of sugar beet within a 50-mile radius of a bioethanol processing plant, with a land requirement of between 10,000 and 15,000 Hectares (Ha), according to the report. Assuming a relatively conservative yield of 60 tonnes per hectare, this area of land could grow sufficient sugar beet to produce 110 million litres of bioethanol; this is around 75% of Scotland’s current bioethanol needs for transport. To meet 100% of Scotland’s demand (145M litres), transport of sugar beet further than 50 miles of the plant could be considered. Despite increased transportation costs, financial modelling shows that this option is still viable.

Reactions from the stakeholders

Mark Bustard, Chief Executive Officer at IBioIC, said, “The report underlines the scale and significance of the opportunity for Scotland through the re-introduction of sugar beet and the creation of an associated bioethanol plant. The introduction of the new E10 mandate, meaning 10% of petroleum fuel is blended with bioethanol, effectively doubles our need for sustainably sourced ethanol overnight.

“However, it is merely a precursor to much bigger changes ahead and sustainable indigenous sugar supply from biomass is a key component in growing a significant new cluster in Scotland. Many of the largest consumer goods manufacturers in the world have committed to net-zero carbon targets and moving away from products made from petrochemicals is a big part of that drive.

“Bio-based production is the future of manufacturing in a net-zero Scotland and sugar beet is at the core of Scotland’s opportunity to develop a sustainable feedstock and compete on the global stage. Not only could it safeguard many of the thousands of jobs in our existing chemicals sector, but it could create hundreds more through new opportunities and manufacturing methods.

“It is up to us now to take this first step towards a more environmentally friendly and future-proofed manufacturing supply chain, at the heart of a bioeconomy.”

Trade Minister Ivan McKee said, “When managed carefully, renewable resources offer a potential pathway to transform our manufacturing sector and create new value chains for bio-based (biological) products in the transition to a low carbon economy.

“I welcome this report, which will contribute to the evidence-based decisions we will make in our transition to net zero, while protecting our natural environment and its biodiversity. The publication is especially timely as we look forward to the final refresh of the National Plan for Industrial Biotechnology which will be published next year.”

Linda Hanna, Managing Director at Scottish Enterprise, said, “This report shows that reintroducing sugar beet is a powerful step in helping to achieve Scotland’s economic and net zero ambitions. Hot on the heels of COP26 in Glasgow, publishing this report now is no coincidence and gives a strong message of how to take action on climate change.

“Not only can sugar beet provide a credible, sustainable, low carbon alternative to fossil carbon for manufacturing, it can also accelerate the growth of Scotland’s biotechnology sector.

“The private sector is critical to achieving this growth by getting behind sugar beet and its potential for a wide range of bio-based products. Scottish Enterprise stands ready and is keen to work with pioneers in agriculture, manufacturing, and biotechnology as they consider how they collaborate and innovate to take opportunities to market.

“This report shows that the potential rewards are thousands of new green jobs being created and existing jobs protected – many in our rural and disadvantaged communities, new crop opportunities for Scottish farmers, and dramatic decarbonisation of Scotland’s industrial sectors.”

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