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An ethanol-fueled comeback for sugar beets

A farmer shows a sugar beet (Beta Vulgaris) after it was harvested in the French northern town of Lilliers, on November 17, 2011. Last rainy summer is synonymous with a record harvest for northern France beet greemers.
A farmer shows a sugar beet (Beta Vulgaris) after it was harvested in the French northern town of Lilliers, on November 17, 2011. Last rainy summer is synonymous with a record harvest for northern France beet greemers.

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California once grew a lot of sugar beets to supply the state's sugar mills. Most of those the mills are closed now, and farmers have turned to other row crops. But in the Central Valley, growers are on a quest to bring back the gnarly looking vegetable -- this time to turn it into ethanol.

For The California Report, Alice Daniel has more

The story starts in the town of Mendota, a poor, farming community on the Valley’s west side, where jobs are scarce and rarely steady.

“In Mendota, the majority of work is seasonal so you have a high rate of unemployment in the wintertime,” said Mayor Robert Silva, sitting at a local Mexican restaurant in town. “We’ve gone through the worst of times.”

One of those times was in 2008, when the Spreckels sugar plant closed and about 250 people lost their job. The recession hit the town of 11,000 hard and unemployment was at 40 percent.

Growers, who had sold sugar beets to Spreckels for decades, formed a cooperative and unsuccessfully tried to buy the refinery. Their next step was more of a giant leap.

“The company came to us that grew the seed for the sugar beets and said, ‘Think about making ethanol from the sugar beets,’” rancher John Diener said.

Most ethanol in the United States comes from corn, but in Europe, about a dozen former sugar mills have been retrofitted to produce ethanol instead.  That hasn’t happened in the U.S., but Diener and other co-op members decided to form a company, Mendota Bioenergy, and investigate building their own biorefinery. Diener stands in a building on his ranch that will soon be part of the test site.

“Our tagline is we’re taking sunshine and making it into moonshine,” said Diener. “That’s quite honestly what we’re doing.”

Mendota Bioenergy has a $5 million grant from the California Energy Commission – and the partnership of university experts from UC Davis and Fresno State – to complete the test site. It should be up and running this winter and if all goes as planned. The company will then build the nation’s first commercial sugar beet biorefinery in Mendota by 2017.

The project is also unique because of its focus on sustainability.

“You’re looking at what you consider the energy balance of the farm,”  Diener said. “The old cliché is we get everything out of the hog except the squeal.”

And everything out of the beet. Byproducts from the ethanol process will be turned into fertilizer and biomethane gas. Some of that gas will be used to power the trucks hauling beets in from nearby farms. Even prunings from other parts of the farm will be used in the biorefinery.

Outside the building, Diener points to a compact machine that will produce electricity and hot water for the test site by burning wood prunings. The carbon char is captured and is used on the farm to enrich the soil. 

Sustainability is vital on the Valley’s west side, where farmers like Diener grapple with salty soil and reduced water allocations. But beets do fine in poorer soil – and they’re 80 percent water, which will also be recycled in the plant.

“Not only will very little fresh water be needed,” Project Manager Jim Tischer said, “but it should generate on the order of 400 acre feet a year of additional water to be used in landscape purposes or for irrigation.”

That’s about 130 million gallons of water. Because the plant will be green, the sugar beet ethanol will have a much lower carbon index than corn ethanol, says Tischer. Sugar beets also produce more than twice as much ethanol as corn and surpass sugar cane yields.

But don’t expect sugar beets to take over corn, Tischer says. There’s 92 million acres of corn in the US and about 1.5 million acres of sugar beets.

Ellen Des Jardins is one of the members of Mendota Bioenergy. She says she’s looking forward to growing beets on her farm again.

“It was one of the profitable things in our farming operation and I think it still will be,” she said. “Ethanol will prove to be maybe even more profitable.” 

The first phase of the commercial refinery expects to use enough local sugar beets to make 10 to 15 million gallons of ethanol a year. And because California is focused on reducing its carbon index, the farmers say they will have no trouble selling their ethanol to state oil refineries and other users of petroleum products.

Back in Mendota, Mayor Robert Silva says the city jumped at the chance to host the commercial plant. It will increase the tax base, provide a hundred full-time jobs and many more in agriculture, trucking and construction, he says – a kind of sweet deal for a town that lost its sugar mill.

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